While working as a safety trainee at PCL Construction, Emma Harding’s perception of safety and construction completely changed.
Harding began the training hoping to see all the technological terms and systems she learned in the classroom while working as an occupational safety and health major at Illinois State University come to life. Indeed, all the lectures she attended became real as she walked around the construction sites and started putting everything together. Harding, 21, never imagined she would eventually fall in love with her major, let alone become an intern at a construction company, when her mother suggested she try it.
“I had several failed biology tests,” Harding said. “The last thing on my mind was switching to major in safety. I thought it was too boring.”
Harding finds the memory entertaining now that she has developed a keen interest and passion for the subject. Her recent internship at PCL Construction emphasized her love of safety and construction.
The journey to PCL Construction began when Harding met the company’s Hawaii District Manager during the 2022 American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP) Conference. Harding has been part of the ASSP student chapter at Illinois State since her freshman year. After the conference, she applied for an internship with hopes of joining the team in Hawaii. Unfortunately, she didn’t get the training. It really piqued her interest, so she continued to search the company’s website for more opportunities. Her efforts paid off when she landed 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 field visits, she and her supervisors conducted training and supervision of various projects such as school projects and road works projects. As the only safety intern, Harding has been able to network with many safety professionals on a much broader scale. She believes that these professionals will be a resource for her in her search for a job after graduation.
Harding also stepped away from her training to provide poignant lessons in her personal life. As a safety intern who interacted with hundreds of construction workers on a daily basis, Harding’s understanding of communication was completely rebuilt.
Her role made her the liaison between the management team and its employees. The management team communicated what they wanted to fix to the safety team, and then it was her job to convey that information to the workers in a simple and effective way. Likewise, workers would contact Harding if they needed equipment or had any other requests for the management team.
Harding realized that the workers were not very impressed with the safety team, mostly because they had a reputation for talking to them in a condescending manner. I also understood that the management team would not be happy to participate in requests that the safety team could handle on their own. Rather than being discouraged by his negative safety reputation, Harding developed a good relationship with both workers and management, resulting in a smooth workflow.
She said the best way to get workers to open up with her about their safety issues or concerns is to talk to them without belittling them. Once a level of respect is established, it becomes easier to communicate with all levels of employees within the construction company.
During this chain of communication, Harding also realized that she not only had to be respectful, but she also had to have compassion for her in order to succeed in her endeavors. She found that the closer she got to some of the workers, the more they trusted her when they faced the hardships of their lives, which was one of the hardest 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 craftsman requires a similar favor for many, if not the rest.
Aside from the progress in her communication skills, Harding also noticed how important planning is.
“A lot of planning goes into the construction process,” she said. “We have to constantly think about the future as construction continues. We have to think about things like, can the building sustain itself for the next 10 or 20 years? Are there exit routes in case of a fire? Is there an evacuation route for the site? Can the department Firefighters access to the building easily?
Doing these inspections was the most exciting part for her. This is the main reason Harding encourages students to become safety professionals at Illinois State.
“If you’re someone who likes to get out and about, a career in security might be for you,” Harding said. “Whether you want to ensure older buildings are in safety compliance, or you want to perform fire or fall inspections for new buildings, there is always something new every day.”
Not only does Harding hope to see more students in the field of occupational health and safety, but she is particularly focused on women.
As a safety trainee who visited different construction sites on a daily basis, it was not surprising to her to encounter a ratio of one female (herself) to 300 male workers. Sometimes the numbers changed, but most of the time, they stayed about the same. Despite this, Harding remains encouraged. I have found a passion to motivate more females to join the construction industry.
“While the gender disparity in construction is concerning, it also represents an opportunity for more females to join the field,” Harding said. “I hope hearing my story will encourage more women to take their place in construction.”
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