As one of GW’s health safety specialists, D.C. native Ms. Bigelow uses her public health expertise to train students, faculty and staff on laboratory protocol.
By Kristen Mitchell
While student researchers and professors are making discoveries in George Washington University’s labs, Brittany Bigelow is working behind the scenes to keep the GW community safe from harm.
Ms. Bigelow, MPH ‘18, is an occupational/environmental health safety specialist within the Division of Safety and Security's Office of Health and Emergency Management Safety. As an environmental and occupational health expert, Ms. Bigelow and her colleagues work to fulfill critical roles in university safety.
As part of her job at GW, Ms. Bigelow performs routine safety inspections in the university’s laboratories, where she checks to make sure fire extinguishers are up to date and that researchers have the appropriate personal protective equipment such as gloves, coats and eye wear which are necessary to do their work. She also gives regular trainings on laboratory safety and makes sure researchers are disposing their hazardous waste in compliance with federal and local regulations.
One of Ms. Bigelow’s most important tasks is ensuring researchers don’t get tunnel vision while working in the lab. It’s easy for someone to get excited about what they are doing and forget to do simple things like wash their hands after being in the lab, she said.
“Sometimes we end up putting safety on the backburner because we’re so focused on the research and the experiments, and sometimes you forget that safety is your No. 1 priority,” she said. “Through our trainings and our inspections, we try to give that constant reminder to say, I know your research is important, but we want to make sure you are safe enough to do it.”
A Passion for Public Health
While considering a career in medicine as an undergraduate at Rutgers University, Ms. Bigelow was introduced to public health. She was immediately drawn to the field’s mission and diverse career opportunities.
“I’m one to not want to continue doing one thing, I like to get my hands in a lot of things, and if it still involves helping people, that is something that means a lot to me,” she said.
After receiving her undergraduate degree, Ms. Bigelow, a native of Northeast Washington, D.C., wanted to return to her hometown and give back to the community. Her grandmother had gone to GW for graduate school, and Ms. Bigelow was drawn by the opportunity to follow in her footsteps. She started working at the university four years ago and completed a master’s degree in public health communication and marketing at the Milken Institute School of Public Health while working full time.
Ms. Bigelow said her coworkers were flexible and supportive as she enhanced her education. Since completing her degree last spring, she works to find opportunities to tap into the skills she developed in graduate school. She often acts as a liaison between her office and outside entities such as DC Water, DC Health and DC Homeland Security on special projects, and she co-manages the division’s Facebook and Twitter pages.
Ms. Bigelow uses her communication skills to make mandatory safety trainings engaging and memorable for the GW community. She researches recent accidents and investigations reported in the media stemming from laboratory incidents at other universities. These examples lead to thoughtful discussions about lessons that can be gained from these incidents and how to prevent them from occurring at GW.
Percy Lamar, an environmental occupational health and safety specialist who has worked closely with Ms. Bigelow for four years, said she is “really, really good” at making points about safety in her presentations to student lab employees.
“She’s a great asset to the team,” he said. “She’s always aspiring to learn more.”
Ms. Bigelow has a strong work ethic and never shies away from the challenging aspects of the job, Mr. Lamar said.
“Every day she is reliable, and as far as her interactions with people, she is a professional and treats everyone the same, regardless of who they are,” he said.
Making a Difference
Ms. Bigelow also manages the university’s hazardous waste program. This program ensures that chemicals and other dangerous materials used in GW labs are disposed of properly and documented correctly. Her contributions make a significant impact on the GW community, said Darrell Darnell, senior associate vice president for safety and security.
“Brittany does a great job day in and day out, and largely unnoticed, providing health and safety support to faculty, staff and students that helps to keep our classrooms, offices and laboratories environmentally safe,” Mr. Darnell said. “Most of her work is not visible to the greater GW community but the training and inspection support she provides ensures that GW conducts its research, teaching and learning, and administrative tasks in a safe environment.”
One of Ms. Bigelow’s favorite career achievements was serving as GW’s emergency liaison officer within the Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency in the lead up to the Presidential Inauguration in January 2017.
Ms. Bigelow said the best part of her job is being able to provide assistance to the GW community in her area of expertise.
“Whether it’s a student or someone in a lab who may need some additional personal protection equipment or training that can help get their research done, that’s rewarding because you did something for them,” she said. “We’re in the background, but I like that we can work with them one-on-one so they know who we are and that we are here to help.”