Meet ACS Chemical Health & Safety EIC Mary Beth Mulcahy - ACS Axial | ACS Publications
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Meet ACS Chemical Health & Safety EIC Mary Beth Mulcahy

Editor-in-Chief of ACS Chemical Health & Safety is Mary Beth Mulcahy

One of the newest journals in the ACS Publications’ portfolio is ACS Chemical Health & Safety. The journal focuses on publishing high-quality articles of interest to scientists, engineers, environmental health and safety (EH&S) professionals, and non-research personnel who manage or work in areas in which chemicals are used, or hazardous waste is generated. Examples of submissions may include:

  • Scientific reports that describe and analyze a scenario in the form of a case study;
  • Methods, protocols, or best practices for safety procedures
  • Evaluation of potential safety hazards associated with common reactions or procedures
  • Reviews of the literature, resources, regulations, or methodologies
  • Other research or scholarly discussions on topics of interest to the chemical health and safety community

The Editor-in-Chief of ACS Chemical Health & Safety is Mary Beth Mulcahy, Ph.D., principal member of the technical staff at Sandia National Laboratories. Get to know Dr. Mulcahy and her vision for the journal now!

Can you describe your career journey as a safety professional? 

Believe it or not, this question gave me pause because I’m not sure I would label myself as a safety professional. I am a student and consumer of the safety information and insight that safety professionals like industrial hygienists, EHS staff, safety researchers, and others share in papers, presentations, list-serve posts, and conversations. I hesitate to claim their label because of the respect I have for the challenges they face on a daily basis to convince organizations and people to maintain high safety standards, even in the absence of an accident. Instead, I will label myself as a safety advocate. I have used various platforms in my career to illuminate the underlying conditions that lead to serious chemical accidents and to publicly challenge established safety assumptions.

This journey started when I personally experienced a serious laboratory accident as a graduate student and dealt with the repercussions of being “that” person who made the decisions that led to an ambulance ride to the ER. It continued when I became an investigator for the US Chemical Safety Board (CSB), and I learned there was more to the anatomy of an accident than broken equipment or other technical failures. It included understanding the external factors that influence the decisions and actions of people and organizations. And now, I work in the field of chemical security at Sandia National Laboratories, a separate, but intimately entwined, aspect of chemical risk management.

Coming from an academic setting (without professional safety certification/training), can you describe the transition/training needed to be a CSB investigator?

To quote Edgar Schein’s book, two words: “humble inquiry.” One of my first requirements at the CSB was to take a 40-hour Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER) course. As the instructor taught the class how to read a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) and understand the implications of a chemical’s Immediately Dangerous to Life or Health (IDLH) concentration, he kept apologizing to me for presenting such basic information. I believed he felt uncomfortable teaching in the presence of a Ph.D. chemist. To put him at ease, I announced in front of everyone that even though I had spent six years getting a Ph.D., I never learned how to read an MSDS and never heard the term ‘IDLH’ before. That was the beginning; the rest was on-the-job training that involved years of asking questions and listening to my co-workers, regulators, front-line workers, upper management, and other experts with whom I worked in connection to the various CSB investigations I supported.

Tell us about your role at Sandia National Laboratories.

I work with an interdisciplinary team to identify and counter chemical threats that endanger national and international security. This involves the protection, control, and accountability of chemicals to prevent their unauthorized access, loss, theft, misuse, or intentional release. We accomplish this goal by engaging national and international partners to increase chemical security awareness and risk mitigation capabilities.

How would you describe the potential for ACS Chemical Health & Safety with respect to changing the landscape of the global Chemical Health & Safety community?

I think of the adage, “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” In the safety world, what is your hammer? Is it an engineered control, a rule or policy, a rejuvenated commitment to safety? Or is it a combination of human, organizational, and operational practices? When I began working at the CSB, everything looked like a technical problem to me, but working with human and organizational experts over the years taught me to expand my horizon because sometimes the best solution is not technical. The journal will serve the CH&S community in the same manner that the CSB served me. It will allow individuals from different backgrounds, who may not otherwise interact, to analyze and write about topics related to chemical safety from their different perspectives. It will allow people to pick up new tools for their toolbox and forge new partnerships.

What are your hobbies/ what do you like to do for fun?

As a full-time working mom of a 9-year-old boy, I enjoy learning how bad I am at throwing a football and how much fun playing laser tag can be. Nothing beats getting second place in a field of 8 and 9-year-olds.

What’s something people probably don’t know about you that you’d like to share?

In the summer of my first year in graduate school, I was convinced I was the worst graduate student that had ever walked the planet, and I essentially tried to quit, but my advisor refused to accept my resignation. I remember him quietly taking his glasses off to clean them and asking me to stay through my orals, after which he would accept my resignation if I still wanted to leave. I did not just pass my orals; I nailed them. Without going into details, it was one of those moments that will flash through my mind in my final minutes of life—they felt that good.

Obviously, I did not quit. For all the graduate students out there, I hope you have a Josef Michl in your life who will believe in you when you do not believe in yourself. I would not be in a position to have the editor-in-chief role if he had not pushed me through my self-doubt all those years ago. For all the PI’s out there, do not doubt or underestimate the impact of a few kind words to your graduate students.

 What accomplishment are you most proud of?

There are no awards, certificates, or documents of the accomplishment I am most proud of, but I will share one story that will give you an idea of what matters most to me. At the end of a CSB public meeting where we released an investigation’s findings, a lawyer from the company that had experienced the accident approached me. Now, the role of the lawyer is to defend his client and make sure the client is seen in the best light possible. Accidents tend to expose weaknesses, and by definition, are not a company’s “best light.” The lawyer’s comment was, “I disagree with your findings, but I respect how you did your investigation.” Respect in the face of inherent opposition is something to be proud of.

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