Tuesday, September 16, 2014

overtime vs. base pay

Ages ago, I discussed the (usually low-end/cheaper/commodity) environmental firms that keep their entry-level folks in the field non-stop and save money by not paying overtime. But what about organizations that prefer to retain employees and are willing to pay them to do so?

I've always worked for environmental firms that paid overtime for fieldwork/billable work, although policies varied regarding non-billable work. But I know of other firms that do not pay overtime. Instead, they have a much better base pay.

I like being paid overtime. It means that when I work an outrageously long day (or week), I have something tangible to show for it. It also means that I don't have as much pressure to work long hours if the firm isn't as busy. However, I do have enough of a financial cushion that I'm ok with somewhat erratic pay, and my overtime is a bonus and not a personal financial requirement.

If you could choose a higher salary to make up for a lack of overtime, how much higher would it need to be? Would it be equal to your base pay + overtime, averaged over an entire year? Or would you want to be paid a certain amount extra, to make up for the uncertainty in your schedule?

Friday, September 12, 2014

a culture of safety

Someone on ask a manager recently asked for advice on creating a "culture of safety" (sorry, can't find the link now).

In the environmental biz, safety is A Big Deal, not because we're all intrinsically concerned about it (I mean, of course we are!), but because of the nature of the work and the clients. Most major clients (government, heavy industry, large corporations) in the modern era have found that if they have a problem (property/environmental damage, injuries, deaths), they can't just handwave it away by putting the blame on contractors and subcontractors. One way to mitigate some of those political issues is to have tough rules for contractors, so that if there's a problem they can say "we did everything we could". That's where we come in. Also, as consultants, we're paid to be experts. If the fieldwork is a mess of health and safety issues, it looks terrible to clients and potential clients, and will impact the ability to get and retain work.

In environmental consulting, we have something new every day. We have different field sites with varied environmental issues, a slate of different contractors, changing weather, and other random stuff that pops up (new neighbor who thinks the field crew is trespassing, you get a big rainstorm and your  staging area becomes uninhabitable, your contractor develops union problems, etc). So we can't keep safe by just relying on a static checklist.

A few things that can help create a culture of proactive safety:

1. Have a safety guru (or group) outside the lines of project/program management authority. My earlier discussion of safety/management conflicts of interest applies. This person carries out the safety program and is the point person for clients, contractors, and employees if there's a safety issue. The safety person conducts audits, encourages/regularly reminds folks of safe practices, and does post-incident evaluations. The safety person also coordinates the various trainings and medical exams the field personnel need (40-hour HAZWOPER, 8-hour refresher courses, OSHA construction safety courses, first aid training, and others as needed).

2. Field audits, preferably ones focused on practical solutions and not paperwork checks. Is the working area reasonably clear of tripping hazards? Do the contractors have all the safety gear (personal protective equipment [PPE], recently-inspected fire extinguishers) they need? Is there a safer way to do the work?

3. Reporting: we all know that incidents are bad. OSHA-reportable incidents are worse. But the best way to minimize the big problems are to catch the small problems that can lead to them. So there should be a mechanism to report small incidents and near-misses so that they can be analyzed and better practices developed. This can be tricky, because nobody likes to admit that something bad may have happened but didn't.

4. Lessons learned: if there is a safety issue, let the field staff know. Drillers used a novel technique that didn't work so well? Discuss it and the reasons why it failed. Someone hit a utility line? Maybe it's time for a refresher on utility mark-outs and indications of potential utility corridors in the field. 

5. Carrots/sticks: it's easy for a safety program to slide into a series of punishments: you missed something you should have, and then equipment broke or someone got hurt. You should have seen that coming and addressed it proactively. However, if there's an incident, the organization (hopefully) had a bunch of people working at the same time who were just going about their business in a safe manner. It was quiet because the result was something that didn't happen. It's a good idea to seek out and reward those folks who did something extra-safe, whether it was fixing a potentially dangerous situation or keeping their head and applying first aid/following the emergency plan when something went haywire. I'm personally not a big fan of applying "xx hours with no incidents" to everything and making that a big deal, because that's how small stuff and near-misses can be encouraged to be buried.

6. How much logistical/financial/timeline stress do you put on the field staff? Is everything a crisis? Do projects need to be completed no matter what? It's easy to talk safety, but if the field staff is running around like crazy, trying to squeeze in a million different things, it's easy to be distracted and for safety to be relegated to a lower priority. And shortcuts start to look more appealing.

It's not necessarily easy to create a culture of safety, especially when it's much easier to just do whatever's fastest/easiest/cheapest. But it's critically important in the environmental biz, where we juggle so many different things and we have the potential for terrible things to happen.

Monday, September 8, 2014

drill rig breakdowns

If it's raining and the driller has to disappear into the drill rig's innards to chase an electrical gremlin, you know it's going to be a long day.

Friday, September 5, 2014

blogger stats

I was all proud of myself a few months ago because I had cracked six figures in pageviews. My pageview count had been going steadily upward over the last two years or so, and I was getting a consistent base count.

Then I logged onto statcounter and found that my pageview numbers for the last month were one fifth of those for blogger. When I looked into my stats for blogger, my counts were wildly inflated by hits from two unrelated blogs (which shall remain nameless) which have ramped up to be the majority of my web traffic. I looked at those two blogs, and all of the posts have a long list of enraged comments bashing them for messing with other bloggers' stats.

The problem for me is that all these non-pageviews overwhelm my actual readership and I can't see where my traffic is coming from: am I getting new readers from some new blog-aggregator, or did I spark a debate elsewhere?

Since I don't have ads here, my interest in blog metrics is purely academic. But given the apparent manipulation of blog metrics (and the fact that the starting point for this blog continues to stretch backward in time and is now 2006, according to my stats page), I guess I'm going to be relying on statcounter more to keep track of things.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

breakfast junk

One of the signs I'm getting older is that I need to keep a better eye on my diet. Fast food does unpleasant things to my digestion. And I really can't deal with sugary breakfasts anymore. If I have a doughnut or one of those individually-wrapped convenience store pastries, I'll be ok for an hour or so, and then I'll crash and be out of it for the rest of the day.

My ideal breakfast for fieldwork has complex carbs and some sort of protein to keep me going through unpleasant weather and long hours. Ideally, I get a big bowl of oatmeal with nuts (and maybe some brown sugar), some sort of protein (whatever egg thing is available or a dairy product like cottage cheese), and a piece of fruit.

I can work with less ideal conditions when I'm traveling, such as continental breakfasts: some sort of whole-grain cereal without a lot of added sugar, maybe some granola with nuts, and whatever fruit they have buried in the back (old bananas?). But I was recently stumped by a hotel that had nothing but sugary stuff: froot loops and frosted flakes for cereal. "Maple & brown sugar" instant oatmeal (I used to eat that stuff, but either the formulation changed or my taste buds did, because it's way too sweet for me now). Frosted danishes. And even though the hotel supposedly had a hot breakfast, the only thing they had ready by the time I had to go was their signature frosted cinnamon buns. I did eventually find some non-sugary breakfast items: hard-boiled eggs in the dairy case. Whole-wheat toast hidden behind the danishes.

I think that part of the problem was that this hotel catered more to tourists. And when you're on vacation, it can be fun to eat junk food for breakfast ("look, honey - fresh warm sticky buns!"). But when I'm traveling for work and staying at a hotel, this is part of my life. I can't eat that crap on a daily basis without some serious consequences.

I know what you're thinking: geez, just buy some healthy breakfast stuff and keep it in your room already! But my options are somewhat limited if I don't have a fridge/microwave and I don't want to turn into a granola bar. Also, I'm a cheapskate.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

sample packaging 2

I recently discussed the various requirements/procedures/biases involved in shipping samples to a commercial lab. So what if you don't use a commercial carrier, but instead either bring the samples over yourself or arrange for a lab courier pickup?

Some of the packaging requirements are easier. You're not packaging stuff to travel across the country, kept to a certain temperature for several hours (or more), and with the expectation that the packages may be juggled/kicked/dropped. However, you still have to ensure the following:

Preventing Breakage

Maybe you don't need elaborate stuffing/packaging procedures. But bottles that clink are bottles that break. Individual bubble bags are still required, and some organizations still require bubble wrap at the bottom and around the sides of coolers.

Keeping Samples Cold

The lab still has the same temperature requirements whether the samples come in the mail or otherwise. You can still use ice cubes in bags, (maybe) gel packs, or freeze water in bottles. However, you don't have to worry as much about stuff melting and leaking. In fact, I've worked with several people who just upend ice cubes into the cooler, creating a "beer cooler" effect.

Here's why I don't do the "beer cooler" thing: Sure, it keeps the samples nice and cold. And sure, it's easier not to bother with filling and sealing bags of ice. But as those cubes melt, your samples will be sitting directly in a water bath, and if that water gets near the samples you may damage the labels or make it impossible to determine if the samples leaked. Also, I think it's obnoxious to force the lab techs to rummage around in a cooler full of ice-cold water/partially melted ice cubes.

Preventing Leakage

You or the courier may not care if a bubble bag breaks or if you've got a bunch of ice water slopping around the cooler. But you still need to prevent sample leakage. If you're going to be casual about ice cube containment, you'd better make damn sure you have ziplocks for your sample bags. Otherwise, the same options apply: bubble bag only, ziplock on inside of bubble bag, ziplock on outside of bubble bag.

Sealing the Cooler

I once thought that I didn't have to seal the cooler if I was just going to hand it to a lab representative. I was wrong.

Maybe in certain circumstances, it's ok, but it's safest to throw at least one wrap of tape (usually with the chain of custody (COC) seals in place as required) around the cooler just so it's secure physically and legally.

Addressing the Cooler

Finally, something that we can drop entirely! Whew.

Other Obligations

We discussed this in the comments to the other post, but if you're shipping something in organic solvents, you need to be aware of federal sample volume/packaging requirements. Those requirements don't go away if you are acting as the carrier (or if the lab is). Incidentally, if you're working out of a vehicle and you're carrying your stuff around on public roads, you need to be aware of those volume requirements at all times, and not just when you're actually preparing to bring your samples to the lab.

Takeaway: even though using/acting as a courier is easier than shipping via a third party, it doesn't prevent you from running into a tangle of standard operating procedures.

Monday, August 25, 2014

grad school worth it?

Back when I was in grad school, I discussed the value of a masters' degree as an investment. Now I'm more than 5 years out from grad school. Was it worth taking 2 years out of my life? Did I recoup the salary I'd missed while I was living on a poverty-level TA/RA?

As I'd suggested in that old post, the value of a Masters degree isn't that easy to quantify.

I didn't get a big salary bump after I graduated. But I was able to find work in my field a couple months after I finished my thesis, right when the bottom had dropped out of the job market. I didn't use what I'd learned in grad school right away, either. I ended up working on some high-impact, high-visibility, ridiculously stressful projects that I hated, but which looked impressive on a résumé. I also got a PG.

I leveraged the PG + the experience + the degree into a job that pays better and that I enjoy, where I do get to be a technical expert and use the stuff I learned in grad school. I don't think I'd be here without the degree. At some point, the client expects the technical expert to have proof of education and certifications, and I have those now.

And on a personal note, I had an awesome experience in grad school. I was surrounded by smart, super-motivated, interesting people of all ages from all over the world. I developed a close-knit group of friends and we had a blast together. I had grown so much since college, and I was able to really take advantage of all the opportunities available at a major research university.

So would I recommend grad school for other environmental consultants?

It depends on so many factors: is there a need (in your firm or elsewhere) for the subject you'd want to study in more depth? Can you wrangle financial support to go? Can you get into a program that is well respected in your chosen field and/or in the region you plan to work in? If you're going to work through school, how long will it take, and are you sure you'll be able to complete it? Grad school isn't usually an automatic ticket to the next step in environmental consulting, so even though it worked for me, it may not work for everyone.