What is the scientific method? How can it help EHS managers?

You’ve heard about the scientific method, but you might not know how it can help you do your job as an EHS manager. Here’s a refresher course and some ideas for applying it to your daily work life. 

By Jason Van Dyke

You might vaguely remember learning about the scientific method way back in high school or college. But what is it exactly? And can it really help you in your day-to-day job as an EHS manager? The answer to that second question is, “yes, definitely.”

But let’s back up and start with a little refresher course on the scientific method steps and definitions. In school, you’re taught that you start with an idea—a hypothesis—then you test that idea through gathering data or performing an experiment. Based on the results of the experiment, you accept or reject your hypothesis.

That’s how it’s initially taught to schoolchildren but in the real world, it’s a little more complicated. You might start at any step, and the process never ends. It’s an ongoing journey, and you’re never really starting from zero. Right now you may already have data and information about how things work at your facility. The trick is using the scientific method to test out what you think you know or adapt to changing conditions. It’s a method for evaluating and creating better models based on the results.

Here’s one real world example: You work at a facility where you’re painting parts. For years, you’ve been using the same paint with a solvent content of 60%. Based on how much paint you use each month, you calculate how many tons of solvent the facility emits. This year, however, you’re switching to water-based paint with a different formulation. You hypothesize that you’re going to emit less solvent, but you don’t know until you gather enough data on the materials or your process or perform testing.

Even if you’re not making such a big change, you can use the scientific method to test out longstanding assumptions. Let’s say you take over as the environmental health and safety manager at a 20-year-old plant with a Title V air permit. Following the scientific method, you’d look at the data and start asking questions. Does this data from stack testing, daily observations and instrument readings all make sense?

You might look at all the data and start thinking you don’t need the permit. Or you could be at a facility without a permit and begin to suspect you need one based on the amount of air emissions being released. In either situation, you’d develop a test to gather new data and come to a conclusion. Maybe part of the permit is correct and part of it isn’t. Or perhaps everything is fine as is. You don’t know until you test.

As you start to more actively use the scientific method, make sure you’re not afraid to regularly reevaluate your hypothesis. In other words, never get too comfortable. Even if nothing has changed you’ll still want to test yourself. You may have done something wrong last time. It happens in science, so even if you haven’t changed anything in your facility for a decade, give those figures and tests a regular workout.

Finally, don’t shy away from data that delivers bad news. We all like to think we’re not biased, but it’s easy to write off new data that points to a rise in emissions or inching over the line that requires a permit where you didn’t have one before. Keep all the data you track and don’t give into the temptation to “un-see” any bad news. Being selective about data or losing it are big pitfalls for both the scientific method and EHS compliance.

Take a look around your facility: What could you apply the scientific method to? How might it help you do your job better?