Faces of EHS

Faces of EHS: Kevin Kirk on the Importance of Inclusion and Communication

Kevin Kirk began his career in construction management. After realizing how critical safety is in construction, he began working in EHS after completing all the necessary certifications. He believes that the biggest safety challenge safety professionals face is changing the mindset that safety is not a burden or something extra to be done, but that safety is inclusive of the work a worker performs every day.

Currently, Kevin is the founder and owner of K Squared Safety, a consulting company focused on working with clients in the construction and manufacturing industries who want safety to be more than a requirement.

For our latest Faces of EHS, we sat down with Kevin to discuss how he got his start in EHS, the importance of diversity in the workplace, and how crucial communication is when it comes to safety.

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

I got my start in the field when the Owner and CEO of CSM Group, Steve East, took a chance and offered me the opportunity to lead the safety department of his organization. Steve had a vision for making his company and the construction industry safer. He gave me the support to try and do things around construction and safety differently. It was an opportunity to use the principles I had learned to create a better, safer work environment. 

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

Steve East’s vision included Dr. John Austin, CEO of Reaching Results, who quickly became a big influencer, supporter, mentor and friend. Dr. John also introduced me to other people in the safety industry. Another influencer is Bob Cummins, Owner of SODAK in Edinburg, Scotland. There are many others along the way but these three have had the biggest influence on my thinking and desire to make an impact in safety. 

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

The best mistake I made involved a transformation of our weekly housekeeping program in which project managers would email a few photos from their project each week to the safety team and their project leadership team. We would have an open dialog as a group discussing the photos providing positive feedback to improve overall project safety because not all projects could be visited every week. We decided to switch from the weekly email to utilizing the company app where more people in the organization could review and provide positive feedback rather than just the core team related to the project. What we quickly learned was that the communication through the app became less valuable to the project team over time because less and less people provided feedback. 

Additionally, some individuals in the company began to use the tool to question or criticize the photos that the project managers were posting. Over time, it led to the extinction of the program. Prior to the switch from basic emails to the app, we had improved overall housekeeping throughout the company by 100%, which also led to other safety improvements. What I learned is that we lost the valuable personal communication that we had created amongst the core team. The protected caring environment we had created, encouraging positive feedback to the project managers so that they did not feel vulnerable to share how things were going on their project, evolved to something different and undesirable. There are many examples in the field where the idea was sound in the beginning and as the tool or process evolved in complexity it became less useful or impactful for improving the outcomes. The only way we learn anything is by trying and learning from our mistakes.   

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

My favorite part about working in the safety industry is all the amazing workers and individuals I get to meet and work with. They all have a story and something to bring to improve and enhance safety and create safer environments. If I could change anything it would be to improve overall communication. I find that everyone learns and understands differently. You can talk to a group of individuals and explain the outcome you want, but when you ask people what they took away from the communication, you will get multiple different answers.

We need to understand and recognize that we all have different life experiences backgrounds and diversity. We need to be better about making sure our communication reaches every individual, not only the masses. I would change our communication styles and remove the burden from the individual we are trying to communicate with to interpret the message. Open conversations go a long way to improving our safety communications. 

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

The industry is already changing and adapting new technologies to protect workers. More autonomous equipment is being developed to keep the worker further from the danger of the work. Exoskeletons are being used to help workers with lifting and ergonomics that will reduce the number of soft tissue and muscle injuries. I think there will be less workers in the field in the future and more robots or autonomous systems performing the more hazardous work.  

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

I think COVID helped the safety culture. COVID forced us to communicate and be empathetic with each other on a daily basis. The lines of communication were more open, and we were more focused on creating a safe environment as it impacted every facet of work and life. It brought safety more to the top of mind for everyone and not only in construction and manufacturing. 

Q: How will safety culture look in the future?

Safety culture of the future will include more technology, not only from platforms and applications [but] there are also a lot of new tools and equipment being developed. The new tools and equipment will impact safety in ways we have not yet imagined. More and more use of autonomous equipment removes workers from harm’s way and the workforce of the future will look much different than today. Safety focus will change and adapt with the changes in technology.  

Q: What are you most proud of?

I am most proud of all the people I have worked with over the years and the changes we have made in organizations and individual’s lives. I have worked with a lot of great people to help coach and mentor them and seeing the work that they carry on inspires me every day to keep doing what I do. 

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

I encourage a lot of young safety professionals to joining the field to have an open mind and think about how safety impacts the work they do every day. Through the ASSP chapter, we mentor students at local universities. I usually have a couple of students I mentor. We talk about the programs they are taking, and I try to bring them out in the field and show them how the things they are learning is applied in the industry. I would encourage any young professional to find someone they can shadow and be a mentor to them to positively influence the future of these safety professionals. 

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

I would like to reiterate the need for more inclusion and genuine communication. We need to respect every individual we work with and realize they have had different life experiences than our own. They may not completely understand what we are trying to communicate to them, and we need to take half of the responsibility in the communication process. We need to take time to understand what happens when communication breaks down and not jump to judgment and punishment.

We can all learn from our mistakes. When there is a breakdown in communication or understanding we need to learn what the breakdown is and how to improve future communications. We too often punish the person who did not do what we expected them to do rather than understand where the error happened. There are usually multiple contributing factors to a communication breakdown. We have to take ownership of our communication.