I’ve never had a great answer to how I got into the environmental health and safety field. I usually say, “By accident,” which makes me giggle to myself. (Safety jokes are usually bad — and this is no exception.)
I’ve always been strong-willed, passionate, and extremely protective of my loved ones. If there was a way to keep them safe, I wanted to do it. I remember drawing a fire evacuation plan of my childhood home in crayon and making my family practice the drill over and over, while I blew on an orange whistle if they didn’t evacuate in a timely manner. I was always the designated door locker and stove checker when we left for trips, because I was going to follow behind anyone else who did it to double-check anyway. Yeah, I was that kid.
Fast forward to my junior year at Grand Valley State University, feeling uncertain about my decision to become an electrical engineer. While I loved engineering and was performing well in my classes, I couldn’t picture myself in a traditional role. I wanted to fulfill my love of science and engineering, but I needed to do something that also took advantage of my people and leadership skills. Scrolling through the list of majors on my university’s website, I found a degree within the engineering school for Environment, Health & Safety Management. I had no idea that I had just found a field that would utilize all my strengths, fulfill my professional and personal desires, and directly affect others’ lives and our environment for the better.
It is a mouthful: “Environment, Health & Safety.” The title alone indicates the broad spectrum of tasks and responsibilities covered by this program. Any one of these subjects would be plenty of work for one person — yet so many of us in this field wear all these hats every day, without batting an eye.
A quick review of history shows the importance of this field. In the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, 146 workers perished due to easily preventable causes and negligent decisions by the owners of the facility. In the Union Carbide Bhopal disaster in 1984, over 500,000 people were exposed to methyl isocyanate gas, 16,000 of whom have since died, due to lack of preventative maintenance and monitoring of the gas system. In the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, 210 million gallons of crude oil were dumped into the Gulf of Mexico, due to misguided cost-cutting decisions and a lack of safety systems that could have prevented the malfunction.
Each of these disasters has shown what can occur if prevention is not taken seriously in the workplace. But prevention requires effort; money; understanding of people, processes, and the environment; and, most importantly, buy-in from every level of an organization. If any of these is lacking, it is not a question of if disasters will occur, but when.
Insert the Occupational Safety and Health Association, the Environmental Protection Agency, and hundreds of thousands of Environment, Health, Safety and Security (EHSS) specialists into the equation. The goal of these agencies and professionals in the field is to not only ensure that companies are following key rules to keep their employees and the environment safe, but that they are also ingraining this behavior in their company culture, so that employee safety and environmental compliance are second nature across all industries and businesses.
In 2017, having graduated and become acquainted with the EHSS field, I saw a message from a Tesla recruiter in my inbox. I think the neighbors could hear me squeal! Being the science nerd that I am, I was naturally an Elon Musk fangirl, and it was my dream to work for a startup tech company. Little did I know, I was about to join not only a company paving the way for a sustainable future, but one that did so while taking care of and protecting their most valuable asset: their employees.
“New Tech” is a unique and fast-paced industry all on its own. Then add on the automotive industry deadlines and an extremely ambitious CEO, and you’ve got Tesla. Our Tesla EHSS team boasts a diverse collection of backgrounds and experiences, which are extremely beneficial to keeping our employees safe at the impressive pace at which Tesla operates. Moving an entire automation line into a tent outside — by next week? No problem. Commissioning an eight hundred ton stamping press by the end of the week? Sure. Installing a robotic automation arm onto an assembly line next to a human operator? Piece of cake. Do all of this as quickly as possible, but do it safely, compliantly, and with minimal interruption to the process? We’ve got this! You don’t have a choice but to accept change and to learn to adapt quickly in the tech industry, especially at Tesla. This was a huge change for me from my previous employer, but I was, and still am, ready for the challenges this company throws at me, because I believe in my team and in our mission.
My EHSS team laser focuses on being proactive instead of reactive in our prevention measures. It may be acceptable in some fields to wait to find an issue, but in EHSS, failure to prevent problems leads to disasters and loss of life, as we’ve seen throughout history. On an average day, you’ll see our EHSS team go from talking to associates on the production line about how we could improve the posture required for their task, to pinning a decibel meter onto a maintenance worker’s jacket to monitor noise levels, or to presenting injury trends to upper management. Some days I put on my rainsuit to go pull a water sample from the storm drain to identify pollutants; on other days I’m learning how to flip a twenty ton stamping die in the air with a crane, so that I can accurately identify additional safety precautions for the procedure.
None of these actions represents checking a box on a list somewhere: each one instead is intended to help us gain knowledge of risks in our workplace, so that we can put proper controls in place to prevent injuries and disasters from occurring. There’s no feeling of completion for EHSS professionals; safety and environmental protection are important every minute of every day. Our job will never be done, and for good reason. I’m excited to continue contributing to this profound field and to help Tesla continue creating a more sustainable tomorrow.
Corinne Farleigh, CSP has been an Environment, Health, Safety & Security Specialist for Tesla since 2017. She received her bachelor’s degree in Occupational Health and Safety Management with a focus in Environmental Studies from Grand Valley State University in 2016. Corinne is an advocate for gender equality in male-dominated fields and is always eager to promote and support STEM and the arts. She has been an AWIS member since 2018.