While attending Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, Camille Oakes had her mind set on becoming a pilot. Her heart, however, had other plans. After taking an introduction to occupational safety class, she loved it, and changed her major. Oakes joined the university’s ASSP student chapter and began connecting with other safety professionals in Central Florida. Suffice it to say, she had found her true passion.
“Those safety professionals showed me what a career in EHS could be,” she told EHS Daily Advisor. “I eventually moved to Atlanta, Georgia, and started in the field as a government contractor.”
Oakes would go on to graduate with a B.S. in Safety Science. Later, she’d obtain a Master of Engineering in Advanced Safety and Engineering Management from the University of Alabama at Birmingham as well as earn several meaningful industry acronyms, including Certified Safety Professional (CSP), CSP, MEng, SMS, CIT, and OHST. In addition, Oakes also started her own business, Better Safety, LLC. Using data, storytelling, and presentation, the safety and health consulting firm makes safety principles understandable and fun to help workplaces continually improve.
With more than 16 years of experience in safety, health, and operations, Oakes says she tries to help create a better and safer world. “In working with a wide variety of businesses, I have found that it’s all about building trust, breaking down barriers, opening discussions, and identifying opportunities,” she says. “The result is that work gets better.”
Today, Oakes lives in Atlanta with her partner, Ted, and their two kids. In our latest Faces of EHS profile, meet Camille Oakes.
Who is/was your biggest influence in the industry?
There are probably too many to name, but I will try. My first boss after college was Pat Karol. People may have seen me present with him at safety conferences, and we have remained connected since then. Pat pushed me out of my comfort zone and showed me how to manage conflicts the right way with our internal and external customers. I spent five years as an on-site safety professional working at MSC Industrial Supply and met so many people to learn from there. Brian Nulty, Shaun Davidson, and Rob Cookingham really taught me all the different methods that can work to get operations on board with safety changes. I saw them be forceful, friendly, convincing, passionate, and flexible, all at once. In my career now in consulting, my biggest mentors have been Abby Ferri, Regina McMichael, Dan Snyder, and Robert Pater. We are really privileged to work in an industry where people are so willing to share knowledge, advice, and give of their time to help other professionals be better. I hope to help others the way all these people have helped me.
What’s your best mistake and what did you learn from it?
My biggest mistake in working in safety has to do with not speaking up with confidence. I spent many years believing that I had to know everything. If someone spoke in a meeting, I would pretend to know what they were talking about, even if they used an acronym I did not know. I would try to figure it out on my own. I would not admit to a worker that I did not know as much as them about the process. All of this came for a fear of losing face—looking stupid or out of place. I have been called an “office” safety person, so I never wanted to say I did not know the mechanical stuff, the ‘boots on the ground’ stuff. What I have learned, especially now in my capacity as a consultant helping other safety professionals improve themselves, is that not even one of us knows everything. And the power of learning comes first from admitting you do not know. So now, I always say, “I don’t do your job” or “I don’t know how this works” or “I don’t understand” and ask them to explain. Whether I am talking to executives, front line, or other safety professionals, teach me, as you are the expert. I’m not, and that’s okay.
What’s your favorite part about working in the industry? What’s your least favorite part, and how would you change it?
My favorite part about safety is the constant change. I am a very flexible person who is goal oriented. I believe in continual improvement. Always getting better. Safety allows me to pursue this as there is no end point, no “good enough” in EHS. There is always room for new and innovative ideas. My least favorite part goes hand in hand with this. Inflexibility, or the idea that one way, one method, is the right way. We should focus on Human and Organizational Performance. Safety should be sales. Safety should be behavior based. Safety should be systematic. We do ourselves a disservice by saying that we have finally found the one method to make safety work, when in five years we will need to adapt. I think we need to be more open to a combination of methods.
How can company leaders make safety a value within their organization?
If a company leader truly wants to make safety a value in their organization, it must start with them. They can “walk the walk” and set the stage for what is acceptable. If a director walks onto a plant floor without the proper PPE or walks by someone doing an at-risk behavior without addressing it, or talks about production five times as often as they talk about safety, or could not tell you the metrics they measure safety with, that director is creating a culture with a low value on safety. Ask for leading metrics and not just ‘days without an injury.’ Incorporate goals related to safety in your managers’ and front-line leadership performance objectives. Hire true safety professionals, with a combination of education and experience, rather than “assigning it” to the newest operations supervisor.
For safety leaders, what we can do is continuously show the value of safety to the organization. While we might not want to believe it, organization’s do value production, and those that need the most change, value it above safety. Truly understand the business so that you can show how safety will help the organization do more business, make more sales, be more productive, and make more money.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic complicated or exacerbated problems with safety culture?
Covid-19 has shown two major things when it comes to safety culture. First, it has shown that it really does matter to our employees if we show we care, or not. Being production first, safety as an afterthought, just will not fly anymore. The great resignation is happening. If an organization did not treat their employees right during the height of the pandemic, those employees are now leaving. In addition, so many people are reevaluating how they work. Why work at a company in a physically demanding role, for a low wage, that exposed me, or penalized me for sick days, or had sick employees working right next to me? Now that things are settled, I am hearing from not only front-line workers but also Safety Professional clients that the burnout, the exhaustion, the lack of appreciation or flexibility during the pandemic has made them seriously reconsider where and how they work.
Second, Covid-19 showed us that despite what operations or production told us, as safety leaders, work can change, particularly in instances where safety is involved. We could change how we do things, adjust, add equipment, and still manage to function as a business. Safety professionals would do well to keep this in mind as we try to transition back to “normal” culture where making changes for safety reasons was not possible or not ‘feasible.’
How will safety culture look in the future?
The word of the day is flexible. As we learned from Covid-19, we have no idea what the world will look like in six months, one year, or two years. If I had to make an educated guess, I think we may have more push back on some things as operations is probably burnt out from making so many changes and functioning with less people, time, customers, staff, money, etc. I imagine it will be more difficult to get funds for ‘safety’ things if the organization is struggling after the past two years. Essentially, our ‘safety sale’ might be a little bit harder.
I also think that working culture, not just safety culture, is going to have to adapt to be more people focused. Not having simply perks like ping pong tables and a basketball hoop. It is good for us because EHS is already people-focused when done the right way. Managers of teams of EHS professionals need to really be attuned to their people, watch for burnout, and give them the ability to do what they are good at. Professionals, post-2020, will expect to be valued, to have their value appreciated, and to be able to be themselves, even if that means working from home in sweats with a kid interrupting your Zoom meeting. For frontline workers, we will not be able to say ‘we care about safety’ without proving it, as they have probably been burned before.
What are you most proud of?
I am most proud of the moments where I have helped other people. There is something special about connecting with a person one-on-one, and hearing what their frustrations are, and helping them get to a solution. I’ve helped call center employees adjust their workstation and they find me weeks later to say they no longer get headaches. I have had people take an ASP prep class with me and email me to say they passed because of my help. I have done safety leadership coaching with Safety professionals and had a person tell me I was changing lives. I have even had a woman tell me that seeing me be open about being pregnant and still doing inspections at a factory has helped her feel like she could become a mother while still being a great safety professional. No matter who I am talking to, if I have helped a person at all, it has made me so proud. I think that is a feeling all EHS professionals can relate to.
Do you have any advice for people entering the profession?
Simply, it is not about compliance, it is about risk. Do not spend your day pointing out every single violation or noncompliance. Focus on risk. This will lead you to getting buy-in and getting things fixed, changed, and risk reduced.