Faces of EHS

Faces of EHS: Abigail Bassett on Safety Excellence

Abigail Bassett is the Corporate Manager of Safety Excellence and Human Performance Reliability at CF Industries and the leader of their safety excellence efforts. As part of her position, she hosts an internal podcast called “One Conversation at a Time,” where she interviews general managers, operators, environmental teams, and directors who have all shared their stories about leading safety. Her hope is that the podcast and other digital media will be shared at all levels of her company and that it sparks more conversations, engagement, and continuous innovation.

Prior to CF Industries, she spent eight years focusing on a family-owned business, building EHS systems from the ground up, establishing safety culture as a core value, and developing EHS leaders in the automotive industry. She has also held EHS positions in brewing and aerospace.

For our latest Faces of EHS profile, we sat down with Abigail to discuss how she got her start in EHS, safety excellence, and how the future of safety culture is already happening today.

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

A key influence for me, was starting my career at Alcoa which allowed me to experience and learn about the culture of safety excellence and leadership legacy of Paul O’Neill, previous Chairman and CEO. He believed that focusing on safety would transform the entire organization, improving overall company culture, product quality, productivity, communication, and ultimately profits.

Mr. O’Neill is well known for starting out investor meetings with safety and has been quoted: “If you want to understand how Alcoa is doing, you need to look at our workplace safety figures. If we bring our injury rates down, it won’t be because of cheerleading or the nonsense you sometimes hear from other CEOs. It will be because the individuals at this company have agreed to become part of something important: They’ve devoted themselves to creating a habit of excellence. Safety will be an indicator that we’re making progress in changing our habits across the entire institution. That’s how we should be judged.”

After 15 years in the field, this belief still feels right to me and in my experience has held true. I have tried my best to uphold this ideal as I have navigated life and my career as a safety excellence-minded professional. It hasn’t always been easy, but it has always been heart-felt and fulfilling at the end of the day.

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

There are three things. First, understand that your role is critical in developing and sustaining a culture of safety excellence. If you don’t already believe that safety is a core value, then look in the mirror and ask yourself why. If you can’t be reflective, then get out of the way for someone that can. Do not cap your team’s or your organization’s ability to grow because you are not willing to grow.

Second, when you hire someone new, set expectations early and often. If you establish safety as a core value, it will naturally be a part of your strategy, goals, mentorship, and daily conversations. It will spread throughout your team and organization!

Third, stay curious. While there are many known safety standards and practices out there backed by compliance requirements and standards, there are very few perfect systems and zero perfect people. Work to understand how people interact with the environment your organization has created. Why do we have safe and successful outcomes most days and what sets those outcomes apart from the times we fail?

Q: How will safety culture look in the future?

The future of safety culture is here and happening today! Society is moving and expressing a need that hasn’t been meet by leaving jobs, reaffirming work/life balance, and letting it be known that inclusion and diversity are key. Anyone can be a safety leader by creating a sense of belonging on your team, with your coworkers, your friends, and your family. We can all be a part of influencing change. Be open, be honest, be humble, and stand up for doing things right. That probably feels very overwhelming when you scale it up to a large organization or a community, but if you take things one step and one conversation at a time you can and will make a lasting impact.

Q: What are you most proud of? 

I worked with a previous coworker for about four years and unfortunately had to be there for them during an incident that resulted in a serious burn. We had an amazing on-site emergency response team that jumped into action that day, so I was left with little to do once I got to the scene. So, I sat with my coworker, talked to them, and rubbed their shoulder in hopes of distracting them from the pain that was setting in.

One of my most treasured memories is walking out on my last day of work to be stopped in the parking lot by that same coworker. They thanked me, shook my hand, and let me know how much that single conversation had meant to them. I am most proud of these small, yet meaningful moments. These conversations are what drives me to keep working to solve problems, to identify what makes us safe most of the time, and at the end of the day, understand what it means to be human.

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

Have a balanced approach to how you learn and what you experience between systems, compliance, education, and human behavior. No matter what industry or team you serve, all of these will apply. Know that it’s not about what you do, but how you do it and take every opportunity you can to connect with people of all walks of life. Their stories will help you become a better you and these relationships will be the foundation you can build your career and a culture of safety excellence on.