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A Culture of Customer Service and Continuous Learning in Environmental Health and Safety
Rebecca (Becky) Ponza has spent over 25 years working at Syracuse University, starting in an entry-level technician position and rising to become director of Environmental Health and Safety Services (EHSS), part of Campus Safety and Emergency Services. EHSS is responsible for environmental compliance, waste management, and health and safety services to the University community with the goal of fostering a culture of safety and regulatory compliance for the overall protection of human health and the environment.
Ponza says the job comes along with continuous learning, for herself and the whole team, as responsibilities continue to increase, along with the complexity of issues. Last year alone, EHSS managed the disposal of almost 75 tons of regulated, hazardous and medical waste; provided training to more than 2,000 people; responded to 150 hazardous material incidents, spills, concerns and complaints; submitted multiple regulatory compliance reports; inspected 950 emergency wash and fume hood units; and visited every laboratory on campus.
She credits her team for the collaborative thinking and innovation required to help faculty, staff and students remain safe and compliant with the ever-growing body of regulations. “There is not a week that goes by where EHSS is not faced with something totally new to figure out,” she explains. “Just last week we were challenged to explore the safety considerations for a proposed new hydrogen generator, determine how to ship irradiated sensors across the country, evaluate the impacts new refrigerant management regulations would have on University operations, and identify the most effective way to communicate the new hazardous waste-labeling requirements to the University’s waste generators.”
Ponza’s boss, Tony Callisto, senior vice president and chief law enforcement officer, says that her leadership “has transformed environmental compliance and waste remediation” at Syracuse University.
Ponza offers some insight into how she and her team are making a difference every day and advice for other young women interested in the field.
How has your work shaped your view of the Syracuse University campus?
It’s a big place, and there are so many safety and environmental compliance considerations to address. Over the years, I have been in every building on campus and on many roofs, crawl spaces and areas that I did not even know existed. Still though, I walk around campus and see things and wonder, “How did I not know about that after all these years?” I can never shut off my safety mind, so I am always noticing things and thinking, “How should we address that? How do we make that better? Or how could we convey that more effectively?”
Example: one of the weirdest places and experiences was in the basement of the Holden Observatory building before the observatory was moved to its current location. EHSS heard rumors from longtime faculty that the basement of the observatory once served as a medical school’s radioisotope laboratory and that radioisotopes remained in the basement. After much investigation and a lot of time spent in the eerie basement that could only be accessed through a trap door in the floor, the rumors were confirmed true. Behind a façade wall that was backfilled with sand we uncovered an old safe built into the wall. The safe held small vials of radioisotopes. The radioisotopes and the safe were properly disposed of, and the old basement was eventually demolished to make way for Eggers Hall.
Is there anything particularly unique about Syracuse and where the University is situated that adds greater challenge to your role and responsibilities?
This university is like its own little city. We have a little bit of everything going on when it comes to environmental compliance and health and safety. Because it is so spread out, it can be challenging. Many of the environmental regulations look at facilities as being contiguous properties. We end up having to manage environmental considerations for several different facilities, and the requirements for one facility may be different from another. An example of this: We can’t transport hazardous waste generated at South Campus to Main Campus because under the hazardous waste laws, they are considered two separate facilities. The waste must remain at the facility where it is generated.
Also, the University owns places in other parts of the state, country and the world. Each location could have its own specific or unique safety and environmental compliance obligations.
How has EHSS changed since you became director in 2016?
After I became director, the EHSS team pulled together and agreed we wanted to transform the department with a focus on three main objectives:
- We wanted to be a more proactive, service-focused department and expand our roll in assisting academic and campus facility units in enhancing safety.
- We wanted to strive to find ways to say “yes” when new projects, research proposals or ideas were presented to us while still minimizing risks and achieving compliance.
- We wanted to explore more innovative and effective ways to promote safety and achieve compliance with the multitude of environmental, health and safety regulations we manage for the University.
I think we have been very successful in achieving each of these initial goals:
- We reorganized the department and dedicated more resources to laboratory and general workplace safety. This afforded more staffing, time and talent dedicated to providing proactive safety services.
- The reorganization also afforded us with the time, motivation and expertise necessary to find innovative ways to help others advance their ideas safely and compliantly.
- We also looked at many of our existing department operations and compliance programs, dug into the details of the applicable laws and regulations, looked at compliance practices at peer institutions, and explored how we could better leverage technology. Through this, we identified opportunities to strategically reform key EHSS programs, processes and operations to improve efficiency, reduce cost and increase effectiveness.
How has increased research at Syracuse University changed what it means to be a healthy and safe university environment?
Research protocols are more diversified, and there has been an influx of new research technologies, an increase in interdisciplinary research and more focus on STEM areas, bringing about new safety and compliance challenges. Faculty are so busy with teaching, research and other commitments, and we appreciate that. The EHSS team tries to partner with faculty to help promote and maintain safety in the research labs without adding unnecessary burden. We are trying to have more of a presence in the labs and are leveraging technology more to share information to help enhance all aspects of safety in the research labs.
At the same time, there is increased focus and support from the University administration on enhancing safety and health. For instance, Tony Callisto has resourced two additional staff members in EHSS to allow us to focus on proactive laboratory and research safety. Pete Sala [vice president and chief campus facilities officer] has hired a facilities’ safety manager to partner with EHSS to promote and enhance safety in Facilities Services’ areas.
How have technology advances changed the way you do what you do?
Technology advancements, improved means of communication and the use of paperless systems and processes have all dramatically changed how we manage health and safety at the University. We are using EHSS’ websites and other technology advancements more and more to convey easy-to-access safety information, guidance documents, training modules, etc. to the University community. EHSS’ online “request for service” and training registration forms are used almost daily by people seeking services and assistance from EHSS. Technology advancements have also helped to make EHSS operate more efficiently as it allows us to access almost immediate information on regulations, chemicals, processes, etc. It has also allowed us to easily network with our colleagues at other universities and share lessons learned, innovative ideas and best practices for health, safety and environmental compliance.
Any advice for young women who are intrigued by what you do, knowing that it remains a male-dominated field?
STEM fields in general have traditionally been male-dominated. That became pretty evident to me early on in college, but I tried not to let it affect my choices or the way I conducted myself. In some ways, I took it as an “anything-they-can-do-I-can-do-better” challenge. At times, it has been intimidating being the only female in the room or on a job site, and I have had to pause, take a deep breath and push through. You can’t let it stop you from doing what you need to do. I didn’t hesitate at all when my daughter decided to major in engineering. The balance seems to be improving in the STEM fields, and I am hopeful that she will never have to pause to think about being the only female in the room.
What’s the secret to success in your kind of work?
Never stop learning and experiencing new things. My dad was an educator, and continuous learning was always encouraged in our house. Early on, I learned that with education and hard work I could do and become anything I wanted. That foundation has helped me to be successful personally and professionally. I started at the University as an entry-level technician in EHSS, and through hard work, commitment and a passion for continuously learning, I became the director. Whether it be a new concept I need to explore for work, the graduate class I am currently taking at the Maxwell School, or the conversation I had with a student in line for lunch, continuous learning remains a big part of my life.