Fermi National Laboratory

Volume 24  |  Friday, March 16, 2001  |  Number 5
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Martha Heflin: She's on Your Side

by Judy Jackson

Time was, when Martha Heflin showed up at a Fermilab job site, everyone immediately went on break.

A decade ago, when the newly-minted safety officer, fresh out of college and barely 22 years old, came to visit a project, workers saw her as a nuisance and figured the best way to deal with her was to knock off until she went away.

Martha Heflin "Almost no one took me seriously," Heflin said recently. "Here I was, a very young woman, coming up to some 55-year-old rigger, asking him to take a fresh look at the way he was doing his job. I'm sure they thought it was ludicrous. At first, I'd go out and say `Good morning,' and they wouldn't even grunt in my direction. I used to hate hearing "Hey, I've been doing this job longer than you've been alive, and I haven't been hurt yet.'"

Times have changed. On March 1, Heflin took on the assignment of senior safety officer in Fermilab's Particle Physics Division. Far from ignoring her, she says, now people often invite her to the work site before an experiment or project begins, to help them plan for safety and environmental considerations right from the start.

"It took awhile, but now people understand that I'm on their side," Heflin said. "I'm here to help."

Coming from her, it actually sounds true.

The turnaround in how people view her has several explanations, Heflin said. She emphasizes that she sees her safety-officer role less as The Enforcer and more as a sort of combination personal trainer and coach for working safely. Her "I'm-on-your-side" message appears to have gotten through to PPD employees.

But Heflin believes that the greatest change has come from Fermilab management's stepped-up and high-profile emphasis on health and safety. Safety stand-downs in 1998, "plus a couple of serious accidents," led to what Heflin sees as a true lab-wide commitment to a safer workplace. An electrical accident in 1997 and a fire in 1998 prompted extensive investigations and discussions of how to prevent future accidents.

"It's terrific that the lab used those accidents as learning opportunities," Heflin said. "I see a big change in attitudes and practices as a result. People think about safety way more than they used to."

Heflin should know. She began her safety career at Fermilab 11 years ago as a co-op student, even before graduation from the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater. At the time, Fermilab was her third choice for an internship, mostly, she said, because she had no idea what went on in a high-energy physics lab. When she graduated in 1990, job offers for hard-to-find safety professionals were plentiful; but this time Fermilab was her top pick. She continues to see her safety job at a physics research lab as more exciting, and probably more challenging, than a comparable position at the average widget plant.

"Here, things change constantly," Heflin said. "No two days are the same. And we're often dealing with unique challenges that no one has ever solved before."

Among those unique challenges Heflin counts working with Fermilab users, scientists who come to do research at the laboratory from hundreds of institutions worldwide, with widely varying safety standards. Introducing users to Fermilab's safety-first culture can sometimes be frustrating, Heflin said, but again, she sees a change.

"By now, users mostly understand that if they don't play by the safety rules, they won't be able to use Fermilab research facilities," Heflin said. "And I have never seen anything like the commitment these scientists have to making their experiments work. This is their lifeótheir whole life. I can't just dismiss that. I'm here to help them succeed."

Besides physics experiments, Heflin has also taken on safety projects closer to home. She met her husband, Fermilab employee Rick Heflin, in the course of her first accident investigation, while she was still a student intern.

"He was driving a truck and he backed into something," Heflin said. "The safety officer told me, ëCome with me. Let's investigate.' That's how we met. His accident rate has dropped significantly since then."

Remember, Rick, she's on your side, and she's here to help.


last modified 3/15/2001 by C. Hebert   email Fermilab