Faces of EHS

Faces of EHS: Jeremy Presnal on Strategy and Community

Jeremy Presnal has been working as an environmental, health, and safety (EHS) professional for 20 years, with experience in power generation, petrochemical, construction, and manufacturing companies. He started his career in the utility industry and has served the last 10 years in business unit and/or corporate EHS leadership roles. 

Jeremy is the Vice President of EHS & Workforce Development at Shermco Industries, North America’s largest and fastest-growing electrical testing organization accredited by the International Electrical Testing Association (NETA). As a member of the executive leadership team, Jeremy is responsible for the development and execution of Shermco’s strategic Environmental, Health & Safety (EHS) excellence plan across all business units operating in the U.S. and Canada.

For our latest Faces of EHS profile, we sat down with Jeremy to discuss his influences in the industry, EHS leadership strategies, and building community in the industry.

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

I got my start in the safety field working as a safety intern in the summer of 2003 at Duke Energy’s Gibson Station located in Owensville, Indiana. This was an excellent opportunity for me, as I was already familiar with the power plant because my father worked as an operator there throughout his career and I had worked there as a summer student in prior years but needed an internship in safety as part of Indiana State University’s program requirements. At that time, the company had yet to host a formal internship program for EHS related roles and so I was very fortunate to be given this opportunity.

I completed the internship and was hired back again the following summer to support safety for a large capital project and as that opportunity wound down, I was approached about a full-time opportunity for a safety specialist role at a smaller power plant in New Albany and I fortunately got the job. It was an amazing opportunity for me to learn what good safety leadership looks like and one where I had several great mentors.

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

I have been blessed with so many great leaders that have mentored me along the way that it would be tough to name them all. From an industrial thought leader on safety perspective, I would have to say that I have been following ProAct Safety for many years; Shawn Galloway and Terry Mathis work in the space of safety excellence and help organizations develop effective strategies. Their books, presentations, podcasts, etc., are very practical and have helped many organizations achieve performance improvement and sustainable culture change.

I also have found the work done on Human and Organizational Performance (HOP), etc., by Todd Conklin, Tim Autrey and several others in the space of leveraging HOP principles to reduce Significant Incidents & Fatalities has been very influential in the way that I think differently about managing safety performance. 

To me, a company with a history of strong safety performance is one that is very intentional about specifying what good looks like, where are we today, how fast do we want to get there, and how are we going to close the gap. All of which takes a strategy and well-defined road map with appropriate goals, measures, etc., to align and motivate the organization to achieve these goals. I would also like to recognize Nelson Amy, who has been a tremendous mentor to me in my career, especially in the area of electrical safe work practices and helping companies achieve significant improvement.

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

I would like to see the industry better measure EHS success by focusing more on reduction of life-altering injuries and fatalities. Also, while change is always difficult, I would like to see leaders continue to embrace the idea that change in EHS is constant and the finish line is never reached. This again, is why a long-term strategy for EHS improvement is so important to every business

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

Company leaders can make safety a value within their organization by affirmatively demonstrating how it matters to them. They can do this by taking time to talk about specific safety issues, demonstrating both their knowledge of the issues and their concern. They must understand both their responsibilities and those of their direct reports for managing safety performance, [and] hold high-level operations leaders accountable, not necessarily in a negative way, but in a way that requires that they give progress reports on ongoing initiatives specific to the business strategy for improving safety.

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

The pandemic has truly changed everything we do. Initially, it led to fewer supervisor and manager encounters with frontline employees. Because these encounters are the most important from a safety standpoint, it is risky to limit them. As we have learned to live with the pandemic, however, we have adapted and reinitiated these ever-important encounters.

Q: What are you most proud of?

I am most proud of working with teams to shift a company’s EHS culture. This can only be done by leadership commitment and pervasive communication regarding EHS issues at all levels of an organization. No one person can achieve it. I am very proud of the team efforts that I have been a part of recently at Shermco, especially with many improvements made in conjunction with successfully navigating through the challenges of the pandemic.  

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

My advice is never turn down an opportunity to take on additional assignments unless you are feeling overwhelmed. Each assignment, even if it does not mean extra pay, will lead to invaluable gains in knowledge and experience that you can lean on later. Also, getting involved in one or several of the great safety organizations out there like ASSP, NSC, VPPPA, IEEE, etc., is also extremely important in building a network of colleagues and even mentors.

I have personally benefited from this throughout my career. Lastly, I would say building relationships with the employees on the front line of your organization and being intentional to understand if the current safety systems, tools, processes, etc., are seen as a resource or more of a constraint. You can learn a lot from every individual in your organization, especially from those who are doing the work. Always remember the importance of these people to your career, your organization, and to our society.