An Interview with Pegeen Smith MS, RN, COHN-S

Technical Service Specialist, 3M Personal Safety Division, Cadillac, MI

Q: Many nurses in this field originally practiced nursing in a different setting (i.e., clinical, hospital, military). Tell me about the field(s) of nursing you worked in prior to making the transition to occupational health. 

A: When I graduated from the School of Nursing at Wayne State University, my area of interest was maternal-child nursing, and I worked labor and delivery/post-partum at Sinai Hospital in Detroit, MI. I had every intention of enrolling in a midwifery program. After my first child was born, I worked for a community health agency providing home visits for newly discharged mothers and babies in the Detroit area, as a part of an effort to reduce the rising infant mortality rate. When we relocated to Northern Michigan, I worked part-time in a family practice office in several capacities, including as a staff nurse and occupational health nurse liaison to the local manufacturing plants. I took a temporary leave of absence to take accounting classes, then managed the accounts payable and payroll for the office.

Q: At what point in your nursing career did you discover the field of occupational health, and do you recall experiencing a defining moment when you realized that occupational health was your “niche”?
A: The family practice outpatient clinic had a very busy occupational medicine component to the practice. As the occupational health nurse liaison, I coordinated their health promotion offerings, influenza clinics, lead and drug testing programs, and workplace illness and injury management. That experience gave me an opportunity to be introduced to this sub-specialty. I loved going on plant tours with the physicians and I found the field very exciting.

Q: How did you prepare yourself to be qualified to transition into the field of occupational health from your original area of nursing?
A: As I worked in my liaison role, I found that there was so much to learn about the occupational health and safety field, and I didn’t know where to turn. I wanted to learn more and found out that the University of Michigan was a NIOSH Education and Research Center (ERC) that offered a master’s degree in occupational health nursing. I spoke with Dr. Sally Lusk on the phone about the program and applied for the next cohort, which was in the fall of 1999. With three young children and a husband at home, I drove 200 miles one 4-day weekend a month to attend classes for two years. A year after graduation, I sat for the COHN-S boards.

Q: Since transitioning to occupational health, in which industries have you worked? Of those, do you have a favorite?
A: After I finished my degree, I was too big for my britches and didn’t want to go back to staff nursing in the outpatient clinic. But in Northern Michigan, I would have to drive long distances to reach any industry with enough employees to hire an on-site nurse, so I was stuck and discouraged. Relocating was out of the question. While I looked for a job in my field, I got my real estate license but soon realized that was not what I wanted to do.

At an AAOHN National Conference in Chicago, I happened upon a small company called Sonomax Hearing Healthcare in Montreal, Quebec, Canada that was trying to venture into the US market with a custom-molded hearing protector and attenuation measurement system. I pestered them until they hired me. Suddenly, I was specializing in hearing conservation, hearing protection, and field attenuation estimation systems (FAES). Being the geek that I am, I loved the hardware and software development aspects of my job. And I had the opportunity to develop training for end-users as well as work directly with workers, which I really enjoyed.

In 2006, Aearo Technologies, in Indianapolis, Ind., went into a technical partnership with Sonomax, and I had the opportunity to work with the team that developed a way to measure the attenuation of disposable hearing protectors. I transitioned into a corporate training position. About a year later, 3M acquired Aearo and a year after that, 3M bought the FAES intellectual property and my job with Sonomax ended. I was the only person in the United States who intimately understood the technology they purchased, so I was hired by 3M and I have been there for the last six years, including a short initial time as a contract worker.

At 3M, I work for the Personal Safety Division, which manufactures lots of PPE, such as fall protection; head, eye, and face protection; respiratory protection; and my area of expertise—hearing solutions products (noise detection, hearing protection, and protective communications products). I work for the Technical Service Department, which supports the business by being involved in new product development and labeling, voice of the customer, field testing, sales, and product and customer support. In the United States, in a department managed and run by industrial hygienists and chemical engineers, I am the only occupational health nurse on staff. Although 3M’s headquarters are in St. Paul, Minn., I work out of a home office and travel both domestically and internationally. Initially, I was the sole individual handling all technical calls for our HPD fit-testing system. I have since transitioned into new product development support, and have taken on roles as a subject expert and researcher.

Every step I have taken along the way, I have been open to learning new skills; those skills have lain the unusual but deliberate path to the job I have today. I am a late bloomer in occupational health nursing, but feel I really have my dream job with 3M and am so grateful.

Q: What do you do to stay abreast of your job, and what are your plans for a next job?
A: I attend the National Hearing Conservation Association and the AAOHN National Conference every year to keep abreast of not only the latest information in hearing conservation, but also occupational health nursing practice in general. 3M supports strong professional career development, so I will continue to stretch myself and be challenged. I have lots of room to grow.

Q: From which other professional fields do you seek information in order to develop your professional skills?
A: To support the research aspects of my position, I have taken several Lean Six Sigma statistics courses offered by 3M.

Q: Have you ever participated in a mentoring program? If so, did you find yourself acting as mentor or mentee, and which, in your opinion, was more valuable to you as a developmental exercise?
A: I was the “unofficial” mentor of a friend and colleague who joined 3M Company as the senior acoustics regulatory affairs specialist. I help her navigate the waters of 3M processes and procedures. We both work out of home offices and have similar challenges, being remote workers.

Q: What has been the driving force behind your pursuit of higher education?
A: I have an internal drive to learn all the aspects of a topic so that I can speak intelligently about it.

Q: You have achieved so much academically and professionally. Do you have plans to continue to further your formal education? If so, what are those plans, and what continues to motivate you?
A: Occasionally, I ponder whether I should pursue my PhD, especially as I become more involved in field research. I am still trying to decide how I would manage that along with a full-time job, but I am not taking it off the table.

Q: What has been your most valuable on-the-job learning experience?
A: I have opportunities to work with some amazing people whom I consider friends and who have been so influential to my career. Elliott Berger, our division scientist, is a legend in the field of hearing protection. Laurie Wells, Ted Madison, and Eric Fallon are not only experts in their field, but are talented writers and presenters.

In terms of a particular project, I think my most valuable learning came out of developing a field research study from the ground up. Developing the research protocol and online survey tool; fulfilling the IRB approval process; collecting data; engaging Dr. Sally Lusk and Barbara Monaco, a 3M statistician, to assist in data analysis; writing and publishing a manuscript; and presenting posters and lectures to disseminate the results were arduous to complete but led to a very fulfilling and monumental experience. This research also gave me the opportunity to co-author a new chapter in the AIHC Noise Manual and be given the Outstanding Lecture Award for 2015 by NHCA.

Q: What do you feel is an area of your practice that you wish to further develop?
A: Despite how intimidating it can be, I need to keep writing articles, white papers, and technical bulletins. The more I write, hopefully, the easier it will become. I also need to continue to hone my presentation skills.

Q: If you had the opportunity to transition into any industry, performing the tasks of an occupational health nurse, which industry would you choose and why?
A: I am pretty thrilled to be working in the job I have and do not feel the desire to leave 3M. However, I could pursue other opportunities within other 3M divisions, such as the medical division where they manufacture Littman stethoscopes, or find some way to support their electronic medical records business if I were ever to become bored.

Q: What advice would you give to occupational health nurses who are unsure of where to begin developing their careers and exploring leadership opportunities?
A: Look for opportunities to shadow occupational health nurses in many different settings. If you are like me and direct patient care is not your thing, there are many other opportunities to consider. Also, I would highly recommend finding an ERC to pursue a graduate degree. I know that I would not have the position I have now if I didn’t have my master’s degree. Always be on the lookout to learn new skills that add to your tool box of attributes, which enhance and expand your opportunities for jobs in the future. Join AAOHN, and visit the AAOHN website to learn everything you can about this exciting and diverse profession. Come to a local, state, or national conference and meet your fellow nursing leaders.