How Women
Engineer Safety

How Women Engineer Safety - Safety Engineering

At mid-1980s safety engineering conferences, when 99% of attendees were men, "I was still called 'honey' and 'babe,' at work," remembers Terrie Norris. She was then the only female safety engineer throughout her company's 11 plants.

She's feeling far less isolated now as President-Elect of the American Society of Safety Engineers, where membership is about 30% female. "I hope to push that far higher," declares Norris, a risk-control manager at Bickmore Risk Services and Consulting in Long Beach, CA.

Sometimes, womanhood can boost a safety engineer's job hunt. "With two equally qualified applicants, for an employer concerned about diversity, bonus points for being female could sway a hiring decision," says Lesli Johnson, a product liability risk specialist in Portland, OR. She joined the Chubb Group of Insurance Companies in 1993, with her new engineering degree from Harvey Mudd College. Inexperienced, 22, and meeting with older male plant managers and CEOs, she quickly learned to find common ground. By asking a technical question specific to that industry, "I'd see a visible change in attitude. If you've already been to engineering school, with that one-to-five ratio, you're used to it," Johnson quips.

Johnson appreciated Chubb's supportiveness of women, but unequal treatment spurred Norris's first job change: she left a major paper company because men with identical responsibilities earned $10,000 to $15,000 more. She's consistently sought salaries that fairly reflect her level of accomplishments, such as setting up a stormwater pollution prevention program that the Environmental Protection Agency inspector used as a model for other companies.

How Women Engineer Safety - Safety Engineering

Terrie Norris.

In 2007, when Johnson started the association's Women in Safety Engineering Mentoring program, most questions involved certifications, networking, risk-taking, navigating company politics, career-planning, and work/life balance. Now, she's noticing a different attitude. "The younger engineers aren't all about working hard, earning more money, and climbing the corporate ladder. Instead, they care more about good benefits and a solid company that allows them a comfortable lifestyle, including time and flexibility for family life," she says.

Range of Responsibilities

Safety engineers identify and mitigate every type of safety risk, in categories from ergonomics to waste management to product liability, and increasingly, health and environmental areas. Norris's diverse assignments have included checking for hazards at an automotive workplace, then planning an entire area's rearrangement, to improve forklift safety. For a rubber and plastics manufacturer, she oversaw a mechanical engineering project to rebalance the factory's negative air pressure. Currently, at public sector sites like schools and parks, she performs safety inspections, risk assessments, and employee training. At public works projects, she evaluates equipment including aerial lifts and traffic control systems, often calling upon engineers to make equipment use productive, safe, and efficient.

At Chubb, Johnson had nine months of on-the-job loss-prevention training. "Our company and department prefer hiring people with engineering degrees, because they can understand technical discussions about a variety of industries and products," she says.

Johnson tries to educate her clients about what's happening not just in their own company, but at competitors. She'll ask, after any recall in their field, "Do you have a similar product that you may need to redesign to make it safer?" Small and mid-size companies benefit most from her assistance. "As they grow organically, they may not realize that other things kick in, like new worker-safety requirements, based on the number of employees," Johnson says.

New Directions

Besides attracting more women, safety engineering is evolving in other ways. Many companies are pursuing 'greener' redesigns, but, "Green roofs or solar panels aren't always viable; they may add unsustainable weight to a building's structure," explains Johnson. "Plants are popping up to turn waste into energy, but is anyone considering the safety issues? You could be turning that waste into flammable fuels or gases that you pump and store. A safety engineer can help identify and control those exposures."

Our electronic age makes it much easier for media and government to spot and publicize any safety-related problems with products, including foods, cars, or cribs. Safety engineers can propose prompt solutions. Heightened concern and increasing legislation about playground protection is a recent trend requiring safety engineers.

Another growing safety issue is harmonization between American and European standards. "To sell goods worldwide, you must be up on regulations everywhere," notes Johnson, who evaluates products considered at "severe risk" for a potentially serious liability, like lead in toys. "It can be tough for a company, on the product side, to understand all the safety issues in Asia and other global markets," she says.

Europe's worker-safety practices are not code-driven; America's are based on federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration and other regulations, says Johnson, predicting a U.S. move toward Europe's risk-assessment model. "As companies here gain responsibility beyond the minimum regulations, safety engineers will have much more input," she says.

In October 2010, CNN's Money magazine identified safety/health/environmental specialists as America's eighth fastest-growing profession over the next decade, making it an exceptionally "safe" career choice–for either gender.

Carol Milano is an independent writer.

At mid-1980s safety engineering conferences, when 99% of attendees were men, "I was still called 'honey' and 'babe,' at work," remembers Norris.


March 2012

by Carol Milano,