Faces of EHS

Faces of EHS: Chatting with BLR’s Lifetime Achievement in Safety Award Winner Bruce Backus

We seldom get to hear positive stories recognizing the hardworking environment, health, and safety (EHS) professionals out there, despite the significant role they play in not only keeping workers safe, but in keeping day-to-day operations running smoothly. That’s one of the reasons we started this series! For the next several installments, we are focusing on the amazing EHS professionals who won our 2020 Safety Standout Awards! This week, we’re proud to present our Lifetime Achievement Award Winner, Bruce Backus, the Assistant Vice Chancellor for Environmental, Health, and Safety (EH&S) at Washington University in St. Louis. Read on to meet Bruce, plus join us when we hold a virtual awards ceremony in June at our online summit EHS Now: An Online Educational Experience.

Bruce Backus
How did you get your start in the EHS field?

I completed a master’s in Chemical Engineering at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities Campus while working full time in the U of MN Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering Department. I was considering working in the biosystems or environmental engineering fields when a position opened up in environmental health and safety at the University of Minnesota. I thought this would be a nice transition job for a year or 2 until I found something outside of academia. Little did I know that I would still be working in higher education over 30+ years later.

When you were starting out, did you choose to build your career in academia? Have you ever considered shifting into the private sector? If so, what kept you from leaving the university?

What kept me in the higher education sector within EHS were a few important mentors along the way who challenged me to continually improve and take on additional responsibilities. Also, top-tier educational institutions like the ones I worked for focus on education, research, clinical care, and development of caring and knowledgeable leaders for the future. It is rewarding to play a small role in supporting these important missions.

What is the biggest EHS compliance challenge at your organization, and how have you managed it?

It can be challenging helping researchers understand the many regulations that affect them, and sometimes, these regulations do not always make sense to a scientist—for example, the very detailed and specific labeling, storage time limits, and container management requirements for hazardous waste in laboratories; a classic example is a silver salt in a water solution. To the scientist, allowing the container to be open in order to evaporate the water makes perfect sense because the hazardous constituent remains behind while you generate less hazardous waste (and the scientist might argue there is no harm to health or the environment in this specific example). Regulations do not permit such a practice.

With thousands of researchers in approximately 4,000 laboratory rooms across our university, it takes constant education and oversight to make sure we meet our compliance requirements. Fortunately, our outstanding EHS staff developed excellent programs to help researchers understand their requirements, and our institution was recognized both by the EPA and the governor of Missouri for our role in helping the entire college and university sector improve its environmental performance. (The EPA and OSHA took into account the different environments found in higher education and developed the Subpart K hazardous waste rule for colleges and universities and the Laboratory Standard to address these unique environments.)

Are there any EHS challenges unique to universities that could prove instructive to other EHS professionals?

A large segment of our population—the students—turns over every 4 years, and many in our community (students, faculty, and staff) are from other countries, so they are not necessarily knowledgeable about U.S. safety and compliance regulations. English may not be their primary language. Language and customs may present challenges to communicating about safety, but the diversity and inclusion ultimately make for a stronger safety community. It takes a sustained approach, up and down the chain of leadership throughout the institution, to have an effective program.

One of the great things about being in higher education is that your peers are very open to sharing their best practices, documentation, and experience. I have been involved in several safety partnerships with corporations across the country, and the corporations talk about their great safety programs; yet when asked to share specific information about the programs, their legal department often tells the EHS department they cannot share the information because it is considered intellectual property that the company may want to commercialize in the future.

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

I like the incredible diversity of work we do and getting to hear about the cutting-edge research being performed throughout our institution. The range in a week might include reviewing Biological Safety Level 3-plus (BSL3+) lab safety operations and the latest Lutetium-177 cancer treatment procedures and analyzing traffic around our campuses to look for ways to reduce pedestrian-vehicle incidents.

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

Prior to COVID-19, one of our greatest challenges was retaining our talented staff. At a university, our staff become knowledgeable in biological, chemical, radiation, and occupational safety. University salaries tend to be slightly lower compared to industry, but we also tend to have other benefits in terms of educational opportunities and leave. It is with great pride that our staff can pursue opportunities and leadership positions with other companies, but it can be challenging to keep EHS operations going when 10% to 20% of our positions are open.

What do you see as the main emerging trends, both positive and negative, affecting the future of the EHS profession?

Post 9/11, our profession moved from safety and compliance to safety, compliance, and security. It is not campus police but rather EHS officers who manage security and access control for biological, radioactive, and chemicals of concern. CDC/APHIS Select Agent, NRC Part 37 Increased Controls, DHS CFATS, Export Controls, and other regulations significantly changed our professions.

Technology in the form of tablet inspections, EHS management and operations monitoring systems, learning management systems, electronic surveys, and other advances have allowed us to manage the safety and compliance of greater numbers of employees and square footage of operations without the need to increase EHS staff size. It comes at a cost, however, with less face-to-face interaction with the people on the front lines about what is their greatest safety fear and checking their understanding of core safety concepts. This requires that we develop guidance for managers of those frontline staff on how to be good safety and compliance managers. It also means we need to develop a good delineation of everyone’s roles and responsibilities. An example of WashU’s roles and responsibilities for researchers can be found here.

I think the COVID-19 pandemic is emphasizing the importance EHS plays in any institution or company. We are essential workers helping sustain critical work at our companies by protecting the safety of our workers during this time. An unintended benefit of COVID may be companies understanding that not all staff need to be at the office to be productive. Telecommuting will probably become more accepted, with the benefit that reduction of travel time to and from work, and between offices, plants, or campuses, helps us to be more efficient. A significant amount of our time is spent going between campuses for various meetings. A teleconference cuts out the need for travel time, allowing EHS staff to continue to work on compliance and safety reports or meet with frontline staff. If people do not always need to commute to the office every workday, that gives employees more time for sleep, exercise, and focus on work, assuming we get past the stress of COVID-19 concerns.

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

There are important stories that need to be shared about the sad consequences of people not following safety standards. But some of the lighter stories over the years have involved indoor air quality (IAQ) complaints. In one case, the employee making the complaint of smelling an “acetone” odor forgot that she had put some tangerines in a plastic bag in the back of one of her bottom desk drawers, and they were starting to decay. In another, office occupants were concerned that odors were coming from a neighboring lab and represented a health risk. After investigation, it was found that one of their office mates was storing his running shoes in a cabinet in the office; mystery solved.

A positive story during COVID-19 is our institution offering to house frontline medical staff and first responders in our university hotel and some of our dormitories to help these responders and their families during this difficult time (The medical staff and first responders did not want to take the risk of potentially bringing COVID-19 back to their families, particularly those with family members who are higher-risk, if they were to contract COVID). It was challenging and rewarding to be a part of a team that made this happen. We had to reassure and educate our own food service and cleaning staff on how to protect themselves and one another as they support this effort. My hat’s off to all those frontline essential personnel out there who support us all—medical care providers, first responders, food preparation workers, cleaning and maintenance staff, grocery store and mass transit workers, and others. They are the true safety heroes.

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

Read the book Mindset by Carol Dweck. Understand that setbacks are opportunities to learn. If you run into a challenge, dust yourself off, and move forward in a positive way. Find mentors. Always keep learning. Reach out to your peers for support. Keep integrity, excellence, and caring for others as your focus. My mantra to my EHS staff when crises hit is “Safety and health first, then protection of the environment, property, and compliance.”

Celebrating Award Winners at EHS Now

We will further celebrate the accomplishments of our 2020 Safety Standout Award winners in a virtual awards ceremony just before the closing keynote of our new summit EHS Now: An Online Educational Experience. In addition to honoring our award winners, this online event promises a wide variety of educational sessions for environment, health, and safety managers and professionals.

This one-day, free virtual summit will take place on Wednesday, June 17, 2020, from 11:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. (EDT). Attend all 7 sessions, choose the ones most relevant to you, or receive recordings of the sessions you are unable to attend—all at no cost! Click here to learn more and to register today.

Bruce Backus is the Assistant Vice Chancellor for Environmental, Health, and Safety (EH&S) at Washington University in St. Louis (WashU), and for three decades, he has been a leader in improving safety and environmental performance in the colleges and universities sector. Since 2000, his program at WashU has received 37 safety, EH&S, sustainability, recycling, and emergency preparedness awards and recognitions, including recognitions from the National Safety Council (NSC), Association of Public Land-grant Universities (APLU), Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), American Biological Safety Association (ABSA), and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

In 2008, Backus was elected to serve on the Board of Trustees of the Campus Safety Health and Environmental Management Association (CSHEMA), and in 2009, Bruce was asked to run for President of CSHEMA. The Board saw Backus as a leader, who because of his record of excellence in the EH&S field and his voluntary leadership positions for Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), could establish CSHEMA as a self-sustaining, preeminent organization for academic EH&S professionals. Today, CSHEMA membership has grown to include 414 colleges, universities, and research institutes, with over 4,800 individuals from those institutions actively participating in CSHEMA.

Washington University in St. Louis is one of the world’s leading institutions in teaching, research, patient care, and service to society. We are committed to learning and exploration and to discovery and impact. Founded in 1853, the university’s motto is Per Veritatem Vis (Strength Through Truth). The university is home to 16,000 students, split equally between undergraduate and graduate or professional students. Serving those students are 15,500 faculty and staff, with a 7 to 1 student-to-faculty ratio. WashU has $791 million in research support (2019), a $3.5 billion annual budget, one of the largest academic clinical practices in the nation, and 24 Nobel laureates associated with the university. Our biggest safety issues are needlesticks with our medical staff; slips, trips, and falls in general for our university community; and electric scooter (e-scooter) injuries among our undergraduate students.

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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.