Faces of EHS, Safety Culture and Behavioral Safety

Faces of EHS: Adam Cox on Communication and the Future of Technology

Adam Cox (he/him) is an EHS professional in the Chicago area. He enjoys being an active member of AIHA and ASSP at the local and national levels. Adam currently serves the AIHA Total Worker Health® task force as a liaison to the NIOSH ERC at the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) and he recently became an administrative team member for the ASSP Ergonomics Practice Specialty. After hours, you can find him reading, obsessing over the real estate market, or watching senseless television shows with his partner and their goofy dog, McAfee.

Adam is a Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH) working as an EHS Engineer for Northrop Grumman, a multinational aerospace and defense technology company. He supports a large manufacturing facility in the Chicagoland area, where he controls occupational exposures, tackles office or industrial ergonomics issues, managing a large laser safety program, and works to safely implement automation and robotics projects.

For our latest Faces of EHS profile, we sat down with Adam to discuss communication, Total Worker Health®, and the future of technology and remote work. Here’s what he had to say.

Q: How did you get your start in the field?

Like so many EHS professionals, this career actually found me! Communicable diseases and public health interventions have always fascinated me, so my original intent was to follow the infectious diseases route with the goal of working for a health department or large healthcare organization. Fortunately, one of the Industrial Hygiene (IH) professors at the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) noticed my application and reached out to me. I had no idea what IH was, but after a good 30-minute discussion, my mind was set. IH was the perfect blend of what I wanted to do—leveraging health sciences and engineering concepts to protect others—I just didn’t know it existed!

Q: What’s your best mistake and what did you learn from it?

I think a major lesson for any young professional, especially EHS professionals, is choosing language with intent. School teaches us how to write reports nobody may read and give presentations to a boardroom, but we rarely learn the soft skills of communicating thoroughly and succinctly in our daily work.

One event that changed my approach to communication occurred in my early days as an intern. I was tasked with communicating some process improvement opportunities and tying them to both regulatory and internal requirements. Let’s just say that my wording missed the mark, and the entire message came across like a soft recommendation. Ever since that learning experience, I always take notice of the message I am trying to convey. It’s important to clearly delineate requirements versus recommendations and always provide enough succinct detail that there is no confusion. Bonus tip: Always take the extra minute to proofread emails and reports.

Q: What’s your favorite part about working in the industry?

My favorite thing about working in EHS is the breadth and depth of the industry. Our profession spans all industries and each EHS professional varies in their subject matter expertise. Some folks may spend an entire career working with one topic, whereas others may handle all elements of environmental, health, AND safety for a company. I love attending local chapter meetings of AIHA and ASSP because you never know who you will meet and the perspectives they will share.

Another thing I love about working in EHS is how active the community is. Folks are always willing to help and spread their knowledge. A great example of this is a free online community called Safety Knights. The site is a global home for safety professionals connected by a shared desire to learn, discuss, collaborate, and grow. Safety Knights’ mission is simple: provide the premier community for Safety professionals to connect, network, and discuss all things safety.

Q: How can company leaders make safety a value within their organization?

Organizational leaders need to make safety a recognized priority throughout their organization, from both top-down and bottom-up approaches. Safety cannot just be a buzzword in the annual shareholders report; rather, it must be lived by leadership, reinforced by management, and practiced by everybody. You will be hard-pressed to develop safety excellence with just a cute poster or a clipboard-based approach. One suggestion for business leaders is to integrate safety professionals into your cross-functional teams. Safety professionals are typically attuned to site operations and employee needs. They will also be ready to support new processes, equipment changes, increases to chemical use, and changes in occupational exposures.

Q: Where do you see the industry heading in five years? Or are you seeing any current trends?

Now you have me nerding out! We could talk about this for hours… I see so many things on the horizon for which I am extremely excited. From a public health perspective, we have an evolving understanding of how individuals are impacted by work and how their communities are also impacted by it. Total Worker Health® (TWH) and total exposure health are topics about which we will only hear more. From the industrial perspective, I think we will see a proliferation of discriminating technologies like additive manufacturing and robotics. We need to understand how these shifts may eliminate or introduce exposures.

From a technology perspective, I think we are going to see an ever-increasing role of augmented and virtual reality. Can we leverage these approaches for better training or more effective audits? Finally, from a people perspective, we will have to manage risks for an evolving workforce where folks are transitioning to remote work. We need to stay in tune with these workers’ needs and ensure we properly address the ergonomic and psychosocial stressors inherent to this type of work.

Q: Do you have any advice for people entering the profession?

Although only an early career professional myself, I do feel strongly about two items in this regard. First, I highly recommend looking at NIOSH ERCs if you are considering a degree in occupational safety or industrial hygiene. There are centers across the country doing really great work and they often provide financial support. The second piece is to network and get involved with your local AIHA, ASSP, or NSC chapters. These organizations often have speakers on a variety of topics, so it is a great place to learn and meet other EHS professionals in your region. You never know when a well-developed professional connection may help find you a new position, answer a tricky question, or serve as a reference.