July 14, 2023

The Path to Safety: An Interview with Rachel Nieves, GSP and QAP Scholarship Recipient

Mom knows best.

Rachel Nieves, a 2022 BCSP Foundation Qualified Academic Program (QAP) Scholarship recipient, was reminded of that when, as a freshman at Utah State University, she was looking for an undergraduate program that would transition well into the medical field. While looking through various STEM programs, she enlisted the help of her mom, who, as Rachel described, loves to dig in and do research on those types of things.

“I liked math and science, and I like traveling, and she found this hidden gem,” said Rachel. “She found this hidden gem of industrial hygiene, and I say hidden gem because that’s truly what it is.”

Mom’s help paid off. Rachel joined the industrial hygiene program at Utah State, still with the intent of pursuing a career in the medical field. About halfway through the program, though, she realized she had developed a passion for the work she was currently studying, a passion she hadn’t quite expected when she began the program.

“I decided after seeing the opportunities that occupational health and safety could offer and the industries that I could work in, the people that I could with work,” said Rachel, “After seeing all of this, I decided to change paths and stick with it.”

Opportunity is exactly what programs like industrial hygiene can offer. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, overall employment of occupational health and safety specialists and technicians is projected to grow 5% from 2021 to 2031, with about 14,500 openings on average per year. Additionally, with a certification from BCSP, the average earning potential of an EHS professional is $98,000.

Rachel, who holds the Graduate Safety Practitioner (GSP) designation from BCSP, found her opportunity in 2021 with an industrial hygienist internship at Savage Services, a global provider of industry infrastructure and supply chain logistics. After graduating in December 2022 with a bachelor’s in public health with an emphasis in industrial hygiene, Rachel joined Savage full-time as a Safety Health & Environment (SH&E) Supervisor of Occupational Health and Hygiene. She recently celebrated her two-year anniversary. In her role, she ensures the health of Savage team members by protecting against workplace illnesses and disorders, reducing risk to the company, and building trust and relationships with the customers they support.

“I travel quite a bit. I’ll travel to different sites and industries to perform baseline exposure monitoring, provide training on different topics, and take a risk-based approach to managing health and safety,” Rachel explained. Her enthusiasm for the role shines as she continued, “I could go on and on because I love what I do; it’s a lot of fun!”

In an industry like environmental, health, and safety, where the objective is the not-so-small task of preventing injury and saving lives, fun can be a valuable stress reliever. But having the proper knowledge and skills needed to react quickly and swiftly to a workplace injury or illness can bring about a unique set of stressors, especially for a woman in a male-dominated industry.

“Women are a minority in the safety profession, and women can bring different perspectives and connections in safety,” said Rachel. “I never thought I’d be in health and safety, partly because I never saw women in safety.” According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, women make up 29.2% of occupational health and safety specialists and technicians and only 25% of industrial engineers, which includes health and safety.

Rachel was quick to point out that being a woman in safety doesn’t mean she felt out of place or like she had something to prove. The measurement of success is based on confidence and knowledge. As she put it, “Regardless of gender, it’s your passion for safety and specific skillset that makes a difference in the profession.”

And what a difference she and the rest of the safety team at Savage are making. According to Savage’s 2022 Sustainability Report, Savage has more than 70 SH&E team members, including 17 holders of BCSP’s  Certified Safety Professional (CSP) or Associate Safety Professional (ASP) credentials. Approximately 23% of their more than 4,000 Team Members have completed the Safety Specialist or Lead Safety Specialist programs, a three-day training session designed to prepare team members for additional safety responsibilities. In addition, Savage team members have completed 35,268 online safety courses, 2,572 classroom safety courses, and 6,572 on-the-job safety assessments, resulting in a 38% reduction in total recordable incident rate (TRIR) since 2018.

As Savage has demonstrated, a commitment to safety is a commitment to education. Rachel was recognized for her commitment to education when she received the BCSP Foundation QAP Scholarship, a $5,000 scholarship awarded to those who display excellence and a commitment to their academic program and the future of the EHS profession. Rachel primarily had to fund college herself, and the scholarship relieved some financial burdens both in her academic and personal life.

“I worked hard to find scholarships and to have good grades,” explained Rachel. “So when it came to getting this scholarship, financially, getting it my last year of schooling where a lot was happening allowed me to focus on just being a student.”

In addition to preparing to graduate, Rachel was also planning a wedding. As she went on to explain, “It [the scholarship] let me be less stressed and more involved in things that were happening in my personal life. It allowed me to be present for an incredible life event.”

If you’re keeping score at home, in the previous 18 months, Rachel graduated college, got married, and started her career. A busy year and a half by any measure, and now Rachel can add expecting mother to the list—though that happy news did not come without some trepidation regarding her chosen profession, given its dangerous nature. “My husband and I are expecting our first baby, and when I first decided to pursue industrial hygiene and safety, it scared me because, again, I wasn’t exposed to women or mothers in safety.”

That fear quickly turned to excitement, though, as she recalled advice she received from her mentors that reminded her that growth isn’t always comfortable. “Something my mentors have taught me is that there’s no growth in the comfort zone and no comfort in the growth zone,” said Rachel. “They helped me hone skills I didn’t know I had, and they helped me perform better than I thought I could.”

She mentions one mentor in particular who always said to “be a student who works and not a worker who studies.” In other words, prioritize your schooling, your skillset, retaining information, and don’t let work overshadow your ability to learn. As Rachel put it, “Safety is the future. It’s the future of how things are and will continue to be developed, built, and maintained. There’s no reason for us to ever be content with 100 people, 10 people, or one person losing their quality of life over a workplace injury.”

We never know where our paths will take us. Rachel planned on entering the medical field; she didn’t see herself wearing steel-toed boots or coveralls and a hard hat working in a mine or oil refinery or railyard. “But here I am,” she said. “I’m doing it and loving every minute of it.” And who knows, if you’re entering college unsure of what you want to do, give a career in safety a thought. Just be sure to run it by your mom first.

For more information about BCSP’s Qualified Academic Programs (and to see if you qualify for a BCSP Foundation scholarship), click here.

Rachel was one of 32 students in a QAP to receive the scholarship from the BCSP Foundation in 2022. View the other recipients here.