In the past 7 years we have been using college co-ops in a Corporate Safety Engineering role at Optimation. Three of the six we have had have moved on to careers in the health and safety field, one will be returning to college shortly and one will continue to work for Optimation on a part-time basis while finishing up some final course work. All of our co-ops so far have been students from the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) with various backgrounds and experiences but none with experience in the safety business. The safety co-op role at Optimation is a very sought-after position because of the variety of the work we do and the different exposures to safety work the co-op experiences. The following is a list of some of the activities the Optimation safety co-op gets involved in:
- Conduct Safety Audits
- Conduct Safety Inspections
- Assist Incident Investigation & Reporting
- Assist Incident OSHA Log
- Assist Interpret and Analyze Incident Data
- Assist Root Cause Analysis
- Conduct Safety Observations
- Learn OSHA General Industry Standards & Interpret
- Learn OSHA Construction Standards & Interpret
- Assist Safety Training Development
- Assist Safety Training Delivery
- Assist With Job Hazard Analysis
- Industrial Hygiene Monitoring
- Ergonomics Evaluations
- Work With Safety Committee/Competent Person’s Team
- Support Project Managers
- Support Job Superintendants
- Support Trade Project Managers
- Assist With Follow-up on Action Items
The goal of the Safety Co-op Program is to give the student as much exposure to as wide a variety of tasks as possible while they are working for Optimation. In doing so, the student is learning from the assigned work within those activities, understanding how things get done, gaining proficiency in performing work, and thus becoming a valuable employee for the company.
The Interview and Selection
After working with the college on a screening process which includes reviewing prospective co-ops’ resumes, GPAs, completed coursework and prior experience, we start with the interview and selection. It can sometimes be very difficult getting 21 to 23-year-old students to talk about themselves since for most this is the first time they have ever thought of actually working in their field of study. Depending on the applicants’ level in college (third or fourth year) most come in with the same table stakes (i.e. course work, etc.).
During our interview, we ask if they have had any experience with any of the safety activities listed above. Most have had none. We watch their reactions during the interviewing and touring process as they see the training rooms for the first time and realize that they may be developing and delivering training to older workers, as many as 80 in one class. During and after the tour candidates are asked how comfortable they feel getting involved with some of the places and work they have seen. They are presented with the thought that the decisions they make could have life threatening consequences and that they will be closely supervised until they can demonstrate the skills and the knowledge it takes to work on a project without supervision.
To give them some level of comfort, they are told that they will not be making any decisions without first discussing the circumstances with their supervisor. They are told that this is a professional co-op and not a “sink or swim” position. Training, coaching, guidance and mentoring will all be a part of this experience and for this co-op to work, both the student and the company need to win. We like to say “this is the easiest work you’ll ever do, but you’ll never work harder at it”. Our selection decision is made based on the co-ops’ responses to the questions and the comments we make, along with how well we think they will fit in with the workforce and with clients.
After selection the co-op is asked for their honest feedback on their interview. The response has been “it was the toughest interview I’ve ever had.” When asked why the response has always been “it’s the first time I’ve had to talk about myself in such a serious fashion relating to someone else’s health and safety.”
Moving Towards Success – the Training
At Optimation, training for the safety co-op starts at the interview, when they learn the scope of the activities they will be involved in. The co-op’s coach is looking for tasks that are new to the co-op yet provides them and activity that they can learn from and be successful at simultaneously.
Things like researching a standard that will be needed in an upcoming training session, working with references they have never explored before and from there making a two or three slide PowerPoint. Then we go to the conference room and have them present to the coach what they found and have them explain how they will present their material to a client. The objective is to begin to build a working relationship between the coach and the co-op so that as more difficult tasks come up there is a free and open exchange of information and ideas to develop the co-op’s confidence and a competence while getting needed work done. As time in the co-op progresses so does the technical complexity of the work, the learning curve becomes very steep and the co-ops confidence and competence grow from total dependence to self guidance.
At Optimation, the strategy for the safety co-op process is to “go slow, it’s faster” so as not to pressure the student into making errors in judgment or decision which could possibly put someone at risk. Co-ops are taught that they need to rely on data to drive their decisions not their opinions. Like their coach, we can all make better decisions when we have adequate data.
The Servant’s Heart
As in any career, the safety professional is a service provider and must be focused on his customers. One issue the co-op faces very early on is that everyone is his customer. This can be a real eye opener for co-ops, when they learn that their coach is also their customer and vice versa. The co-op learns that “the customer may not always be right, but they are always the customer” and that a huge part of safety is “how can I sell this service or idea to someone who doesn’t want to buy it?” During the negotiations with the clients or customers, the co-op learns that the safety work is not focused on WIIFM (What’s in it For Me) but, WIIFT (What’s In It for them). Without this servant’s heart approach, the safety practitioner’s successes will be very limited. Like everyone, we have our priorities for the work we do. In the business of safety, the co-ops are taught to focus on the customer’s priority first.
One of the primary goals for the Optimation Safety Co-op Program is the win-win. Optimation gives a lot in the first few weeks of the safety co-op program and processes in hope that we will get much needed services from the co-op as their learning progresses. Optimation’s clients like the fact that co-ops are providing some very valuable safety work at lower rates under the direction of licensed professionals. And the co-ops are being paid to learn, be productive and become valued employees to the company. They see how what they learned in the classroom is performed in the field.
The Optimation Corporate Safety Engineer Co-op has seen many successes while continuously working on improvement opportunities. Our co-ops have all left here, finished school and become very successful with the career paths they have taken. For instance, one of our co-ops is now providing safety services to a corporation that builds propulsion systems for nuclear submarines. One is now a pilot flying C-130s for the Air Force. In a recent discussion, a comment was made that Optimation is a company the produces some really great safety professionals and we think this is one of our best wins.