EHS Management, ESG, Faces of EHS, Technology and Innovation

Faces of EHS: Ashley Gill on Evolving Safety Leadership

Ashley Gill (she/her) started her career in the scrap metal industry after graduation from the University of Minnesota-Morris with a B.A. in International Management. Witnessing a work-related injury was the catalyst to propel her into a career in safety. Now a Certified Safety Professional (CSP) with over 15 years of experience, she strives to continue to change the safety world. She is recognized for her significant commitment to promoting workplace health and safety and is viewed as a driving force for women in the industry. She is a change agent, capable of bridging the gap between safety and operations, and is frequently tapped for leading new initiatives. 

Based in Texas, Ashley serves as a Regional Safety Manager for Valicor Environmental Services, a trusted partner for sustainable waste management solutions including centralized wastewater treatment, oil and energy recovery, industrial cleaning, as well as product repurposing and recycling. Valicor employs approximately 400 people across 24 locations, and Ashley oversees facilities in Texas, Missouri, Arkansas, Colorado and Minnesota.

For our latest Faces of EHS profile, we sat down with Ashley to discuss new technologies, new metrics such as ESG, and how safety leaders should evolve the way they lead in the workplace.

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

It seems almost accidental that I ended up in this career. Individuals having a business degree from the University of Minnesota at that time always seemed to end up working at the corporate office of one of the Fortune 500 companies. I wasn’t sure how much I would enjoy corporate life in what I feared would be a cubicle farm. Through connections, I became employed by a scrap metal company in Texas that was expanding operations to multiple locations. I packed my U-Haul and moved to the Lone Star State.

Early on in my time with this company, I was hopeful to learn more about logistics and international trade along with buying and selling scrap metal. A few months into the job, I was exposed to my first severe workplace injury. I was helping out with only a handful of safety-specific tasks up to this point and that was really all that was being done. After this injury I occurred, I thought to myself, someone should have done more to prevent this from happening. With a little more reflection, I realized I was that someone. From there, I dove headfirst into learning everything I could about workplace health and safety from designing policies, to creating training, leading safety meetings, and completing audits. I never once looked back on those early aspirations of being in operations management, even on my hardest days.

Q: Who has been your biggest influence in the industry?

I’m so fortunate to be around such amazing women in this industry. Yes, women in safety. Abby Ferri has been my biggest influence in this field of work. She has an innate ability to get into the thick of literally anything and talk safety. She’s always there for random safety inquiries, and if she doesn’t know the answer, she probably can point you to someone who does. Abby is also regularly presenting at various conferences and running a safety podcast, Safety Justice League. I truly aspire to be able to provide as much to our industry in the future as she has.

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

Sometimes safety professionals are faced with new or unknown processes and procedures, but we all know by the book how to complete a hazard assessment and ensure we can help provide a safe work environment. I had been provided a scope of work and a few photos, so I completed a hazard assessment to the best of my ability, then headed to the job site a few days later. When I got to the job site the supervisor looked over my safety plan and pointed out that what I did have wasn’t sufficient and also all the things I was missing. This was a big learning moment for me. I realized I didn’t have to know all the answers all the time. I learned that what I did need was to be able to find the expert in the room on future projects and ask the RIGHT questions.

Q: What’s your favorite and least favorite part about working in the industry? Would you change anything? 

My favorite part of working in the industry is the people! I love the opportunity to travel and meet new people. There are some pretty amazing conferences that are held for EHS professionals so it’s amazing to connect and see what other people are doing that’s leading to continuous improvement to the safety culture in their workplaces.

I will take this moment to acknowledge, that the safety cops still exist and that’s something we have to change. If safety managers are just walking around trying to throw the OSHA reg book at someone and only writing people up, that’s not sustainable and does not support a culture of continuous improvement. Safety professionals have to hold themselves to a higher standard, coach and mentor employees, [and] be part of the solution, not the problem. Don’t be afraid to be innovative in developing safer solutions!

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

I think the most important thing for leaders is to realize that they are vulnerable. Every single day leaders should be walking into their facilities and communicating with their teams that safety and productivity go hand in hand and that they want to meet goals AND they want everyone to go home the way they came to work. Leaders who start every meeting, even an executive meeting, with a safety moment, and leaders who walk through the factory in all the appropriate PPE, are just two ways leaders can make it clear they value safety. Walk the walk and talk the talk. Be fully engaged in the work environment. When employees feel valued, trusted, and cared for, they will support safety culture.

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

While fatality statistics are falling—[although] we’re far from zero—there’s a new player on the field in many industries, and safety professionals are going to need to have a better understanding of the systems to be able to protect employees, and that is robotics. While robotics are becoming increasingly common in the workplace and are generally designed to perform hazardous or repetitive tasks, they have their own risks and hazards as well. Despite the number of companies that rely on robotics, OSHA doesn’t have any specific standards yet to provide guidance. Knowing that most OSHA regulations stem from need, we will need to see a significant increase in workplace safety events first.

Another emerging trend is Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG), and it has some staying power. While this doesn’t directly impact safety professionals, there will be a growing need for our knowledge on establishing and tracking metrics. As more and more organizations are encouraged to pursue ESG metrics to achieve a variety of goals from carbon footprint reduction to less landfill waste to less water consumption, EHS-type roles will be able to step up to lead the way in tracking those metrics. Many safety professionals have been tracking similar metrics for years, so our expertise will be of value to organizations seeking to comply with shareholder and stakeholder calls for action.

Q: How has the COVID-19 pandemic complicated or exacerbated problems with safety culture?

Prior to COVID-19, safety specialists and managers may not have been as influential as we would have liked. Many organizations didn’t even employ a full-time safety professional. While COVID-19 was complicated to manage for safety professionals due to a lack of general knowledge, politics, and other various quarantine-related issues, safety professionals were provided an amazing opportunity to step up, be heard, and actually lead. Many organizations relied very heavily on safety specialists and managers to provide guidance to prevent the spread of COVID-19, especially in essential and critical service industries. Many safety professionals spend long hours developing playbooks, securing proper PPE, and transitioning training from in-person to a virtual and social-distanced format. These all presented significant challenges to maintaining a safety culture.

Q: How will safety culture look in the future?

I feel so positive about safety professionals’ impact in the years to come on safety culture! More and more organizations are employing safety professionals at executive levels, then supporting them in instituting significant and lasting changes. Again, I think we will also see safety professionals taking an active role in organizations’ ESG metrics. It’s my hope these metrics, some of which do include workplace safety, will continue to improve safety culture. I’m also hopeful that we continue to see strides in transparency and accountability in workplace safety as a result of ESG initiatives.

Q: What are you most proud of?

Last year, I made the decision to return to school. I’m currently pursuing my Doctor of Business Administration from the University of Missouri-St Louis (class of 2024). I’ve been fortunate to receive two scholarships, one from the American Legion and one from the ASSP Foundation. I’m certain it will continue to be challenging, but I also have an amazing support network of family, friends, and coworkers, in this pursuit.

My goal over the next two years is to continue to expand the research literature in workplace occupational health and safety, and hopefully, be published. I’m also proud to say I’ve committed to delivering a webinar as well as presenting at a conference for the first time in my career this year so that’s incredibly exciting.

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

My advice to new safety professionals is to take every opportunity you can to get in the field or the shop floor, go to a conference, network with a fellow safety professional, and genuinely seek continuous improvement. Don’t settle for just reading the OSHA reg book, writing reports, and sitting behind a desk. The more present and knowledgeable you are, the more successful you will be, not just personally but also for your organization.