Faces of EHS

Faces of EHS: Margaret Morrissey on Research and Employee Buy-In

Margaret Morrissey has dedicated her career to protecting workers from the dangers of occupational heat stress through educational campaigns, research initiatives, and advocacy. She received her doctorate in Kinesiology (Ph.D.) from the University of Connecticut and before that, she received her bachelor’s from Skidmore College and Master of Science from Florida State University. As an early career researcher, Margaret published 24 journal articles, served as a co-principal investigator on three large grants, and was selected as an expert panelist for the Gatorade Sports Science Institute Panel on Physically Demanding Occupations.

She has been in her current position at the Korey Stringer Institute for two years, working as the director of Occupational Safety. She is responsible for serving as a consultant for businesses and organizations to review what heat safety policies and procedures they have in place and provide tailored recommendations to optimize health and safety and improve productivity. The Korey Stringer Institute is a non-profit organization housed at the University of Connecticut whose mission is to provide research, education, and advocacy to prevent sudden death in workers, athletes, and warfighters.

For our latest Faces of EHS profile, we sat down with Margaret to discuss the dangers of heat stress, the future of research and wearable technologies, and the importance of employee buy-in.

Q: How did you get your start in the field?

In 2018, when I was a Research Assistant at Skidmore College with Dr. Denise Smith, I had the incredible opportunity to visit the Illinois Fire Service Institute (IFSI) and help collect data for a Department of Homeland Security, Assistance to Firefighters Grant. This grant was specifically evaluating cardiovascular and carcinogenic risk in modern firefighting. This opportunity not only set me up for success in my future endeavors but also motivated me to dedicate my career to protecting all workers from the dangers of occupational heat stress.

Q: Who has been your biggest influence in the industry?

Dr. Thomas Bernard, Dr. W. Jon Williams, and Dr. Brenda Jacklitsch are three of the biggest influences I’ve had in my career. These individuals paved the way in research, education, and advocacy in occupational heat stress and I am grateful for the opportunity to work with them now as colleagues. The CEO of the Korey Stringer Institute, Dr. Douglas Casa, has always been a huge inspiration to me and I thank him for all the opportunities he provided me with as his doctoral student.

Q: What’s your best mistake and what did you learn from it?

The biggest mistake I made as a professional was only focusing on my field of research. Once I started reading personal development books and psychology research studies, I started to gain a new perspective on how to implement evidence-based heat stress prevention strategies effectively. I always make sure to read a few pages of a book or research paper every day, and I believe that will make me a better person or professional.

Q: What’s your favorite and least favorite part about working in the industry? Would you change anything? 

 My favorite thing about working in the industry is the ability to truly help businesses provide a safer work environment for their employees. My least favorite is working with stubborn leaders who believe they know everything there is to know about heat safety. Spreading more awareness on the dangers of heat, not only for risk of heat illness, but its effects on cognition, mood, and neuromuscular work is important to educate these “stubborn leaders” and help them understand the benefits of implementing a heat stress management plan.

Q: How can company leaders make safety a value within their organization?

The company leadership must have a clear message to their employees that safety is their #1 priority. The message should include expectations they have for their employees and what their role is within the occupational health and safety. Everyone has a role in health and safety—it is not just the occupational health and safety program leaders.

I think company leaders need to involve their employees in the creation of safety procedures at their jobsite. They will have much better buy in if employees are able to contribute and have their voices heard. I also think that it is important for workers to feel comfortable reporting their injuries and understand there will be no retaliation for reporting. This could be accomplished through safety incentives for reporting or educational initiatives.

Q: Where do you see the industry heading in five years? Or are you seeing any current trends?

OSHA is in the process of creating a heat stress standard that will require industries that experience heat stress to implement a heat stress management plan. This will require a huge shift in the safety culture to adopt these practices and learn what practices are the most appropriate ones to implement for their worksite and industry.

As technology is evolving rapidly, I believe we will start to see technological solutions that will begin to quantify the level of heat strain experienced by each worker. These solutions will inform safety personnel of the physiological and psychological stress imposed on eachworker’s body because of occupational heat stress. It is important for safety professionals to recognize that at this time, we have very few wearable technologies that are validated to measure core temperature during prolonged work hours in extreme heat. As more valid research studies occur, we will have a better sense of what technologies can accurately capture true core temperature, which will be extremely informative for safety and health in the heat.

Q: How has the COVID-19 pandemic complicated or exacerbated problems with safety culture?

I believe that the COVID-19 pandemic certainly complicated problems with safety culture. A positive safety culture is focused on promoting best practices of safety to ensure that all employees are safe. As COVID-19 was an entirely new hazard, we had little information on what these best practices should be.

Originally, procedures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 were designed with little consensus on what were the most effective strategies. Moreover, safety procedures changed because of the pandemic, which again, made it difficult to distinguish what the best practices were. Also, many individuals in leadership may have been working from home, which caused a significant disconnect in what health and safety hazards their workers were exposed to.

Q: How will safety culture look in the future?

We can only hope that a positive safety culture is fully adopted across all businesses no matter the industry, the population of workers, or size of the business.

Q: What are you most proud of?

I feel incredibly grateful to partner with companies to assist their efforts to provide a safe environment for their workers. This is truly one of the most rewarding parts of my job. I also feel very fortunate focus on research initiatives to provide workers, employers, and supervisors more information regarding the effectiveness of various heat stress interventions and specific worker characteristics that may increase their susceptibility to heat injury. We still have so much to learn!

Q: Do you have any advice for people entering the profession?

My advice is to become a member of key safety organizations (e.g., NSC, ASSP, AIHA, VPPPA) and participate! This can include attending a conference to participating in a safety subcommittee. These opportunities will allow you to grow as a professional and learn from others outside your specific industry. 

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

As the duration and intensity of heat waves continues to increase, your company and industry must be equipped to protect your workers from heat stress. Although we will soon have a heat stress federal standard, action must be taken now. Inaction will negatively impact the health, safety, and productivity of your workers. I am more than happy to serve as a resource for you to help implement an effective heat stress management plan.