An Interview with Dr. Lydia Frenzel, Executive Director

May 25, 2018





Tell us about how are you making a difference.

Crucial information: OSHA Surveys tell us that at least two million American men and women work in environments where they are regularly exposed to toxic materials. A much larger number, including the public, are unaware that they are also being periodically exposed. This same state of affairs is repeated all over the world.

This dreadful situation impoverishes our communities, threatens our world, and certainly inflicts unacceptable and tragic human costs. The industrial workplace is where Lydia Frenzel chose to make a difference for a variety of reasons. Some of these reasons have to do with the environment and conservation of assets, including worker health and safety. Some focus on the importance of women’s roles in decision making.

For the last forty years Dr. Lydia Frenzel has worked to affect changes in the workplace through the conduit of US industrial societies (SSPC, NACE, ASTM, ANSI, WJTA…). Since 1997, her member-supported, nonprofit organization, Advisory Council (and its ancillary websites) takes increasing advantage of the internet and social media. She gives lectures, organize symposiums, occasionally teach certification courses which she has written for the US Navy, and indirectly provide all sorts of information through member-contractors working on projects too numerous and varied to mention here.

More crucially, she chairs domestic and international standards committees (ISO) where she is able to directly influence standard consensus language which recognizes ALL the elements of cost to the community, to our world, and to its people—in short, how the environment affects us in ALL its aspects. This is an efficient approach to making a difference.

Despite its fundamental importance, consensus language represented by standards is about as obscure to the public as the poisoning of workers breathing unsuspected beryllium dust. Standards Language is often more effective than a regulatory view of industry because it provides a working foundation of economic principles. The changes Lydia Frenzel has brought about are in the language she has developed while chairing international committees. Standards Language ensures economic viability of industrial activities coupled to environmental protection and human health and safety. This approach is the way she chooses to make a difference. Standards language is a strong influence on behavior because it is the legal language dictating how the terms of a contract are fulfilled and payment received. Without transparent language, workers die mysteriously, and the working details of contracts are mostly in the fine print.

For example, Dr. Frenzel chairs a crucial ISO international committee setting standards for the ways that old or toxic coatings are removed from surfaces. As leader, she listens to many points of view and guide these discussions. She finds the thread of consensus among the responsible members from all over the world, and then writes and ultimately gains acceptance from the committee with all members concurring. The result is an international consensus standard which is a document stating how certain work is to be done and what is expected of all parties. These kinds of documents are constantly evolving with new technologies and, among other things, protect many thousands of workers and the pubic in the vicinity of industrial operations from casual contact with respirable dust containing silica, lead particles, heavy metals, and asbestos. The dust particles which are so small that you can’t see them, are the particles which drift the furthest from the immediate site or workplace. It is the smallest particles which cause the most lethal health problems.

All of us benefit from the adoption of standard practices in the way bridges, ships, highways, and an enormous variety of everyday operations are conducted. Dr. Frenzel worked for many years to educate and persuade the members on these committees to adopt a consensus language which was crafted from all the different points of view represented. She can and will step forward as the sole arbiter in these negotiations when it suits the higher purposes. She is considered to be the one who brings to the table the most comprehensive ideas about what is important to accomplish. This is partly due to the fact that she is the voice of a completely independent, non-profit group that has defined the science of the technology from its very inception.

Dr. Frenzel would agree that great progress has been made in some very important areas. She would also tell us that, unfortunately, cultures, by their very nature, are almost always committed to myths that stand in the way of achieving a safer and more prosperous world. The battle for positive change never ends.

Thousands of companies around the world now use her committee’s language as the legal basis for their contractual commitments. The adoption of a standard or uniform code makes them at once competitive and cooperative. They find that there are economic benefits to performance as well as a benefit of insuring the health and safety of their workers and the environment. Dr. Frenzel argues that attention to rational self-interest is important. The pairing of rational self-interest with standards language is the key to revealing and dealing with the hidden costs of environmental degradation. The environment is another word for a collection of assets. The health and safety of workers represents an asset. The old world ignored asset management as it wallowed in profligate waste and passed on costs to the uninformed community.

Tell us how you’re making a difference and the impact your work has on others.

“Show that you care about your community, our world, and its people.” Dr. Frenzel adopted this way of stating an important principle when she became a District Governor under Glen Kinross, President of Rotary International. Showing you care is the necessary preamble to changing the world and differs in so many ways from offering expert advice and guidance. She could easily have used her PhD in chemistry to be a subject expert, but her upbringing in an industrial environment on the Texas Gulf coast focused her attention much more broadly. She began early in life looking for ways to make a difference.

Dr. Frenzel likes to paraphrase Joseph Campbell and will tell you that if you want to change the world, identify what you want to change, and then change the metaphor. She decided that if one individual (or a few) were to make a significant impact, she would have to choose a critical point in some industrial cycle and press for changes that exert influence over a much broader spectrum of activities. In about 1975, as a fortuitous result of her project with the Office of Naval Research, she became aware of an opportunity to promote and encourage the development of waterjetting technology which could be utilized to realize her goal of making a significant difference in the workplace of basic industry.

Crucial information: Maintaining basic infrastructure was a fledgling industry in the 1970’s and bore significant responsibility for the large scale environmental contamination with all the allied problems of health and safety.

Dr. Frenzel made her choice over forty years ago. I can personally verify this because I have been married to her for forty-five years. If maintaining infrastructure could be developed in a way that would redefine a large portion of what was then a very large waste stream, then she could eventually make a large-scale impact. This did not represent a vision of recycling but characterized the method by which to construct a new metaphor for what was possible in the workplace by eliminating the largest portion of the waste stream.

Once again, chance was in her favor. Her acquaintance with a number of CEO’s who were pushing the development of high-pressure water pumps for tank-cleaning operations allowed Dr. Frenzel to persuade them of the viability of a new industry as yet undeveloped—the use of ultra-high pressure waterjetting for stripping and preparing steel surfaces before coating. She said with enthusiasm, “Imagine reducing the mountains of contaminated sand and abrasives to mere buckets full of old coatings which could then be disposed of safely and cheaply. The reduction in toxic exposure to the worker and the public would be vast. The water can be filtered and reused.”

Furthermore, the performance of coatings over these surfaces were unbelievable, stretching the lifetime of coating into new territory. Tests suggested that the lifetime of coatings on ships might be stretched beyond twenty years which meant that drydock time could be utilized much more efficiently saving enormous amount of money as well as improving safety in the marine environment.

With a very limited budget as a side venture in a tech company, she managed to explore and then demonstrate the unique characteristics possible with the technology of high pressure waterjetting. As a result of this fundamental research and what became known in the coatings industry as Lydia’s White Paper, she was able to demonstrate the viability of high and ultra-high pressure water jetting to replace the critical applications where uncontrolled abrasive blasting of bridges, dams, ships, and structures was spreading millions of tons of dangerously contaminated waste.

In 1985, she officially introduced the methodology of removal of coatings with high pressure water jetting (HPWJ) to the highly influential standards committee structures of Steel Structures Painting Council (SSPC) The National Paint and Coatings Association (NPCA), and National Association of Corrosion Engineers (NACE). Wherever the adoption of this technology as been specified, the health, enhanced performance, and economic benefits have been clearly demonstrated and embraced. Since then, she has moved on to chair the ISO (International Standards Organization) committee on practices that were once one of the largest sources of toxic exposure and environmental degradation.

The impact of all this? A methodology aimed at a critical point in basic industrial processing has moved from an idea to an accepted practice because of the perseverance and advocacy by a small group of people led by Dr. Frenzel. The wider circle of influence continues to change the way large numbers of people do business. Thousands upon thousands of people have avoided silicosis, asbestosis, chromium, beryllium, and lead poisoning through the adoption of sets of standards that take into account all of the costs in providing a service so fundamental that it is scarcely noticed in everyday life—until an improperly maintained bridge collapses, a ship sinks unexpectedly, or a friend dies from undetected toxic exposure.

Remember, someone with a background in science like Lydia Frenzel had to decide that standardizing the specifications on tire manufacturing would be an important way to prevent many deaths from unexpected tire failure. Someone had to persuade an industry to safely limit the amount of carbon monoxide exposure by designing an effective exhaust system. We tend only to see the person who built a better tire or made a more effective exhaust system. Behind that activity is the adoption of an industry-wide standard that demanded the specific changes be made.

What unconventional or unexpected solutions did you use to achieve this outcome?

Dr. Frenzel has used many of the conventional methods of advocacy. As the leader and public face in the Advisory Council, she uses leadership roles in societies, multiple web sites, direct and indirect mentoring, providing educational resources, workshops, teaching courses, publishing articles and papers—all the usual methods available in developing an inclusive influence network. The Advisory Council’s members form the core of the progressive, environmentally-aware waterjetting and coatings industry. She has recruited contributors like International Paint, Ameron, Pittsburgh Paint, and other major coatings manufacturers. Members of the pump manufacturing industry include Flow International, Ingersoll-Rand, Aqua-Dyne, National Liquid Blaster (NLB), and others. She has developed especially close cooperation with contractors, naval and commercial shipyards, and the marine industry in general where the economic effects are worldwide.

Specific examples of using the applicable standards would include such projects as refurbishing major bridges (e.g. Canada and US), emergency repairs and recoating the Thames River Barrier outside of London (an unusually interesting project done by a member-contractor), major manufacturing and refurbishing of rail cars(assembling rail cars brought in from Rumania), runway maintenance at major airports, wind turbine and power-line cleaning (e.g. US and New Zealand), major dam projects (US), and so forth. Each of these types of applications involve the same concerns for basic economics, environmental quality, and the health and safety of both workers and the public. Many thousands of workers and perhaps millions of people in the public have all been the beneficiary of her efforts.

All of this requires a sense of humor. She says, “Sometimes, especially as an older woman, you simply have to invade someone’s space to establish personal contact and trust. Shaking the hand of the owner or CEO of a company is not always enough to express the urgency of making changes in a world that habitually resists change.”

I’ve watched her surprise and positively influenced hundreds of men with a quick hug in front of an audience. Properly done, it focusses attention on cooperation rather than competition. She perfected this practice in the Rotary world, where she found that many barriers came down with the introduction of a powerful, personal moment. Bill Moyers once talked about this effect when used on television. “Nothing is more powerful as the moment when you lean into the camera and people watch your face on the small screen as you tell them what you believe to be true.” Dr. Frenzel simply adapted that moment to her own purposes. It works for her.

The problems of organizing and leading any kind of cooperative effort necessitate accepting her fundamental philosophy: “Cooperation and Competition are NOT mutually exclusive.” Raising funds, even at the modest levels the Advisory Council support has required, has always been a struggle. Change at such basic levels as reimagining the development of a more cooperative world is not so much a sales job as the creation of trust. Convincing people with data is not nearly or as permanently effective as implanting trust in rational self-interest.

The effect of recognizing rational self-interest works at all levels. Dr. Frenzel will tell you that you’re not likely to make a difference in corporate behavior if you only persuade the CEO.

“After that, you’ve got to work your way down and become partners with the lowest level managers and the men and women doing the actual work where the resistance to doing something in a different way is nearly always strong. That is the point where caring about people is so extremely important. Telling someone about a benefit hardly ever persuades them to change. Showing them and participating with them almost always does.”

Along the way Dr. Frenzel accumulated recognition which she finds pleasing mainly because recognition enhances her value in mentoring as well as helping with raising funds. Also, role-models influence others. She is especially interested in supporting women who aspire to improve their professional careers. There are some simple, fundamental ideas to keep in mind.

She offered one of these ideas to an assistant named Judith while she and I were traveling for Rotary International—Judith was nervous about accepting an award for her wonderful service in our cause and denied that she was deserving of recognition.

 “Judith,” Dr, Frenzel said while Judith was driving us across a western desert to our next meeting, “as much as I know you are deserving, it’s not about you. It’s about the others in the audience who will see what is possible for one person in a small town to accomplish.”

That statement has stuck with me as a brilliant statement of service. That’s what Dr. Frenzel means when she says, “My search for excellence is the excellence I inspire in others.”

I compiled the following list for this nomination. I felt they were appropriate, though she would probably not have mentioned them.


  • 1985 to present- Chair or Co-Chair of Wet Abrasive Blasting and Water Jet standards committees for NACE (National Association of Corrosion Engineers) and SSPC (Steel Structures Painting Council, now Society of Protective Coatings). Lydia leads the development of the standard language to provide a level playing field.
  • 1995-2007- first female member of WaterJet Technology Association (WJTA) Board of Directors- Broke the barrier for other equally deserving female colleagues
  • 1996 Founded the Advisory Council- an inclusive influence network. Advocates cooperation between competitors.
  • 1996 -SSPC Technical Achievement Award; awarded a second time 2013 [As far as she knows, she is the only person to receive this award twice]
  • 1997 Alpha Gamma Delta Sorority Distinguished Citizen Award
  • 1997-98 first female District 5190 Rotary District Governor. One of the first 25 females in the world to be so honored.
  • Starting around 1996: US country Expert to ISO committees on surface preparation and coatings.  Currently, Lydia is the NACE Technical Advisory Group (TAG) TC 35 liaison to ISO, and Convener of TC 35/SC 12/WG 03 on surface preparation methodology.
  • 2004 Selected by Journal of Coatings and Linings (JPCL) as one of 20 most influential Persons in Coatings in the past 20 years
  • 2014 – first female recipient of SSPC John D. Keane Award of Merit for outstanding leadership and significant contributions to the development of the protective coatings industry and to SSPC.
  • 2015 first female recipient of WJTA-IMCA (Waterjet Technology Association and Industrial & Municipal Cleaning Association) Pioneer Award- Contributions to the waterjet industry
  • 2015 SSPC Women in Coatings Impact Award. This award and the women’s caucus was created by other younger females, but with the recognition that women play an important role in coatings,
  • 2016 WJTA-IMCA Safety Award- presented to the WJTA-IMCA members of Safety Committee for extensive revision of Industry Best Practices for the Use of High Pressure Waterjetting Equipment


What inspired you to make a difference?

The legacy of the sixties was the attitude of profligate personal and industrial waste. In the marine industry, mountains of toxic grit were piled on the ground and clouds of unhealthy dust rising from the barge yards. Downwind from chemical plants and refineries, millions of tons of carbon drifted in air containing ever-increasing amounts of sulfur compounds. In the feverish competition for higher profits, assets were allowed to rust away, to be replaced with new assets at a high price to the deteriorating environment. The costs of this attitude were hidden behind the rhetoric of endless opportunity and wealth.

Dr. Frenzel grew up on the highly industrialized Texas Gulf Coast where she had a chance to see the impact of this attitude on health and safety as well as on the environment.

After she graduated with her PhD in chemistry from the University of Texas, she suffered through a short and unsatisfying experience in university teaching. She then took the position of Secretary-Treasurer of a tech company. She represented the financial interests of the corporation and the overseas interests in Rumania and Singapore. She stepped into a much wider world where change was desperately needed.

In that wider world, she soon observed bridges collapsing, ships breaking apart, aircraft damaged in our carrier fleets, rail tank cars failing, refinery accidents causing wide-spread damage, and participated in litigation when workers died in confined spaces in tanks and ship’s holds.

These so-called accidents, which she describes as confrontations usually caused by entirely avoidable circumstances, finished changing her from chemist to activist-advocate. The inspiration came when she discovered a way to develop waterjetting into a tool which could change the way infrastructure in basic industry could be maintained.

What seemed to others like an intractable, insurmountable, and expensive problem could be solved with vastly reduced toxic exposures, minimal environmental degradation, and at the same time more cheaply using high and ultra-high pressure waterjetting technology. In the nineties, she founded the nonprofit association, Advisory Council, as a means of making a difference in our world and has occupied the position as Executive Director, leader, and public face ever since.

What obstacles have you overcome? What inspires you to continue this work?

Obstacles and Objections. To quote Dr. Frenzel, “Until I realized that people habitually confused obstacles and objections, I found it difficult to encourage people to change their attitudes, even in the face of persuasive data-based arguments. What I like to tell people is that obstacles are merely barriers we can find our way around. Reason plots this path. There are ways of evaluating which path is the best way to circumvent an obstacle. An objection is a wall that rises high into the clouds where its true nature is obscured. No one bothers to evaluate an objection. One objects to something on the basis of a feeling that does not require a factual basis.”

The Advisory Council has elaborated this idea. “There are not so many obstacles to overcome as there are objections to deal with. Obstacles challenge reason to find a path to what we desire or need. On the other hand, objections are locked in internalized logic based on obscure, or even false, preconditions. There is never an obstacle to safety in the work place that can’t be overcome in operating in a reasonably environmentally acceptable manner. However, there are plenty of objections mounted by logical arguments based on false information.”

Dr. Frenzel continues to enjoy giving an occasional certification course to the men and women who use the tools of water jetting to clean and prepare surfaces for painting. She’s been everywhere from the boardroom to the trenches at the bottom of the hierarchy and appreciates the difficulties people can face.

She says, “There is no better way to learn just how the people making up the basic work force are approaching the challenges of their job. Through these encounters, I am able to monitor the practical realities of how health and safety rules mesh with quality assurance and economic incentives. I see every reason to believe that the measurements of accident reduction, reduced exposure to toxic or overly stressful conditions, and vastly improved efficiencies are giving us a true picture of important changes. Translating this fact into ordinary language is every leader’s most important challenge.”

She may not call it a philosophy, pulling back from wording that might sound too academic, but she argues that providing safer, more effective technologies that encourage higher skill levels is a practical and useful path to changing the details of the work-place metaphor. Positive changes occur when the people working in these difficult environments generally feel as if they are appreciated for their higher skill levels. When they can directly make more important production adjustments on their own, they form safer and more cooperative groups which work together more efficiently. Dr. Frenzel says that she gets the same feedback from their managers and company executives.

These palpable changes not only inspire her to continue, but sometimes she sees whole companies become centers of excellence. Sometimes this elevation of esprit de corps is quite remarkable. One example she relates was during the refurbishing of the deteriorating exhibit of the last remaining moon rocket at NASA. The Advisory Council was invited to record a photographic record of the work restoring the stages of the booster. Old methods of blasting and painting the massive structure of the rocket had resulted in huge damage to the integrity of the historical object. We recorded the remarkable invention of new techniques necessary to use in the intricate cleaning and restoration of the even the smallest pieces of the rocket’s delicate structure. Never have we seen a prouder group of people.

She would probably add a personal observation to this, so I add it for your consideration. She would call your attention to the pernicious idea largely preventing us from move into a promising, fact-based future. Perhaps Thomas Friedman identified it most clearly—the idea in its many forms is often called the zero-sum-game. In its simplest form, the most important rule of the zero-sum-game states: For me to have more, you have to have less. This is the world in which objection trumps obstacle and arbitrary logic trumps reason—or any other equivalent way you care to express it. It is the world in which there is no recognition of the value of standard ways to express principles based on observable facts.

I take this from a recent discussion of principles in action and the manner in which making a difference in the world is recognized:

The reasonable view of the world recognizes the principle that for me to have more, you must have more. It is the basic definition of a viable future for human beings—unless of course we are to backtrack along the evolutionary timeline and take up the characteristics of a scavenger species.

There are, of course, scavengers among us—those who, either through ignorance or malignant intent, do not contribute to the sum total of the human potential. If nothing else, let that danger inspire you to greater deeds.

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