Faces of EHS, Technology and Innovation

Faces of EHS: Cary Usrey on Comradery and Sharing Ideas

Cary Usrey has nearly 30 years of experience in several different industries. He began his career in the U.S. Navy’s nuclear power program. From there, he transitioned into the public sector as an environmental, health, and safety manager in the utility industry. After almost 13 years, he switched over to the construction sector as a safety director at a large, international construction company. Most recently, he held the position of manager of professional services at a safety software company, overseeing the customer success, implementation, and process consulting aspects of the services team.

Cary currently serves as the Vice President of Operations at SafetyStratus, an enterprise EHS software company. SafetyStratus’ multi-level technology platform brings practical innovation to Environmental, Health, and Safety management in Academia, Healthcare, Construction, Manufacturing, and general industry.

For our latest Faces of EHS profile, we sat down with Cary to discuss his biggest influences in the industry, the adoption of technology and Human and Organizational Performance (HOP), and the importance of safety professionals collaborating and sharing ideas.

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

Interestingly, I did not immediately start in the EHS field. I began my career in the U.S. Navy’s nuclear power program. I certainly learned a great deal about safety there, but my first position after the Navy was as a control operator for a power plant. I was eventually given the opportunity to move from a rotational shiftwork position to a day shift position as the EHS manager. I jumped at the opportunity. The learning curve was steep, but the organization I was with helped me a great deal. Also, I met up with some great EHS mentors as part of the Voluntary Protection Program Participants’ Association (VPPPA) organization.

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

Through the VPPPA, the American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP,) and the National Safety Council (NSC,) among other associations, I have grown so much as an individual safety practitioner. I got involved with each of these organizations as either an officer or a volunteer and have learned so much by working on projects and meeting others. Consequently, there were many great practitioners who have helped me by expanding my knowledge, challenging my beliefs, supporting my work, and sharing their knowledge and programs. The list is very large and would take a lot of space to share. However, I want to give a heartfelt “thank you” to Alan Quilley. He was a great sounding board and a person who challenged my thinking constantly.

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

My favorite thing about working in the industry is the togetherness. Most safety practitioners openly share their ideas, their written programs, their time, and other resources. You don’t find that in many industries. The camaraderie is very welcoming and refreshing.

My least favorite is the plague of adherence to a dogma that is outdated. My outlook and thoughts as an EHS professional today are very different from when I first began. The influence of others will expand your outlook as you take in new concepts and ideas. The mentality that workers are seen as part of the solution instead of part of the problem is one such new concept that I appreciate.

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

I see several initiatives that are gaining broader ground, and rightly so. One is the practice of Human and Organizational Performance (HOP.) While HOP has been around for some time now, it is gaining more universal adoption. HOP focuses on the concept of failing safely instead of the false assumption that all accidents can be prevented. Tied into the HOP movement is Psychological Safety (the focus of making it safe to communicate within an organization.)

Another great trend, especially as I work for an EHS software company, is the adoption of advancing technology to manage EHS in an organization. The idea of using pen, paper, and spreadsheets should be akin to using stone-age tools for a practitioner. The value of EHS professionals lies in being in the field and communicating with their team, whether that’s with workers or managers. Being tied up performing data entry work with an outdated system should be eliminated.

Q: How will safety culture look in the future?

It’s been a well-discussed topic how the COVID-19 pandemic opened up a lot of authority and changes for the EHS industry. I joined the SafetyStratus team as VP of Operations during that time (after a short setback from a recreational accident that saw me rehabilitating my knee). For a while, everyone was scrambling to keep up with the new demands for a safer workplace. But necessity is the mother of invention and EHS as an industry exceeded those expectations. The future is where I see these changes becoming not only integrated out of compulsion but really embraced and fine-tuned. EHS professionals fought against a prolific “reactive” mentality to safety before, but now proactive measures are more commonly being sought out.

Q: What are you most proud of?

I am most proud of my efforts to give back to the industry. I have written and collaborated on numerous articles, presented at many conferences, provided several workshops, and served as an officer in organizations such as ASSP and VPPPA, all in an effort to share what I have learned. Contributing to an industry that is constantly improving through collaboration is something I am very proud of.

Within our company, we offer opportunities to meet and discuss emerging ideas. Our EHS Community events have allowed us to drive improvement by involving many experts from different industries and sharing best practices and ideas to improve the use of technology.

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

I have two pieces of advice that have served me well. First, challenge all assumptions. What I was taught as an emerging safety professional (such as Heinrich’s triangle) and what I have learned from being challenged in those assumptions are vastly different. Use critical thinking to ensure that what you believe and espouse passes the test.

Second, don’t journey alone. You may not need others to be successful, but surrounding yourself with other professionals (whether mentors or collaborators) will certainly make the journey better.