EHS professionals talk safety in the age of COVID-19

Dean Vaglia, Staff Reporter

The Oakland University chapter of the American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP) held a question-and-answer session with environmental health and safety (EHS) professionals over Zoom on January 21.

Conducted by OU Chapter President Karly St. Aubin, the four professionals answered some questions from students in attendance and from pre-submitted questions by St. Aubin.

Of the questions asked at the event, notable discussion came from questions regarding how COVID-19 has affected the role EHS professionals play in the companies they work for. The professionals were in agreement that their roles have been critical.

Darryl Hill, an EHS lecturer for the School of Health Sciences and the senior vice president of safety at FirstGroup America, referenced a conversation he had with a colleague where the question of which department in a company is responsible for communicating information about COVID-19 vaccines.

“Regardless of who is going to be responsible, we have got to be prepared to step up to the plate,” Hill said. “To say this succinctly, the COVID[-19] impact on EHS: it has raised our visibility and demonstrated our importance.”

Aaron Munoz Sr., the safety director for Motor City Electric, reiterated that safety professionals will have a key role in helping operations, legal and human resources departments make decisions for the duration of the pandemic.

Jessica Jannaman, an EHS lecturer and executive director of EHS & quality at Global Automotive Systems, told the students about how she had to take on more responsibilities when the pandemic hit.

“We had three core people: the vice president of operations, myself and one person from purchasing . . . to make sure we had the proper [personal protective equipment] for the sites that were still operating,” Jannaman said. “As an EHS professional, the organization is looking to you and they are panicking.”

To help get her company the supplies it needed, Jannaman figured out how to acquire supplies like hand sanitizer internationally to make sure people could work safely.

“You become better at your job when you understand what another person has to go through,” Jannaman said. “[Taking on new responsibilities] gave me a different paradigm and perspective so I could work closer with some of those functions I never thought to work with.”

Students were also curious about how to break into the EHS profession, and the most common answer was to do as many internships as one possibly can.  

“If you are allowed the opportunity to have more than one, I would take advantage of that,” Al Morales, a safety supervisor for Marathon Petroleum, said. “I look at the internships as almost a working interview for both sides. I can look at a piece of paper and see that your grades are good, but it does not tell me a whole lot about your personality.”

Morales also recommended students join the ASSP and the OU chapter if they have an interest in the field.

The ASSP is an international organization of EHS professionals. Students who are interested in joining the OU chapter can go to their GrizzOrgs page.