EHS thought leaders – a discussion with Michael Connor

As a 14-year veteran in the environmental, health and safety field, Michael Connor has played an important role in improving the environmental, health and safety performance of Upsher-Smith Laboratories. On July 21st, 2010, Dean Calhoun, President and CEO of Affygility Solutions met with Michael and discussed a variety of issues important to environmental, health and safety professionals. These issues included: obtaining a Masters degree via a remote learning process, managing environmental, health and safety as the sole EHS professional within the company, and using compliance management software to leverage himself with all the various stakeholders within his company.

Dean Calhoun: Good afternoon, this is Dean Calhoun with Affygility Solutions, and I'm here today with Michael Connor with Upsher-Smith Pharmaceuticals. Mike, go ahead and say "hi."

Michael Connor: "Hello" everyone.

DC: Mike, I know you have a Master Degree in Public Health with an Occupational Health and Safety Management emphasis from Tulane University and it's my understanding that you obtained this degree through a remote learning process. Can you provide me with your thoughts about the quality of learning online versus a traditional classroom setting?

MC: Yes, it was an online program, and to be honest with you, I really have nothing but positive things to say about the program. In my current situation—job, travel, family—a traditional brick and mortar campus was really not feasible for me. So, I probably would not have gone through with graduate school if it wasn't online. I could attend classes on the road, at home, wherever. I can only speak for my program—there are many programs out there for various degrees. The classes were held in real time, just like a traditional class, so I had class to attend just like a traditional evening class with a lecture—like a webinar situation.

I also liked the instructors. Instead of going to such-and-such university and having professors from that one school, I had a lot of professors that were from all over the country. So I was exposed to experts that were EHS professionals in the field and with different backgrounds from industry, government, military, different industries such as chemical, pharmaceuticals—so quite a varied background.

DC: Did they have any hands-on, equipment-type exercises that you had to complete?

MC: Not any hands-on. The industrial hygiene specialty that is an option requires the student to complete a week long laboratory on-campus in New Orleans at Tulane. My program was not—it a lot of papers, exams, and discussion postings. We still had group projects—the technology allowed you to work with several fellow students on a project.

DC: What would you say was probably your greatest challenge in taking a class online versus a traditional setting?

MC: You have to be an independent learner. In some respects, you are completely on your own, so you do have to do the work and motivate yourself. There still is the human to human contact—but they are not in the room with you. So if you need that as motivation then that could be a challenge.

DC: Okay, very good. Anything else you would like to add about getting a degree online?

MC: No, I believe that's it.

DC: Okay, very good. Our next questions is, you have been in the environmental, health and safety field for over 14 years. Since you started in the field in 1996, how have you seen your job change?

MC: Well, personally for me, my job changes have been fairly traditional as I have progressed through my career. I started out with an internship, and in the first few years of my career was doing technician level work such as industrial hygiene monitoring—entry level starting at the bottom, being mentored by more senior environmental, health and safety professionals. I worked as a contractor and a consultant for the first nine years of my career, so there was that side of my career.

Then in my current position, being an internal EHS person for a company, my responsibilities changed from being on a project to project basis – more specialized, to one that is responsible for everything that's related to environmental, health and safety. That's been my own experience—in the consulting field I was fortunate to have exposure to various industries and performing different field work in those industries. Now I'm specialized in the pharmaceutical industry.

DC: Correct me if I'm wrong, but it's my understanding that currently you don't have any direct reports. So, you don't really have a staff, correct?

MC: That's correct.

DC: So how do you effectively manage, in the scope of the larger company, EHS?

MC: The way I've approached it, and maybe it's because I came from consulting, I look as myself as an internal consultant. I'm not a management position working for Upsher-Smith, so again, it's more of an internal consultant role. I can influence people, make recommendations, and influence the decision makers. So what I find myself having to do is leverage myself as much as possible with safety committee members, lab safety officers, facilities, engineering, and others who have unofficial safety responsibilities within the company.

DC: Do feel like you have been fairly successful in making good progress?

MC: I believe so. The way I look at it is if I can't influence them to make the right decisions from an environmental, health and safety standpoint then I'm not doing my job properly.

DC: Alright, very good. We will go ahead and move onto the next question. There's been a lot of talk these days about potent compound safety and preventing occupational exposure to active pharmaceutical ingredients. Do you believe this is an important issue in the pharmaceutical industry and why?

Finally, the second part of this question is: Have you actually seen exposures result in adverse health effects?

MC: Oh definitely. Those of us that work in the pharmaceutical industry know that an active pharmaceutical ingredient has an intended outcome for patients, but those outcomes in an occupational environment for employees can be adverse.

I believe there's a philosophy in the industry that's a good one, "Why would we make a product that will help somebody, but in the process hurt someone making it?" That just doesn't make sense.

Then there's the liability. Yes, it's an important issue and I believe it will continue to be an important issue as active pharmaceutical ingredients become more potent.

DC: Okay. Have you had firsthand experience with seeing employees have adverse health effects from exposures to potent compounds?

MC: Yes. In my experience I have seen more acute exposures—skin sensitization, dermatitis, irritation and those types of adverse effects. And those are easier to manage. Like any acute exposure, the employee experiences a negative effect, then the employee, their management, safety personnel can see it—it's tangible.

The chronic issues are the bigger challenge: convincing a staff that this can have a negative effect on your long-term health if you're not using the proper precautions—engineering controls, PPE, those types of things. A person may not experience any health effects for many years.

DC: Okay. Very good. In the 14 plus years of experience in the environmental, health and safety field, what has been your biggest challenge? It can be a technical area or more of a general management area.

MC: Probably the biggest challenge is keeping up—doing more with less. There always seems like there is just more to do and you're trying to implement initiatives that will improve the environmental, health and safety performance in the workplace and all the while, creating more work for yourself. So you're always trying to figure out how to do that, but manage it efficiently at the same time.

DC: Okay. Mike, I know, as we have already discussed, you're the sole environmental, health and safety professional in your company, and as we talked about earlier, you act more as an internal consultant, a technical consultant. How do you manage environmental, health and safety on a daily basis within your company?

MC: Well again, as I mentioned earlier: leveraging myself with all the various stakeholders within my company. Production employees help me out on the day to day needs, and this is where I use tools like Affytrac to manage those tasks – those every day, every month, yearly tasks that need to be done as part of managing environmental, health and safety overall. That's how I do it, so I technically don't have direct reports but in many ways I have many assistants.

DC: What's been the receptivity of Affytrac to delegate tasks downward to the lower-level employees?

MC: The reception has been positive and I've trained certain individuals to perform certain tasks. Their biggest challenge and biggest stress with their EHS related tasks is, "When do I need to do it and how do I document it?" So they like the e-mail reminders—it's a natural form of business communication. Having that trigger that lets them know that you have this task due (e.g., hazardous wastes training is due this month).

They also like the simplicity of it. It just lets them know that they have this task to complete, here's the due date; they just track that the task has been completed. I can see that the task's been completed—it's as simple as that. I like it because it keeps things simple for me and for them. It takes the complexity out of it.

DC: That's pretty much it. Is there anything else you would like to add or comment on about your 14 years of experience in environmental, health and safety? At the end of the day, do you enjoy what you do?

MC: Yes I do enjoy the field. I guess at this point if I didn't enjoy what I do, I would have tried something else at a younger age.

I always hear a topic of discussion within the field "What's the future of environmental, health and safety?" I guess I'm actually positive of the future. I believe environmental, health and safety professionals in general are naturally wired for a fast pace, changing economy. I'm speaking for myself, but if you're in various industries, if you're a consultant, you're used to change, or if you're in an organization where different products or services are coming and going, change is just part of everyday life.

So, as you hear more and more that this is how it's going to be, well that's how it's been for many of us anyway. As these new challenges come about I believe our profession is poised to meet them.

DC: What kind of new challenges do you see?

MC: Well, whether it's in the pharmaceutical industry and biotech becomes a bigger part of the industry or different emerging technologies. Safety professionals have now been around formally for decades, and industries have come and gone. So I believe there will continue to be a need for us.

DC: Alright. Well, thank you for your time and have a good afternoon.

Published August 19, 2010