IChemE Safety Centre holds webinar to mark International Women’s Day

Article by Amanda Doyle

THE IChemE Safety Centre (ISC) held a webinar on Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in Safety to mark International Women’s Day.

The webinar featured Trish Kerin, Director of the ISC, Macsene Isles-Ahite, a member of IChemE’s Board of Trustees, and David Lloyd-Roach, IChemE Director, Qualification. The theme of International Women’s Day this year is “Choose to Challenge”. Kerin said: “This is such a great theme from a safety perspective, as to challenge is one of the most critical actions that we can take to deliver safety outcomes.”

Kerin emphasised that the webinar was not just about women and that everyone was welcome. She said that ED&I is about not excluding anybody – it’s about bringing people together. “When we talk about the impact that engineers can have on the world it’s really important to understand how we can get better outcomes, both in terms of safety as well as proactivity when we have a truly inclusive environment.”

Isles-Ahite spoke about IChemE’s ambitions on ED&I from her perspective on the Board of Trustees: “We already have very strong metrics in that we have a lot of female chemical engineers, but we want to make sure that we look at other minority groups like ethnic minorities and people with disabilities as well and extend that out.”

Implications of supposedly trivial concerns

Kerin said that there are many different aspects that need to be considered about ED&I from a safety perspective, and described how in her career in industry she’s seen many elements evolve over the year. “My personal experience as a woman in engineering is absolutely filled with stories of things like ill-fitting PPE; things ranging from work trousers, to boots, to safety harnesses. Thankfully much of that has changed.”

She brought up the typical office conundrum of the thermostat setting, and noted that the formula used to determine the ideal office temperature is based on the resting metabolic rate of an adult male; however recent studies have found that women feel around 5o colder due to a lower metabolic rate. “This sounds like a minor little silly inconvenience. But if that’s a control room where people are making critical safety decisions in operating plants, that is a problem because it can lead to fatigue, it can lead to illness, it can lead to distraction. There can be very real safety implications from things that may on the surface just seem like trivial annoyances.”

Advantages of diversity in the workplace

Isles-Ahite described her workplace experiences as working with mostly white males 20 years ago but recently the teams she has worked in have been more diverse. She described how, in her experience, she’s never met a HAZOP chair of ethnic minority although she has met female chairs. “It needs to reflect society. I am pushing for a lot more women and ethnic minorities to go into safety and become HAZOP leaders.”

Lloyd-Roach described his experiences of seeing effective ED&I enhancing business. When working in an IT operations role around 20 years ago he said he was fortunate to work for a small UK company which had a very diverse workforce. “I consider myself lucky to have experienced first hand the breadth of solutions that a small but very diverse team can bring to the workplace.”

Kerin noted that when people from different backgrounds come together, different options are suggested. “I think for me that was really what challenged a lot of my own thinking and since then I’ve always sought to try and gain different people’s input. Everyone has something valuable to contribute.”

What ED&I can bring to process safety

Isles-Ahite spoke about the benefits that effective ED&I can bring to process safety. “Effective ED&I will only come from an engaged membership when everybody is engaged in the same direction. I truly believe that everyone should be given a voice. Depending on your status sometimes you’re not given a voice and I think we should be listening to everyone’s voice when it comes to safety.”

Lloyd-Roach added: “I can’t think of an area more important than safety where you’d want diverse input into it.”

Both ED&I and process safety have parallels, said Isles-Ahite. “There are definitely changes in the cultural behaviour within organisations and within society. I think we need it to come from the top. It has to be part of the structure of the company and the management have to buy into it. Every voice counts and feedback should be encouraged from people that are not in leadership roles.”

Kerin said that bringing ED&I to the workplace is the next big challenge, after first embedding occupational health and safety and then process safety in the workforce. She added that there is also a mental wellbeing benefit, as people who feel included will be able to contribute more and will feel happier being able to contribute.

Visibility is key

Isles-Ahite said that visibility is key and she likes the idea of putting out profiles showing the different types of people in different roles. “The world needs to see that more than one type of person can speak with the same voice and say the same thing. I do think that chemical engineers are not visible enough.”

She also spoke of unconscious bias, and how people might perceive her on their first impression. “When I walk into a room I’m not really sure what people see first. Do they see me coming into the room as a woman, or as an ethnic minority, or as a chemical engineer, or as a member of the board of trustees? We all have unconscious biases and I just hope that people get to the point where they give others a chance to express themselves so that they are not judging them based on what they can see first.”

When asked by a webinar participant to give general advice to young female engineers, Isles-Ahite suggested they always conduct themselves with poise and grace. Lloyd-Roach recommended trying to find a mentor and to develop a network. Kerin said that they should be themselves and not to try and be “one of the boys” if it’s a masculine dominated environment.

Kerin ended by giving a challenge: “What do you choose to challenge in your everyday life whether you’re male, female, or ethnic minority? What are you going to choose to challenge to help improve the situation of further embedding ED&I into our workplaces, and into our society at large?”

The webinar was hosted via Zoom, which was chosen as the most accessible platform due to its close captioning facility. The recording is available to view on YouTube.

Article by Amanda Doyle

Staff Reporter, The Chemical Engineer

Recent Editions

Catch up on the latest news, views and jobs from The Chemical Engineer. Below are the four latest issues. View a wider selection of the archive from within the Magazine section of this site.