Faces of EHS

Faces of EHS: Judy Agnew Helps Leaders Keep Workers Safe

For this installment of Faces of EHS, we were lucky enough to chat with Judy Agnew, whose background in behavioral science opened the doors to a rewarding career in the field of environment, health, and safety (EHS). Her focus on the intersection of human behavior and safety has made her a highly respected thought leader and allowed her to break down some of the more traditional barriers that prevent the successful implementation of safety programs at a wide range of organizations.
Judy Agnew Headshot

How did you get your start in the EHS field?

Behavioral safety was gaining in popularity in the early years of my career. My company, Aubrey Daniels International, was working with a mining company on a safety project, and one of my mentors encouraged me to get involved. I was reluctant at first because I enjoyed the nonsafety work I was doing. She told me, “Safety isn’t sexy, but it’s very rewarding.” She was right! After that first project, I was hooked.

What do you like the most about your career in EHS?

One of the most interesting parts of my job is learning about different organizations and how they do what they do. My work takes me all over the world, and I love experiencing different cultures—not just organizational cultures but ethnic cultures, as well. What I enjoy most is seeing the impact my work has on helping people improve safety. It’s corny but true: At the end of the day, I believe that what I do helps people go home to their families the same way they came in, and I can’t think of anything more rewarding.

What is the most difficult or frustrating part of your job?

The most difficult and frustrating part of my job is convincing senior leaders to pay less attention to lagging indicators and instead be comfortable managing safety with leading indicators. So much of what is wrong in safety management today stems from the focus on reducing incidents rather than improving prevention. Too many senior leaders cling to the incident rate despite it being a poor metric, and they do not understand the negative side effects of managing to incident rate. My hope is that, before the end of my career, I will get to witness a critical mass of senior leaders’ taking the leap away from lagging indicators and putting their focus on leading indicators.

What do you see as the main emerging trends, both positive and negative, affecting the future of the EHS profession?

One of the more exciting trends is the use of technology to improve safety. Not only can robots and other machines complete the most dangerous jobs (thereby taking humans out of harm’s way), but technology can also ensure that when humans do the work, they do it safely. Sensors and cameras can give workers moment-by-moment feedback that enables them to adjust their behavior. Such feedback has the potential to significantly improve safe behavior, but it has to be used carefully. Unfortunately, the natural tendency is to use technology to focus on exceptions—instances of at-risk behavior. This then leads to the use of more frequent negative feedback and discipline to manage the behaviors, which ultimately undermines engagement and culture. To make such technology effective, it should be used to positively reinforce safe behaviors and improvements in those behaviors, in addition to constructive feedback when appropriate. Deliberate use of positive consequences can turn what might initially feel like “Big Brother” into a welcome tool like Fitbits and Apple® Watches that monitor personal health behaviors.

What advice do you have for people just entering the profession?

Learn about and understand the powerful impact of behavioral science. I do not mean BBS; I mean the science. Why? Because everything we do in business and safety is done through people’s behavior. The more you understand behavior, the more effective you will be. You will design better safety tools and processes, you will write better procedures, and you will create better safety strategies. Perhaps most importantly, you will improve your ability to influence others. Safety management is largely about influence. Safety professionals rarely have a position of power. They have to persuade people to do the right things. For example, they have to persuade leaders to alter organizational systems to better support safety, they have to persuade supervisors to spend the time to listen well and have effective safety interactions, and they have to persuade frontline workers to report near misses. Behavioral science will help you be effective and will enable you to more positively influence others—ultimately creating a safer workplace.

Judy Agnew, PhD, is the Senior Vice President of Safety Solutions for Aubrey Daniels International (ADI), a pioneering behavioral consulting firm with more than 40 years of success in applying the science of behavior to optimize a company’s business and safety performance. She is unique in the business world in that her entire professional career has been with one organization. Over the past 25 years, Agnew has applied her PhD in Applied Behavioral Analysis while consulting for organizations across a variety of industries, including transportation, oil and gas, industrial chemical, mining, forest products, utilities, food and nonfood manufacturing, distribution, and retail. Her work has spanned diverse employee populations and organizational issues, including organizational culture change, safety leadership effectiveness, employee engagement, and ensuring consistency of lifesaving behaviors.

As an expert on behavioral safety, Agnew has brought her thought leadership to presentations at industry and corporate events, as well as major safety conferences, such as the National Safety Council, American Society of Safety Professionals, and Behavioral Safety Now. In addition to writing numerous articles for mainstream publications, Agnew is the author of three well-received books on safety: Removing Obstacles to Safety (with Gail Snyder), Safe by Accident? (with Aubrey Daniels), and A Supervisor’s Guide to Safety Leadership: Preventing Injury in the Workplace.

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Would you like to be profiled in a future Faces of EHS and share your experiences, challenges, etc.? Or, do you know anyone else in EHS you think has an interesting story to tell? Write us at jscace@blr.com and cdouyard@blr.com and include your name and contact information; be sure to put “Faces of EHS” in the subject line.