On International Women in Engineering Day, hear how the faculty’s Safety Manager and Advisor, Julie Etches, and Research Technician, Rainaa Ahmed, are prioritising safety in their everyday work.
Julie Etches, Safety Manager and Advisor
Q: Let’s start by getting to know you.
A: Hi I’m Julie, Safety Manager and Advisor for the Faculty of Engineering. I have been in this role for eight years, but my association with the Faculty extends back twenty years when I first started as a researcher in the composite materials research group.
I describe my role as doing my best to ensure that the teaching and research we do is carried out safely. Given the wide range of research and teaching done in engineering, no two days are ever the same, whether it is approving field work for drones flying over volcanoes, or ensuring students don’t burn their fingers on soldering irons. With over 4500 students and around 700 members of staff, there is plenty to keep me busy!
Q: How do you make safety a priority in your everyday work?
A: Much of my role is about being observant and listening to people. Most people want to be safe, they are just sometimes so focussed on what they are trying to achieve that they don’t see some of the wider implications and once that is highlighted to them, they can see the benefit of health and safety being a key part of the planning and carrying out of their activities. I mostly introduce small changes to improve on the already good practice and strive to embed a culture of health and safety, so it is seen as “business as usual”.
Q: What inspired you to take up a career in Health and Safety?
A: I started by wanting to do Physics and Chemistry, which led me to a degree in Materials Engineering. Following that, I completed a PhD and secured a research position in the Faculty, where I focused on examining novel composite materials.
From there, it became apparent that I was better at helping and supporting people to do their research rather than carrying out my own. This led to my research support role and then to safety, where my understanding of the research and teaching elements help me interpret what the staff and students are trying to achieve.
What continues to inspire me is being able to help with exciting teaching and research that we do here at Bristol. As part of that the staff and students are also pushing the boundaries of our knowledge so it is always an “interesting” day in Engineering!
Rainaa Ahmed, Research Technician
Q: Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your role at the University?
A: Hi I’m Rai – a Research Technician based within the Faculty’s SoFSI facility, home to the high-performance shaking table and deep soil pit used for large-scale testing.
My role in SoFSI is incredibly varied and is split between assisting with ongoing research and commercial projects as well as assisting with the day-to-day running of the lab.
My daily remit would typically involve general maintenance, writing and keeping records of safety documents, and ensuring we’re fully stocked for incoming work. When there’s project work ongoing, I could be helping contractors and visitors work safely in the lab, fork lifting pallets, helping to move structures on and off our shaking tables with our crane, and assisting with running the hydraulic system.
Q: How does safety play a significant role in what you do?
A: Safety is paramount in a research lab. Nobody wants to leave work with an injury that could’ve been prevented, nor do we want to cause damage to any of our equipment (especially with how expensive some kit can be!).
My priority is to make safe working practices as easy to adhere to as possible, as we’re all creatures of habit and occasionally fall into what’s familiar or easiest to get the job done. For example, I try to keep our PPE well-stocked and keep my helmet by the crane controller, so it’s routine to put it on before lifting items.
SoFSI is a facility that allows for large-scale testing which of course makes for greater safety risks. One of the benefits of working in a newer facility however is that you can implement good safety hygiene from the start – e.g. committing to a permit system to manage confined space entries, making sure documentation is properly stored for future reference and so on.
Q: Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in Engineering?
A: Subjects generally relating to engineering were fun to me in school – Design Technology, Woodwork, Science, IT. I did get good grades in literature and have a real enjoyment of the subject, which led to a push from my career advisors into considering journalism. Though I write as a hobby, I don’t think I would’ve enjoyed it as a job. There are lots of career advancement opportunities in Engineering, particularly in the University where there is a broad scope of labs with different focuses and areas of expertise.
I’ve always wanted to work in a laboratory of some capacity, and the apprenticeship I undertook with the University was a great introduction to a technical role. I was able to shadow multiple different spaces, which helped me work out which areas I wanted to specialise in, while also learning from other technicians, some of whom were great role models for me. SoFSI was a great opportunity for me as it was a completely new facility, which inevitably meant new processes to get my teeth into.
Q: If you could give one piece of advice to women looking to make their leap into Engineering, what would that be?
A: Engineering is such a broad topic that most people’s consideration of what an engineer is shouldn’t be a definitive one-size-fits-all mould. There’s more diversity now than ever before, so I wouldn’t let any of the preconceived notions of what an engineer should and shouldn’t be put you off.
There are so many different areas in the faculty with varied requirements in terms of expertise. It’s about finding an area you’re interested in and matching those skills. I would consider looking into non-traditional routes of entry too, as engineering isn’t filled with purely academic roles either. For example, my apprenticeship offered me lots of valuable on-the-job experience and training, which helped me find a technical role.