Engineering: The career that changes the world

Posted on 22 Jun 2023 by The Manufacturer

This year International Women in Engineering Day (IWED) is focused on ‘making safety seen’. Rachel Rawlings, Regulatory Affairs and Quality Manager for the UK and Ireland at Air Products, discusses her experiences in engineering, and her desire to change mindsets around safety.

Almost everything we experience in life is touched by engineering in some way. From the rockets we send into space and the cars we drive, to the food we eat and appliances we use every day.

In my role at Air Products, I’ve seen this first-hand. Being an engineer gives me real meaning and purpose. The vast influence my field has in changing the world around us for the better drives me. But there is also a continual sense of wonder that comes with the job, as well as the reward of solving challenges daily.

It’s important to showcase this wonder and opportunity to future generations of aspiring female engineers, but in a humorous, engaging and most importantly, relatable way.

Putting a fun spin on engineering is a good place to start. For young people, even changing the names of some of our professions into something more understandable helps. For example, when I talk to young people about my role and safety, I refer to someone who inspects everyday equipment, e.g., elevators and bridges, as ‘superheroes in disguise’.  Steps like this help to humanise the life-changing work we do and put it within reach.

Active engagement is also critical. I make sure to bring along a bag of everyday items and explain the engineering processes behind them. They can then see the results of engineering first-hand – so much so that my 12-year-old wants to buy aero chocolates to keep engineers in business!

A part of this relatability is also about communicating the key skills which engineering can bring to your life. I find that the complex problems that need tackling and the consistent loop of ‘plan, do, check, act’ helps to build resilience, particularly as you’re likely to fail many times before succeeding. A problem-solving mind naturally follows, as engineers focus on making a process better, smoother and more efficient.

ISO45001 and the Importance of Safety

Personal examples can bring this to life and, as the theme of IWED this year is ‘make safety seen’, what better place to start than health and safety. One of the key areas of my job is ensuring that Air Products remains a world-leader in health and safety.

Most recently this involved achieving our ISO45001 certification to show that Air Products not only complies with health and safety laws, but also places safety at the core of our  organisation. It adds to Air Products’ previous ISO26000 qualification and our recently released sustainability report.

It was my first time leading a certification process, having only managed ISO before in previous roles. While Air Products began the process in 2019, we restarted it when I joined in 2021, after the uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic had passed.

The process was tough but hugely beneficial

We started by examining our Air Separation Units (ASUs) at the big production plants in Carrington, Didcot, Hull, Llanwern, Milford Haven and Isle of Grain. We followed through with an array of site visits and discussions with plant teams to address areas for improvement.

Although lengthy, our perseverance was continuously supported by senior management. It signaled the value we place on safety across the business – we say safety is our license to operate, and we mean it. My experiences with ISO45001 illustrated the change that an engineering skillset can facilitate.

I needed to apply the attitudes of problem solving and resilience that engineering helps me foster. I refined and honed these skills throughout the certification process, skills which I can then use when approaching similar situations in future.

It also, however, helped to make safety seen. The fact we achieved certification shows our commitment externally. However, working together to reach the highest standards has also reinforced a culture that prioritises health and safety, ensuring the workplace remains safe for years to come.

Changing mindsets

Across business of all kinds, management systems and procedures are often viewed as the Environment, Health & Safety’s team responsibility rather than everybody’s.

Following procedures should be viewed as working to the best standard, and implementing procedures that should already be in place. Facilitating that change in mindset requires a relatable approach.

One means of effective communication is through social media, particularly internal social media such as Yammer. This has helped to make the work I do more visible, giving insight into what I’m doing while also creating awareness about the importance of quality amongst our employees. Last November, for example, I posted quotes on quality for World Quality Week, and found they received a large amount of engagement and helped kickstart conversations on best practices.

Overcoming obstacles

In all of this, let’s not shy away from the fact that engineering is a tough line of work, regardless of gender, but it’s one with significant rewards. From my experience at Air Products, I have found that being an engineer can make lifelong positive changes to the world around you, and build key personal skills.

It can seem daunting at first, especially for a new generation of women. After all, in 2022, it was still the case that only 16.5% of all engineers were women. That’s why it’s so important that I, and female engineers like me, continue to tell our story.  With determination and resilience, positive changes to the world and ground-breaking solutions lie within reach. Many, I’m sure, will be delivered by women.

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