Name: Sharlene TeBeest
Title: Hazardous Materials Specialist
Division of Transportation System Development (DTSD)
Walk us through your typical day at work.
The day starts with greeting my co-workers and then settling in to dig into email and answer region requests for asbestos inspections, waste disposal, or environmental site assessment, and assign work to one of our environmental consulting firms. After that it could include attending a team meeting to discuss the latest developments in wetland, water resources, or hazardous materials management, discussing an environmental document with a region liaison, approving scopes of service, requesting purchase orders, reviewing invoices, or responding to the occasional construction emergency call. Less frequent are the days I get to spend giving training in the regions, lending a hand to the wetland team, updating our webpages, programming the hazmat database, or developing and reviewing our policies and standards for hazardous materials investigation and management.
What’s something that tends to surprise people to learn about your job?
How much I love what I do. I’ve been in the same position for 25 years, and I’m still learning something new every week. My job is mostly paperwork and contracting. To some that might sound like a bad thing, but I’m a data geek. We have records reaching back to the start of our program, and having all of that information to back up decisions and answer questions is wonderful.
Something else that might surprise people is how much environmental investigation is done in the course of planning a highway project. In addition to the hazardous materials investigations I coordinate, we conduct threatened and endangered species reviews, archaeological surveys, historic property reviews, wetland delineations and environmental justice reviews. Our goal is to ensure that we accurately document and minimize wherever possible the environmental impacts of our projects. To me, it’s about more than simply meeting a federal or state requirement to move a project forward, but that we’re arming our project engineers with the best information we can to ensure what we build is a safe and well-rounded public service project, able to be appreciated by generations to come.
What’s the most memorable experience you’ve had while working at WisDOT?
There have been quite a few exciting moments as construction crews are surprised by things like underground storage tanks, asbestos piping and drums of unknown material when digging in the right of way. However, my most memorable day didn’t actually have much of anything to do with my work duties. Rather, it spoke volumes about the concern, support and camaraderie we enjoy at WisDOT. I was in a serious car crash while driving to work. Thankfully, I wasn’t seriously hurt. As it happened, a State Patrol trooper was in the area – on his way to work, too – and pulled over to help. He wasn’t a first responder, and the scene was already under control. He said he noticed my orange safety helmet in the debris, realized I was a fellow WisDOT employee and wanted to make sure I was OK. That’s why I love working here. People stick together and help one another.
What’s an example of your job you see/use in your everyday life?
The principles of chemical incompatibility. You don’t always think about what you store and where at home, and putting bleach near drain cleaner, oil or ammonia can create a potentially dangerous situation. After my first hazmat class, I had to go home and rearrange the cabinets in my laundry room!
Who has influenced you most in your career? Why?
My early mentors had a huge impact on my career. I have to thank Pat Trochlell for getting me to branch out beyond wetlands, Judy Ott and Mel Vollbrecht for pushing me to compete in an area I didn’t think I knew anything about, Julie White for developing an amazingly organized program and teaching me what I needed to know to take it over, and Carol Cutshall and Russ Rasmussen for giving me a chance to shine. My teammates, too, have been a huge influence, not only in keeping me focused and inspiring me, but also supporting, encouraging, and challenging me to achieve as much as I can in the time I’ve been given.
What words of advice do you have for young people starting their career?
Find a mentor. I’m not talking about a formal process. I’m talking about finding someone whose work you admire, and whose judgment you trust, to talk to about questions, concerns and finding your way around within the bureaucracy. Look for someone who loves what they do, who will give you honest answers, and who won’t be afraid to help you see a problem from other perspectives.
Get to know your co-workers. Encourage each other to grow both personally and professionally. Take time out to have fun, to try new things and to develop a good working relationship.
Find ways to improve the process, and don’t take “we’ve always done it this way” as an answer. It will take patience, and you will need to take the time to learn WHY something is done the way it is now before proposing changes to the process.
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