Safety and Health Practitioner Magazine profiles Helen Pearson’s professional journey

How Did I Get Here?

In your early career you were a support geologist. What led you to a career in health and safety?

I had always worked in geoscience related jobs when the opportunity of an EHS post came up. I had not previously done any safety work but my dad was working towards his NVQ4 in Occupational Health and Safety Practice and the field sounded an interesting one to work in. My new employer booked me on a NEBOSH course but suddenly the plant closed and I was laid off. Having decided upon this career change I self-funded the course and found a job very quickly.

What is it about health and safety that appeals to you?

An occupational hygienist is a problem solver.  “How can this organisation carry out this activity but avoid the conditions that lead to worker ill-health”.  The process of recognising and evaluating a problem, and finding a solution, is often challenging but usually rewarding.

What has been the biggest health and safety challenge you’ve experienced?

Persuading employers that they must control conditions that adversely affect the health of employees is one of the biggest challenges that occupational hygienists face. Unlike injuries, where consequences are often immediate, symptoms resulting from harmful working environments may not present for 2 – 40 years.

What aspect of your current role do you most enjoy?

As a consultant occupational hygienist I get to observe working practices in lots of different workplaces. Engaging with managers and employees in devising ways to improve workplace conditions feels worthwhile.

How do you go about raising awareness of occupational hygiene, and have you met any resistance?

I have started engaging with local safety groups telling them what occupational hygiene is and how it can be used to protect worker health. Once people find out we are not there to count how many times they wash their hands they are interested in what we actually do.

If you could do anything other than your current job what would you do? 

I wouldn’t. I love what I do and think I am making a difference to worker health.

How would you advise a young person beginning a career in health and safety?

Persuade an experienced H&S professional to be your mentor so you have someone to go to when you come across something a bit out of the ordinary.

What have been the highest and lowest points in your career?

Highest: my first trip offshore as an occupational hygienist. I had heard all the scare stories of being a woman on a rig and, after graduating, had rejected a career offshore. When I got out to the platform it was just like being at any production plant - just one that is surrounded by water.

Lowest: being made redundant four weeks after starting a new job because the plant was relocating overseas.

What do you think will be the biggest developments in the next 10 years in your industry?

The effort applied to protecting worker safety and protecting worker health will shift from 99% safety and 1% health, which we see in most organisations, to a more appropriate allocation of resources.  Annually approximately 150 workers are killed due to workplace accidents but 13,000 die due to occupational disease.  Industry must focus more on worker health before there is a reduction in workplace related deaths.

Source: SHP Magazine: June 2015 Issue (Page 92)

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