Dr. Suzanne Sherman joined DuPont in 2012 as North America Medical Director and the team of Integrated Health Services (IHS) professionals committed to the goal of keeping people safe and healthy in the workplace. Today, Sherman is the company’s chief medical officer, tasked with leading a global team of occupational health professionals.
“I can’t imagine a more important time to pause and reflect on health and safety for essential employees reporting to sites every day and those navigating work from home,” Sherman said. “World Safety and Health Day is particularly important this year because it recognizes that factors impacting health and safety, have an impact on fulfillment and enjoyment of life…At the same time, our thoughts are never far from those dealing directly with COVID-19 including those who may have lost their battle with the disease. In their names, we fight on.”
Enabling employees to come to work and return home to their families every day is a pursuit that is close to Sherman’s heart and ideals. Today that pursuit has its fair share of obstacles tied to COVID-19. “Right now, we’re developing plans for a safe, phased and gradual return to the workplace when health conditions and government mandates allow us to do,” she said.
Sherman admits the critical work she leads is not highly visible to employees. Call it maternal instinct; it’s clear her cause is one of care, minus the need for wide recognition.
“My style has always been to work quietly helping people to live their best lives and stay safe and healthy at work,” the Philadelphia native said.
For most, employment is a necessary part of life, Sherman said. In her line of work, occupational health and safety professionals have the privilege of using their expertise, knowledge, skills and experience to minimize work-related risks to employees.
“When people come to work for a common goal, that organization has the opportunity to move the needle and make life better for others,” Sherman said. “While those employees do so, there must be a mechanism for considering risks in the workplace in a manner that is dynamic, appropriate, and adapted to the workers and the work, culture and environmental factors.”
Given COVID-19 and the new shelter-in-place orders around the world DuPont Integrated Health Services (IHS) and other occupational medical providers had to find a new way of working and communicating with employees.
Priorities changed overnight to the inclusion of COVID-19 awareness, social distancing, and mitigating the sharing of respiration between people. Compounding the situation—there’s no playbook, she said, but DuPont has had a pandemic protocol in place for more than a decade and that’s been the blueprint for navigating the uncharted course of the novel coronavirus.
Unlike a typical day—where Sherman’s overseeing and managing global programs, policy, staffing, audits and medical surveillance programs—the response to COVID-19 calls for new actions such as constant consultation with IHS and EH&S (Environmental, Health and Safety), HR and plant managers, including the latest scientific trends, potential treatments, progress of vaccines and social distancing; as well as guidance from the Centers for Disease Control, and national and local governments.
“We’re working through what the new reality means and until there’s a solid vaccine or treatment, we have to keep doing what we’re doing and finding new ways to cope,” Sherman said. “We’ve been getting our arms around new skill sets and how to get work done skillfully but safely.”
DuPont’s health and safety professionals are committed to the belief that all accidents are preventable, and the maintenance of good health requires the concerted efforts of the individual, her or his health care team, their family, as well as care, focus, and effort on the part of governments, communities, and employers to enable good health of individuals.
“With COVID-19, we have our challenges, we continue to look at how we can do better and are making all kinds of adaptations…we are fortunate to have incredible leaders and teams all over the world who are stepping up to ensure the safety and health of our employees. We’re leaning into our DuPont Core Value of Safety and Health every day.”
As the world awaits a vaccine and definitive medical treatment, it’s critically important to remain sheltered in place including on holidays, Sherman said, adding her greatest concern is if people begin to fall back into old routines too soon.
“Individuals have to remain vigilant, aggressively and persistently looking after every detail related to COVID-19 until a reliable vaccine and treatments are available,” Sherman said. “We have to follow social distancing and take advantage of every opportunity to protect ourselves and families as we try to get through this together.”
By “every detail,” Sherman pointed to: keeping good hygiene, correctly handling groceries, packages and mail coming into homes, assigning tasks and boundaries to household contacts with risk of COVID-19 and protecting fragile family members and others with chronic disease.
From a mental health perspective, keeping as much as possible a routine and attention to duty is important during this time. Still, with social distancing, comes risk from social fragmentation.
Destined to Practice
“My mom was an educator and my dad worked at the post office in Philadelphia, unable to realize his goal to become a math teacher. Somewhere along the line my parents noticed I was good in science,” Sherman said. “And I remember being introduced to my mother’s doctor, the famous Dr. Helen O. Dickens, a famous African-American OBGYN who practiced for years at U Penn.”
Dickens not only delivered Sherman but would prove to be a force in her life, guiding her toward a future in medicine.
“When I went to Johns Hopkins University, I took it as marching orders,” Sherman said, adding, her love for memorization, studying hundreds of different diseases and mapping symptoms to diseases. “She was there to guide my future and it turned out to be the correct advice…I had an affinity for taking care of people but not on their ability to pay for the care.”
That revelation enabled Sherman to remove the financial tie between patient and doctor and led to her career in occupational therapy at J.C. Penney, Eastman Kodak Company, Cytec Industries, and DuPont.
“From the days of Alice Hamilton , the mother of occupational health, this specialty has continued to change as needed to care for people,” Sherman said. “I am grateful for occupational medicine as my life’s work.”