Faces of EHS

Faces of EHS: Earl Blair Highlights the Many Paths to EHS Success

Environment, health, and safety (EHS) is a broad field with a wide array of early-, mid-, and late-career opportunities, and there is no “one path” to success as a health and safety professional. In this week’s “Faces of EHS,” Earl Blair talks through how he has navigated his 40 years as a safety professional, consultant, and educator.
Earl Blair Headshot
Earl will also be presenting an educational session, Supporting Frontline Supervisors: Effective Ways to Empower Your Strongest Safety Advocates, at our upcoming Safety Summit 2020, taking place April 6th through 8th in Indianapolis, Indiana. Click here for event information and to reserve your spot now!

How did you get your start in the EHS field?

Over 40 years ago, while working as a dispatcher at a Honda/BMW dealership, a coworker told me her husband just earned his BS degree in Safety. I realized my undergrad degree in Psychology was not especially useful for a good-paying career. My coworker said the engineering graduates at the university laughed at her husband and made fun of him, asking, “What are you going to do with a Safety degree? Direct traffic?” She said upon graduating, her husband had just completed five interviews and received five firm job offers, and they were getting ready to move to Florida for him to work as safety manager at a Fortune 500 company. That was the first time I had ever heard about safety as a career, and I was intrigued. Safety appeared to be a career that offered the opportunity to make a positive contribution while earning a decent living. Information about safety was much more difficult to access in 1978. I contacted the National Safety Council and researched the universities that offered master’s degrees in Safety. Earning a master’s degree in Safety Management launched my career in safety; it’s one of the best decisions I ever made.

What do you like the most about your career in EHS?

I’ve done a number of different things in the safety profession, including working for four Fortune 500 companies, consulting with a behavioral safety management firm, and teaching safety at three universities. I especially enjoyed training in industry, and I enjoy teaching and working with students at the university. I also enjoy making presentations and developing the materials as a consultant and trainer. My presentations involve frequent travel around the United States and sometimes around the world to enhance the education of motivated safety professionals.

What is the most difficult or frustrating part of your job?

When I worked in industry, the most frustrating task involved working with the occasional suspected fraudulent workers’ compensation case. These cases were interesting, but my personal focus was more proactive on prevention of injuries and illnesses, not reacting by identifying fraud—although, to be fair, someone needs to do it! The single low point in my safety career was a fatality that occurred at the first site where I worked as a safety professional. It was a preventable incident that occurred to a 32-year-old maintenance worker, husband, and father of three children. This event was traumatic to me, and it transformed my understanding of the importance of safety from something I knew in my head into a strong feeling in my heart. I resolved then to dedicate myself to doing the best I can to prevent serious injuries and fatalities.

Safety Summit 2020

Learn more from Earl Blair at Safety Summit 2020, April 6-8 in Indianapolis! Click the above banner to save your seat today.

What’s your favorite job-related story that you like to tell others?

In 2011, I experienced severe low-back pain with spinal stenosis. My chiropractor advised me to get a new mattress. My wife and I went to the mall in Bloomington, Indiana, and tried out some Sleep Number™ mattresses. When we tried out the most expensive split king mattress in the store, my wife said, “This is it!” As I was making the payment, the young salesperson asked what I did. I told her that I teach and oversee the graduate program in Safety Management at Indiana University. She said, “Oh, that’s interesting. I’ve been looking for a good major in a master’s program.” She applied shortly thereafter and entered our program as a graduate student. She became very enthusiastic about the safety field. When she was nearing graduation, she said a major utility company asked her to dinner for a second interview, and she asked whether this was an indication it was interested. I told her that it wouldn’t be taking the time and spending the money if it weren’t ready to make an offer. The utility company hired her as a loss prevention rep and provided her with a car, a laptop, and a $70,000 starting salary. I thought this was great for a student who just graduated with no real-world safety experience. The student did very well and continues to work as a safety professional in the utilities industry. I have a lot of similar stories. Oh, and the new mattress helped me recover from the back pain.

What advice do you have for people just entering the profession?

EHS offers a variety of terrific career opportunities. There is certainly a great variety of experiences among individuals in the EHS field because these positions exist in every industry, and organizations take different approaches to EHS. The field will become more complex and challenging in the future as new technologies such as nanotechnology, drones, and 3D printing, among others, are developed as tools for EHS professionals. Therefore, safety professionals will need to be highly educated in a broad array of fields in order to effectively advise and add value to their organizations.

Overall, the opportunities in EHS are tremendous—a trend that appears to project well into the future. Here are some general tips:

  • Find mentors who can answer your questions and help you succeed.
  • Learn about your business, and add value to your organization beyond just safety and health.
  • Follow your heart; do what you love doing, and the money and satisfaction will follow.
  • Never stop learning and improving yourself.
Earl Blair is a Visiting Lecturer of Safety Management at Indiana University, Bloomington. Before entering the academy, he held safety management positions in a variety of industries, including work for refining, chemical, and pharmaceutical companies. Blair has also worked as an outside EHS consultant and trainer, always with a focus on effectively improving organizational safety performance. He holds an MS in Safety Management from West Virginia University and an EdD in Vocational Education from the University of Kentucky. Additionally, Blair is passionate about educating safety professionals, speaking at safety events around the world. He has authored several scholarly articles and has two books currently in process. Blair has been recognized for his work with a BLR® Lifetime Achievement in Safety Award in 2018 and as an American Society of Safety Professionals Fellow in 2019.

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Would you like to be profiled in a future Faces of EHS and share your experiences, challenges, etc.? Or, do you know anyone else in EHS you think has an interesting story to tell? Write us at jscace@blr.com and cdouyard@blr.com and include your name and contact information; be sure to put “Faces of EHS” in the subject line.