The field of occupational safety and health has undergone a major shift over the last year as all industries – no matter their size or profit margin – struggled to contend with the new challenges exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
For Hilarie Warren, as the newest director of the Georgia Tech OSHA Training Institute Education Center (OTIEC), these changes meant navigating the training and tools needed to reduce risk and improve workplace safety, while reimagining what professional learning might look like for the Education Center in a post-pandemic world.
Growing up, Warren loved to examine how things were built, analyzing how the parts fit together to understand or improve the whole. Taking apart old telephones, for example, was a common pastime. She also spent a lot of time outdoors, which instilled in her a love of science, specifically biology, which remained her favorite subject throughout school. She always knew she would work in science but never thought about anything other than medical school until after college.
Warren earned her Bachelor of Science in Biology from the University of New Hampshire, then her Master’s in Public Health (MPH) from Emory University. Warren was drawn to public health because of its emphasis on large-scale problem-solving. “Public health is a focus on the larger picture. It’s looking upstream at why something might happen and how to prevent it, rather than just treating the outcome,” she explains. Once she was exposed to the field of safety and health through one of her graduate classes, her path became even clearer. “My eyes were suddenly opened to a whole new field of public health,” she reflects. “Understanding the connection between environmental and industrial exposures and health outcomes was the initial driver, but once I realized that could be coupled with strategic preventative action and engaging at an individual level, my focus began to narrow.”
Finally, thanks to the recommendation of an advisor, Warren had the opportunity to experience the industrial hygiene field through an internship at Delta. She had found her passion.
“I love the combination of scientific rigor coupled with hands-on, practical application and human interaction. Industrial hygiene is about investigation and problem solving, with a result of improving the working environment and providing better protection for the folks performing these important jobs.”
After receiving her MPH in 2005, Warren began working at Georgia Tech as an Industrial Hygiene Consultant in the OSHA Consultation Program. Visiting a wide variety of workplaces, from construction zones to manufacturing warehouses to rocket launcher facilities, Warren thrived in the research-based position of helping Georgia businesses evaluate their occupational health hazards. “For someone who is naturally curious about the world and the people who live in it, this program was a perfect fit,” she recalls.
Two years later, Warren began assisting in some of the OTIEC classes and soon became the Course Co-Director of the OSHA 521 Introduction to Industrial Hygiene course. Over the last 15 years, Warren has been co-director, director, and instructor of many other OSHA courses at Georgia Tech. A natural chatter with little stage-fright and a love for what she does, Warren quickly settled into her new teaching role and grew her professional network to include mentors eager to share opportunities to advance workplace safety and health.
It is alongside and in collaboration with these professionals that Warren has accomplished many academic, professional, and personal achievements. For example, in response to a new OSHA regulation (29 CFR 1910.1053 and 1926.1153), she led the development of a new short-course curriculum on managing silica hazards and compliance strategies for limiting exposure to the toxic dust in the workplace. This developed course content was then requested by OSHA’s Directorate of Training and Education (OSHA DTE) to use as a guide in their development of a standardized training course on silica that could then be distributed and used by all 39 OSHA Training Institute Education Centers nationwide.
"I’ve been fortunate to work with our outstanding faculty and support professionals, and appreciate the opportunity to help lead OTIEC into the next chapter."
Now, Warren is beginning a new chapter in her career journey.
Upon the retirement of Myrtle Turner-Harris, she has been named the new director of the Georgia Tech OSHA Training Institute Education Center (OTIEC), bringing diverse field experience and a unique perspective in both the construction and manufacturing industries.
Inquisitive by nature, Warren's colleagues and learners describe her as a good listener and problem solver, eager to meet the current and future professional education needs of the industry. "Warren was selected from a pool of extremely qualified candidates due to her extensive background in occupational safety and health training, excellent organizational skills, and a tremendous amount of enthusiasm for the continued success and future growth of the OTIEC at Georgia Tech," notes Paul Schlumper, director of the Safety, Health and Environmental Services group within Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute (EI2) and Principal Research Engineer.
As an active member and past-board member of both the local chapter and national American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA), Warren has local, national, and international experience promoting and protecting employee health outside the scope of the OSHA regulatory landscape and requirements. These volunteer opportunities not only influence her classroom discussions but they also provide a boarder perspective on global workplace hazards, allowing her to look for ways OTEIC and Georgia Tech can connect challenges with solutions.
“The Georgia Tech OTIEC is a highly successful center for the professional education of safety and health professionals thanks to the tireless efforts of prior director Dr. Myrtle Turner-Harris and our course instructors. I take on this new role with respect for the process that has positioned Georgia Tech as a leader in occupational safety and health education.”
Following Turner-Harris’s lead, and with a renewed focus on the future of work, Warren aims to expand safety and health course offerings and subject matter to include the latest emerging workplace challenges and hazards, particularly those relating to the pandemic such as psychological safety and communicable disease transmission.
“COVID-19 has challenged workplaces like never before,” she notes.
“Those of us working in occupational health and safety have new questions, decisions, and responsibilities thrust upon us daily as we attempt to navigate keeping businesses open and employees adequately protected. There is an opportunity for a renewed conversation and an altered look at continuity planning and preventative strategies for workplaces, and our classrooms are a perfect forum for this discussion."
With a broadening perspective on the healthy worker and workforce, Warren envisions OTEIC as a primary safety and health provider for prevention efforts in equipment, training, and policy, while also supporting personal skills development in the areas of adaptability, flexibility, and critical observation.
"The pandemic has exposed inequities in workplace hazards and outcomes for vulnerable workers, particularly healthcare workers, rural communities, and communities of color. There’s fantastic applied research taking place at Georgia Tech that looks at preventative design strategies, as well as how to develop and serve communities within the context of their environment (home, workplace, social spaces and the outdoors). I’m hopeful that we can expand educational opportunities into areas that need targeted safety and health support while continuing to provide inspiration to the entire safety and health profession.”
Driven by a desire to innovate solutions to complex problems and a passion to help people, Warren is poised to lead Georgia Tech OTIEC in expanding the definition of what it means for a business to operate safely, and help Georgia Tech's professional learners achieve their goals.
“For those of us in the professional education group at the OSHA Training Institute there is a common theme of wanting to help people do better, live better, and take care of each other, both as individuals and as businesses. All of our instructors follow different pathways and share different stories to achieve this goal, but I love that that’s the common thread weaving us all together," she reflected. "Connecting these important basics for those working in construction and manufacturing – or even re-training as they turn the page on the next chapter of their careers – together with leading concepts in organizational culture and safety performance is where I look forward to growing the Education Center."