EHS thought leaders – a discussion with Keith Tait

As a seasoned veteran of the pharmaceutical industry, Keith Tait has witnessed many changes in corporate and industry EHS programs. These changes include initiating and implementing industrial hygiene and potent compound safety programs on a global scale. Dean Calhoun, President and CEO of Affygility Solutions discussed with Keith those industry changes, opportunities, and accomplishments, and the future challenges that lie ahead.

Dean Calhoun: Let’s go ahead and start with our first question. Keith, you graduated from Yale in 1981 with a couple of Masters Degrees, one in Environmental Studies, and the other in Epidemiology and Public Health. You started with Pfizer in 1985 I believe…

Keith Tait: Yes, actually I had two short jobs. Two in two years before I joined Pfizer in 1985 and that in many ways kind of set me up for Pfizer as well.

DC: Okay, and you were with Pfizer for over 21 years. You don’t see that often today. People being with one company that long and that’s really admirable. Currently you’re the Director of EHS and Sustainability at SUNY Plattsburgh. Based on your experiences, how does the current view of environmental, health and safety issues today compare with the views held back in the 1980’s, or mid-1980’s, and what do you consider was critical in bringing about any changes, if any?

KT: Yeah. Well, I think in general the challenges before us are much broader and really require a much greater skill set in terms of the knowledge of effective EHS practitioners. You know in the past the technical issues might have been the driver. Strict compliance was a highly motivating factor for employers to do the right thing. Hence, the need to reach out to EHS professionals in many cases and those things still exists, but there are so many other challenges in front of us in terms of…particularly as we look at this economy and that says it all in terms of the financial downturn that we are experiencing right now. Well that’s really put a great test to us as a profession, to figure out how we do what we do, how to better incorporate, integrate, with the rest of societal activities and the way that we deliver those goods. I mean many less of us are working in the corporate sector or in the private business world. So many of us now are either independent, as in the consultant’s world, providing services to a wide range of organizations or we’re working more in healthcare or possibly in the education sector like where I am…in academia. But being academia as a professional staff and this is often confusion when people ask "Keith, as the EHS Director, What do I teach?" I say, "Well, I don’t teach. I’m professional staff and I’m serving the campus community." So I’m serving faculty, staff, and students. I get to work right across the board. Therein is the challenge of having the skill set to be able to work across the board in terms of the diverse population. It could be on a campus or a hospital or other settings.

DC: Absolutely. So you said a broader skill set. What would the skills specifically be?

KT: Well, it just really depends on the unique situation. Finance, absolutely, and people. If we as EHS professionals don’t understand something about the nature of finance in the industry and the economic trends that we are in, then we’re way out of step at being effective. I say this because right now our college is confronted with a three and half million dollar deficit and that’s going to mean a potential job loss of 66 people out of about 1200 faculty and staff. SUNY is being asked to give back ninety million dollars, therefore, it’s important to put EHS in context. When I was working in Big Pharma many people did not see the crack up coming. Didn’t see the implosion of Big Pharma and to me the lights were blinking. In 2000, I could see things were going to change and not just for me but for everyone associated with Big Pharma. Understanding that kind of context is really important. The financial, social, cultural… if you’re working in a diverse workforce, my goodness, it’s very important to understand something about the unique cultural characteristics of the people in your organization or that you’re serving, your customer base, because it does nothing but increase your effectiveness. It could be bilingualism for instance. If you’re working at construction sites, practically anywhere in this country, knowing Spanish could be an extremely useful skill.

DC: Absolutely

KT: So, that’s only going to increase…the diversity factor. Being effective, at a minimum, understanding culture and social issues.

DC: Very good. Let’s move on to the next question. In your 21 years with Pfizer, what do you consider was your greatest challenge and your greatest accomplishment? They may be different or they may be the same.

KT: I think our greatest challenge and our primary opportunity, was to get management plugged into how to manage EHS issues. First bring them to the table in a constructive manner and get them engaged in the right way. We helped them understand it would require professionals to manage these issues. We had to develop, and hire in some cases, highly qualified professionals because the issues were very complex. They weren’t simple EHS issues, so creating an awareness and understanding of the nature of the challenge and by auditing and consulting on providing effective solutions and carrying them through the business cycle. Being able to bring them through the various aspects of acquisitions and divestures. The real challenge of not dropping the ball in terms of EHS. So, I think that all of those things were really primary opportunities and successes as well. Because I feel, during my time at Pfizer, we collectively developed some very strong programs. I’m not going to boast and say they were the best because they probably weren’t, but we had some very strong programs. We knew the people, which was extremely important and many organizations don’t know their own people either due to the size or scale of the global business. But we knew our people. We had a very good understanding of them and when I said "We knew them" even at the local management level, they were able to identify where an EHS resource could be developed within an engineer, chemist, or someone who might have had an alternate training or background. These people became their local resource. Working with a corporate group or whoever…supporting them to bring about their development.

DC: Could you point out one particular thing that you consider your greatest accomplishment?

KT: Well, the one thing that I did just before I left that I was quite proud of was I had been very much involved in the exposure assessment program which was in the world of hygiene. We had worked on it for a number of years with site professionals and everything from consulting to training and professional development. I worked with a couple of wonderful consultants. When I say consultants, they were actually a retired NYC school teacher and student from Hunter College, the three of us assembled a database that pulled together all the information that related to the exposure assessment program, as much as we could get our hands on through our laboratory. We had a contract laboratory that we worked with and we were able to get access to their data to pull all that information together and analyze it as best we could. It is always difficult to look top down and look backwards five years and we ended up with thousands of data points and thousands of samples that had been collected to pull together a story. We developed a presentation about what we were learning from the past five years of exposure assessment. Several millions of dollars that had been spent on it as both direct and indirect costs. I think we did a pretty nice job of it. I was very proud of the presentations we made and I might add they were not always well received, because some people were rather concerned about the outcome. The message in some case meant that there was duplication and inefficiencies. There were things that were redundant effort. It wasn’t all cheery, good news. There were some excellent findings in terms of exposures that were less controlled which became more controlled through effective exposure assessment, but there were also some very critical things. But I’m proud of the critical things. Even as we saw hard times coming, we didn’t step down and say "I’m not going there because it’s going to make someone angry or it’s going to show them up because they weren’t managing people in way that might have streamlined the process." We made the presentations, took our hits and held our heads high. I feel good about that.

DC: Very good. That’s excellent. You know it’s very interesting that you had to put together a story. Because just the other day I was reading where it was saying that managers they need to be good storytellers as well. To be able to take a lot of information and convey it in a story rather than a bunch of data.

KT: Oh, you’re right. That’s one of those skills that you asked about. Storytelling is one of the most important.

DC: Oh, absolutely.

KT: Being able to tell your story to different people, in differing ways, with varying lengths and degrees of detail. I just did a little presentation on sustainability at SUNY Plattsburgh and it was exactly that a story. I told it to my fellow EHS professionals about what we’re doing on campus, but I needed to snapshot a very complex issue with photographs and graphs, and things, with a lot of visual content in about forty-five minutes. It was essentially a story. I enjoyed it and I think they did too.

DC: Very good. All right moving on to the next question. Keith, back in 2002 at the industrial hygiene conference in San Diego you gave a presentation on behalf of the International Affairs Committee on Emerging Trends. In that presentation, you stated that there were four important factors regarding international industrial hygiene and I know just from hearing you talk several times you were very heavily involved internationally and these factors that you stated then were the supply of skilled workers and managers; the export of hazardous work; the social class systems; and finally incentives for action. Since that time, what changes have you seen in these factors, or are they still the same?

KT: Hmm...yeah, I really need to have these right in front of me to focus in. O.k. let’s go one by one, can you mention the first one?

DC: The first one...the supply of skilled workers and managers.

KT: Oh yeah...that’s absolutely what we are seeing in terms of brain drain issues and the whole exchange with developing countries. You know, it’s basic to many countries, like China for instance, China and India that are growing so rapidly. They just don’t need capital investments. Access to capital, access to fossil fuels; natural resources, they need intellectual property. Many of their children are now going to places like SUNY Plattsburgh. Believe it or not, the American education system is getting very crowded with international students. Well that’s just a small example of global people actively reaching out to learn more about the benefits or the advantages of the American education system. There are disadvantages, but advantages of the American education system. The same thing is happening in our world of EHS. We’re seeing an enormous amount of exchange that’s ongoing in terms of the development of professionals in-country. And most of it is coming through the consulting supply chain. People going out in the world, who have been doing this for years. My buddy, Maharshi Mehta is a great example. Having the talent pool is going to be absolutely critical to actually be able to do things on the ground. I think that going straight uphill in terms of the demand for EHS professionals. What was the second?

DC: The second factor was the export of hazardous work.

KT: Yeah...sadly that’s still continuing. I’m not so sure that export is the right term. There is certainly some export of hazardous materials and hazardous technologies, but I think it’s more the development of the primary industries in underdeveloped countries, meaning all the nasty ones. Things we don’t like to do…the primary metals, the primary minerals, mining all those kind of really hazardous industries that are developing in many countries worldwide. Until many of those countries pass through primary industrial, they go through phases of this really hazardous industrial development. Sadly, we haven’t found an alternative to it yet, but clearly the best part is when they transition and get on the other side of the primary industries into the secondary or the tertiary, the more highly refined, cleaner industries. Eventually everyone aspires to be post-industrial…buy less with more quality, rather than just more.

DC: The social class system.

KT: Well, that’s huge. It’s an internal struggle in many cases and we see this now with President Obama going to China and his comments. He was pretty gentle with the Chinese, not tromping on their toes about workers dying in mines. He didn’t really dwell very much on the greenhouse gas issues, the global climate change. It kind of gets into the realization of internal change and how those things happen. It’s still very much a driving force in terms of the overall opening of societies, rather than the closing of societies.

DC: The fourth one...incentives for action.

KT: Incentives for action…that’s pretty diverse meaning right now we seem to be thinking in an emergency response mode. Meaning terrorism, the threats of terrorism, and the two wars going on. We’re still plugging holes and that seems to be what is forcing our hand right now. We’re plugging holes in terms of people, say military personnel. We’re plugging holes in terms of finances, being able to maintain the kind of investments that we’re making in security and anti-terrorism, all this high-powered intelligence stuff that we’re doing, so I think that may have shifted gears a little bit from when we last spoke on this issue. We weren’t confronting a full blown war on terrorism...or two wars in the Middle East. I see it percolating down right to a local level. For example, everyday we’re notified by the governor when New York State citizens are killed in the war and the flags are at half-mast. It really brings it home now for a lot of folks - the scale and whether we are going into a bottomless pit…what that means, hence, we’re looking for Obama to tell us where we are going in Afghanistan.

DC: And our fourth question...if you have any advice for individuals entering the environmental, health and safety profession today, what would that be?

KT: Think big. Think big and think broad. Don’t limit yourself. Other people will limit you. Don’t limit yourself, so think out of the box. Plan for career changes. That’s another big one. Don’t think for a moment that if you’re sitting in a chair, you’re going to remain in that chair. There are very few people who have the job security nowadays; of thinking they are going to hold a job for more than five years. For many in the consulting sector, this is old news, because they’re changing hats on a regular basis. If it’s a better job offer, or a firm that folds, or a client that goes south, whatever it may be, they’re used to that kind of market volatility. But I think, previously folks who were either sitting in big government or in big industry felt they were going to have lifetime entitlements. Aside from government, which is still stable, you know the public unions, very powerful unions. We always focus on the UAW as being the bad guy, the United Auto Workers, but in fact, the big government unions are much stronger. I’m a member of NYSUT, New York State Union of Teachers – UUP - Union of University Professionals. There’s 500,000 people in New York State in NYSUT so that’s a pretty big union… maybe bigger than the UAW? But anyway, flexible thinking and always be scheming and dreaming, or maybe it is greening and scheming. Keep your mind active. Keep thinking about well o.k. I’m pretty comfortable where I am right now but I might try being an EHS Director elsewhere. I might want to try moving into biological safety and infection control with all this pandemic flu going on, challenge yourself, keep moving, learning and growing. That’s the key.

DC: That pretty much wraps it up. Is there anything else you would like to say before we end?

KT: Not really, other than how people perceive of themselves and their profession…this EHS profession. I’m curious as to whether people are optimistic or pessimistic? I’m actually reasonably optimistic that EHS professionals are going to continue to be a vital profession. I don’t see us in the dwindling mode or going away with the bad economy. In fact, I see now that those of us who can really help to propel efficiency, productivity and quality measure are critical. It’s always been that way, but I think it’s increasingly important that we present the issues, and realize improvements in efficiency, productivity, quality. It could be the quality of education on campus. It doesn’t have to be the quality of an automobile we’re driving. That’s going to make a huge difference in organizational value. Any smart manager is going to embrace it and say this person is an asset to my organization, not an overhead.

DC: Very good. Thank you for your time.

Published December 1, 2009