Just this week, I was in the Midwest attending an occupational toxicology related meeting. While the majority of the speakers were discussing issues related to occupational toxicology and potent compound safety, on one of the days the keynote speaker was Joel Tickner, Project Director, Lowell Center for Sustainable Production, University of Massachusetts Lowell. Joel has been heading up an academic/business initiative called the Green Chemistry and Commerce Council (GC3). Joels’ presentation provided an overview of the occupational and environmental toxicology challenges that lie before us. For more information about GC3 see the video below:
After his presentation, Joel and I had the opportunity to talk out in the hallway. As always, at most meetings the conversations that occur either in the hallways or over a drink are often the best, and this one was no exception. One area that Joel and I discussed was the shortage of young talent that is entering the field of occupational toxicology. Joel indicated that back in the early ’70s, it was “cool” to go to work for the government, so many of the toxicology professionals at the Environmental Protection Agency started their careers then, but after that initial surge of people into the field, young graduates have chosen to pursue different career opportunities. Now assuming that those students in the ’70s, entered college right after high school and obtained at least a Masters degree, the vast majority of experienced occupational toxicologists are currently in their late 50’s to mid 60’s in age. This was apparent at this meeting because out of the 60 or so professionals at the meeting, I would say that only 5 or so were under 40 years old. As for the field of industrial hygiene and occupational safety, the situation is as equally as challenging. I was speaking to a much younger colleague about this issue and he said that at the last seminar he went to he felt like that kid in the room. I should mention that these observations may be a little skewed by the current economic climate. In tough economic times, training budgets are tight and typically it’s the more senior level occupational health and safety professionals that get the opportunities to attend seminars. But no matter what economic climate or what aspect of toxicology is being considered – occupational toxicology, environmental toxicology, or regulatory toxicology, there is a real need for fresh people and ideas entering the environmental, health and safety fields of occupational toxicology, occupational health, and industrial hygiene. With laws such as REACH and GHS already on the books in the European Union, and massive regulatory Acts such as the Safe Chemicals Act of 2010 and the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2010 looming on the horizon, the need for young people embarking on academic paths in occupational toxicology, industrial hygiene or environmental science is greater than ever. There must be strong call to action on behalf of industry to encourage young people to start filling the pipeline with new talent. In order to be proficient in the field of either occupational toxicology or industrial hygiene, it requires significant professional judgment, which in many cases can only be gained through experience and being mentored by senior level professionals. If you are a scientific minded individual looking for a field of study, I would encourage you to visit either the Society of Toxicology or the American Industrial Hygiene website for more information on these promising careers. I would encourage corporations of all sizes in making the investments in internship programs for young environmental, health and safety students. Spend time with them, educate them in your industry, and introduce them to your network of other environmental, health and safety professionals. If we don’t provide these opportunities to students now, in the next seven years, we will find ourselves operating in crisis mode – lots of work that needs to be done and no experienced professional to perform that work. I would enjoy hearing your thoughts and comments.