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Building for the future: Safety major shares her internship story – News | #schoolsaftey

While working as a safety intern at PCL construction, Emma Harding’s perception of safety and construction shifted completely. 

Harding had gone into the internship with hopes that she would see all the technological terms and systems she had learned in class during her course work as an occupational safety and health major at Illinois State University come to life. And indeed, all the lectures she had attended became real as she walked through construction sites and began to put everything together. Harding, 21, had not imagined that she would end up falling in love with her major, much less intern at a powerhouse in the construction industry, when her mother suggested giving the major a try.

“I had multiple failed tests in biology,” Harding said. “And the last thing on my mind was switching to a safety major. I thought it was too boring.”

Harding finds the memory amusing now since she has developed a keen interest and passion for the subject. Her recent internship at PCL Construction affirmed her love for safety and construction.

The journey to PCL Construction began when Harding met the Hawaii District Manager for the company during the 2022 American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP) conference. Harding had been part of ASSP’s student branch at Illinois State since her freshman year. Following the conference, she applied for an internship hoping she would join the team in Hawaii. Unfortunately, she did not secure the internship. Her interest had already been sparked, so she continued to search the company’s website for more opportunities. Her efforts paid off when she secured a position at PCL’s Denver location, where she interned for 12 weeks.

“It was a jam-packed experience especially because I was the only safety intern,” Harding said.

Harding visited many different construction sites. During these site visits, she and her supervisors conducted training and oversaw different projects such as school projects and roadwork projects. As the only safety intern, Harding got to network with a lot of professionals in the safety industry in a much broader scope. These professionals, she believes, will be a resource in her job search upon graduation.  

Harding also walked away from her internship with impactful lessons on her personal life. As a safety intern who interacted with hundreds of construction workers on a day-to-day basis, Harding’s understanding of communication was entirely re-constructed.

A day in the life of Emma Harding as an intern for PCL Construction

Her role placed her as the link between the management team and its workers. The management team would communicate what they wanted to be fixed to the safety team, and it was then her duty to relay that information to the workers in a simple and effective manner. Similarly, workers would communicate with Harding if they needed equipment or had any other requests for the management team.

Harding understood that the workers were not very fond of the safety team, mostly because they had a reputation for speaking condescendingly to them. She also understood that the management team would not be pleased to get involved in requests that the safety team could handle on its own. Rather than being dissuaded by the negative reputation that safety workers had, Harding formed a good rapport with both the workers and the management, which resulted in a smooth workflow.

She said that the best way to get workers to be open to her about their safety issues or concerns was to talk to them without putting them down. Once a level of respect was established, it became easier to communicate with all levels of staff within the construction company.

During this chain of communication, Harding also realized that not only did she have to be respectful, but she also had to be empathetic for her to succeed in her endeavors. She found that the closer she got to some of the workers, the more they trusted her with their life’s hardships, which was one of the harder parts of the job, she said.

“You have to be compassionate as a safety worker and as a woman in the construction industry,” Harding said. “But your compassion must also have limits in the work environment. Performing one favor for one craftworker would require a similar favor for many more, if not all the rest.”

Aside from advancing in her communication skills, Harding also observed just how vital planning is.

“A lot of planning goes into building,” she said. “We have to constantly think of the future as the building continues. We must think about things like, ‘Can the building sustain itself for the next 10, 20 years? Are there exit paths in case of a fire? Is there an evacuation route for the site? Can the fire department access the building with ease?’“

Conducting these inspections was the most exciting part for her. And it’s the main reason that Harding encourages students to become a safety major at Illinois State.

“Although the gender disparity in the field of construction is jarring, it is also an opportunity for more females to join the field. Hopefully hearing my story will encourage more women to take up their place in the field of construction.”

Emma Harding

“If you are a person who likes being out and about, then a career in safety might be for you,” Harding said. “Whether you want to ensure that old buildings are safety compliant, or you want to do fire or fall inspections for new buildings, there’s always something new every single day.”

Harding hopes to not only see more students in occupational health and safety, but she places a particular emphasis on women.

As a safety intern who would visit different construction sites on a day-to-day basis, it was not surprising for her to encounter a ratio of one female (herself) to 300 male workers. On occasion the numbers would change, but for the most part, they stayed about the same. Despite that, Harding remains encouraged. She has found a passion for motivating more females to join the construction industry.

“Although the gender disparity in the field of construction is jarring, it is also an opportunity for more females to join the field,” Harding said. “Hopefully hearing my story will encourage more women to take up their place in the field of construction.”

The Department of Health Sciences website has more information for those interested in the occupational safety and health major.

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