Faces of EHS

Faces of EHS: Kathryn Carlson Merges the Strengths of EHS and HR

If there is one thread running through our ongoing Faces of EHS series, it’s that there is no one path to a career as an environment, health, and safety (EHS) professional. In this installment, we spoke with Kathryn Carlson, vice president of product management at EHS software provider KPA, about her path from human resources (HR) to EHS, and how her background has shaped her approach to EHS.

Kathryn Carlson HeadshotWhat led you to pursue a career in the environment, health, and safety (EHS) field?

I worked in human resources (HR) for 12 years, and that’s when I noticed that there weren’t any HR software solutions out there specifically catered to the needs of SMBs (small and medium sized businesses). At that point, I joined a startup (and later ADP) to work on mid-market HR software solutions.

In 2009, I joined KPA to continue building software solutions for the very underserved SMB market, leveraging my own expertise in software development and my experience as an EHS and HR professional. I think my skills were naturally transferable because I had worked extensively with workers compensation and claims and loss control administration.

What is the biggest EHS compliance challenge at your organization, and how have you managed it?

Our clients’ biggest challenge is usually managing the multiple facets of an EHS program in a way that’s organized and easy to keep track of. Traditionally, EHS compliance has been done via pen and paper. And because there are EHS rules and regulations at the local, state, and federal level, a pen and paper approach makes the process too overwhelming. That’s where software comes in.

EHS compliance software does all of that for you–it allows you to:

  • More easily prepare for and perform audits and inspections.
  • Track changing regulatory requirements.
  • Get access to safety training and immediately report incidents and accidents.
  • Access reporting and analytics so you know if you’re meeting health and safety KPIs (key performance indicators).

One of the best benefits that you get with software is that it allows you to get ahead of problems before they happen. Instead of sifting through mountains of paperwork after someone slips and falls, software frees up time so you can focus on training to mitigate that fall in the first place.

At KPA, our Vera Suite platform helps our clients to better manage their EHS programs and understand what they need to do in order to meet their health and safety KPIs. Vera Suite is also accessible via mobile app, so employees can quickly report accidents, get corrective and preventative actions related to that incident, and watch training modules.

Are there any EHS challenges unique to the work you do that could prove instructive to other EHS professionals?

Traditionally, EHS compliance has been done via pen and paper—which creates a huge headache for the person managing the EHS program and anyone else working at the company.

I’ve found that high EHS performers use online resources (like software, training modules, etc.) to more effectively manage their workplace safety programs and establish a culture of safety throughout their organization. I’m a big believer in training, and I think that’s the best way to mitigate workplace accidents and ensure safety is woven into a company’s culture.

Many companies, especially SMBs, find that EHS compliance is a lot of work and they need more than pen and paper to manage it all. That’s why we built Vera Suite—to help SMBs keep track of EHS compliance so they can spend more time on their core business competencies.

What do you like the most about your career in EHS? What is the most difficult or frustrating part of your job?

I like that I’m building software that is making a real difference in the lives of other EHS professionals and their companies. At KPA, we’re building software that’s both affordable and intuitive, and it’s built for the unique challenges that our clients face. At the end of the day, we want to create a culture of safety and mitigate accidents.

The most frustrating part of my job is that I feel the EHS community as a whole still focuses too much on lagging indicators—for example, a company had 20 slips-and-falls this year. While this metric is helpful, it doesn’t address the root cause of those accidents.

That’s why I think EHS professionals should instead focus on leading indicators. One of the best leading indicators to mitigate accidents is training. At KPA, we want everyone from the top down involved in creating a safety culture in their organization. We believe that you can mitigate more accidents through training than anything else.

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

I see a bigger focus on leading indicators, whereas in the past there has been a focus on lagging indicators. It’s encouraging to see more companies getting employees involved with training, but I think there’s still more work to be done. In a digital age, we have the tools to make health and safety more accessible. I think that starts by getting health and safety mobile apps in the hands of every employee.

Another positive trend I see is a reliance on KPIs that are using big data to make decisions. There’s less of a reliance on gut feel and more on using data to make sure that companies are making the best decision when it comes to keeping employees safe.

I’m also encouraged by the people in the EHS profession who are embracing a culture of safety and implementing digital tools to help with that. It’s not enough to just train your staff and post a couple posters around the shop floor. Companies are taking strides to make safety part of the business core values. If they aren’t already, they should also consider rewarding employees for going above and beyond and using positive reinforcement when safety is taken seriously.

COVID-19 continues to have a dramatic impact on businesses. Do you believe that pre-pandemic business continuity best practices were effective?

Before COVID-19 hit, companies were more reactive than they were proactive. They had certain processes that just worked. And when someone got hurt on the job, they knew exactly what needed to be done to remedy it.

But the pandemic has brought preventative action into focus. For example, you wear a mask throughout your facility and sanitize frequently. Employees also get health screenings before entering the building.

COVID-19 is forcing us to think ahead and be more proactive than we were in the past. This goes beyond just viruses, too. I expect this shift in attitude to apply to slips, trips, falls, and more.

What changes, if any, to those best practices would you suggest organizations make, given the benefit of hindsight?

Again, it’s crucial to start thinking about EHS within a preventative context. Instead of waiting for someone to get hurt, we should be training everyone to make sure they know how to avoid that accident in the first place.

Companies should also move to a rewards culture that recognizes staff for adopting this preventative approach. Let’s award people for doing the right thing, versus strictly punishing them for doing something wrong.

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

If you’re thinking about joining the EHS profession, you should be really excited about it. The work you do can make a real difference—you’re preventing someone from getting hurt.

Not only do you have the opportunity to ensure staff go home safe at the end of the day, your work can impact the company’s bottom line, too. By keeping people safe, that also means that they’ll be available to produce work. When the assembly line can keep running, that means everyone continues to work.

The bottom line here is that you should be proud to enter the EHS profession. You have an opportunity to protect both employees and the company’s bottom line. And you should be committed to being proactive about health and safety.

Kathryn Carlson is the vice president of product management at KPA, a workforce compliance and EHS software and services provider for mid-sized businesses. For over 30 years, KPA has helped more than 10,000 clients achieve regulatory compliance, protect assets, and retain top talent.

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 ehsposts@SimplifyCompliance.com and include your name and contact information; be sure to put “Faces of EHS” in the subject line.

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