illustration  Dominique Chèneby, risk-averse by nature
© INRAE - Christophe Maître

Society and regional strategies 6 min

Dominique Chèneby, risk-averse by nature

Dominique Chèneby is just the right mix of professionalism and rigor, with a huge dollop of humanity. A common thread runs throughout her entire career, from laboratory to risk prevention: people’s health and how it is linked to the environment. Health and Safety Coordinator at INRAE’s Burgundy – Franche-Comté centre, Dominique is the recipient of this year’s INRAE Research Support Award.

Published on 08 December 2020

Dominique Cheneby was running late to the meeting for the drafting of her bio. And for good reason: the Health and Safety Coordinator at INRAE’s Burgundy-Franche-Comté centre had to postpone the interview… to distribute anti-COVID masks to her colleagues! Between thinking ahead and taking action, this sums up perfectly how seriously Dominique takes her job.

Health and safety is in Dominique’s DNA!” says Christine Martinez with a smile. “It’s as if she’s got a risk-calculator built into her brain”. Martinez worked with Dominique between 2015 and 2020 as Director of Support Services in Dijon. “Keep danger at bay and do everything to minimize exposure to risk: that has always been Dominique’s mantra from the get-go”, adds Nathalie Munier-Jolain, President of INRAE’s Burgundy-Franche-Comté Centre. It dates back to her childhood, when, at eight years old, Dominque witnessed a classmate get injured in a serious accident on the slopes because of a defective ski lift.

A budding microbiologist

Although health and safety is a vocation for Dominique, she nevertheless spent the first part of her career in a lab coat. After earning a Master’s degree in biochemistry in 1983, she taught science in a secondary school for a few months. Soon after, she trained others in liquid chromatography in a pharmaceutical lab.  There, she developed analysis methods and ran quality control checks. After four years, Dominique was ready for something new, and started looking for more stimulating work.

That is how she ended up in the INRA (which has since become INRAE) Laboratory of Soils and Environmental Microbiology in Dijon in 1988. For six years, she managed programmes that dealt with mineralisation and the immobilisation of nitrogen in soils through the microbial biomass.

Dominique earned a post-graduate degree in 1995 before embarking on long-term research on microbial denitrification activity in soils in connection with the production of nitrous oxide (N2O), a greenhouse gas. As the new millennium dawned, she defended her doctoral thesis on characterising denitrifying microflora in farmland related to its ability to emit N2O during denitrification. Simultaneously, Dominique helped develop research projects for ten years with Laurent Philippot, who has since become a renowned scientist in the subject the world over.

In 2010, Dominique was elevated to the rank of Knight of the Order of Agricultural Merit for her research in microbial ecology.  Her commitment to holding her joint research unit to the highest standards of quality was also recognised. After 20 years spent in the lab, Dominique started to get itchy feet. In 2010, she earned a 2-year Master’s degree in Ergonomics and Occupational Risk Management before making an internal career change one year later to become a health and safety advisor at INRAE.

A job in line with her values

My life as a researcher was very geared toward the environment and therefore indirectly people’s health and safety

“My life as a researcher was very geared toward the environment and therefore indirectly people’s health and safety. That’s the direction I’ve wanted to pursue these past years. Becoming an Occupational Health and Safety Advisor was the answer; it’s perfectly in line with my values”, says Dominique. Those values coincide with the themes of agriculture, the environment and food security, which are at the heart of INRAE’s mission. “Working at INRAE is a source of great pride for me. There’s a sense of belonging to something bigger here, and we all want to put our best foot forward. It’s more than just a job!”

Ten years after being knighted, Dominique now finds herself receiving an award that recognises the “support” part of her career. It’s a particularly sweet moment for this permaculture-lover who enjoys cooking what she grows in her own garden! She feels “very honoured” to receive the award. “For someone who has not had a linear career, it’s a big deal to be rewarded for the commitment that I have tried to show over the past 30 years”, she says.  

Indeed, when Dominique looks back on her career, the common thread that runs through it is curiosity, a thirst for the new, and sharing it with others.  

Tackling the health crisis head-on

The COVID crisis shed light on all the work that goes on behind the scenes

It goes without saying that as Health and Safety Coordinator of the Centre, the COVID health crisis has been a very busy time for Dominique. “I worked hard to keep in touch with colleagues during the lockdown and prepare for people to return to work. I really wanted everything to be ready so that people could come back to INRAE with total peace of mind, so that they didn’t feel lost, ill-informed or in danger”.  

It must be said that on Dominique’s watch, INRAE’s crisis unit was at the ready. Just a few months before the pandemic struck, the Health and Safety Coordinator had organised a real-life drill within the framework of an internal emergency plan. This giant role-play helped everyone respond appropriately in case of extreme circumstances. “Risk prevention is a thankless affair. People don’t see us as facilitators”, says Dominique. “But the COVID crisis shed light on all the work that goes on behind the scenes. We had kept a sufficient stock of masks with up-to-date expiration dates. Not a single worker lacked protective gear, whether personnel on call at the height of the crisis or during the lockdown” she proudly explains. 

Dominique shares the credit for this success with Corinne Lagrèze, administrative assistant of Occupational Health Services.  “If I proved to be efficient, it’s also thanks to Corinne. Over the years, we’ve forged a real team spirit”, Dominique says with palpable gratitude.

“Professional” and “human”: those are the words that come up most frequently when her colleagues speak of Dominique. “She can be really strict when she feels a risk lurking, but she’ll be smiling two minutes later,” says Christine Martinez. She goes on to conclude, “Dominique has a big heart. I take pride in working with her”.  

Now what?

Before COVID struck, Dominique was toying with the idea of organising a large-scale exercise to prepare people for a serious crisis. “I’m going to wait until 2022 or 2023, to give people time to digest the current real crisis!” she says with a smile. While Dominique has not yet decided when she will retire, she is wasting no time for a future passing of the baton, and has already started writing down the protocol and “good practices” of Occupational Health and Safety services. Simultaneously, she is working on the Centre’s compliance with ISO standard 45001, which lays out the requirements for occupational health and safety management.

2020 INRAE Awards

Ludovic Piquemaltranslated by Inge Laino