Faces of EHS, Safety Culture

Faces of EHS: Jac van der Houwen on Being a Visible Role Model

Jac van der Houwen’s passion in life started with caring for the environment and ended up with a PhD in Environmental Chemistry at the Reading University in the U.K. After finishing a PhD, Jac concluded that science is great for understanding how things should and could work, but the value comes out of the experiences of how things work in the “real world.” Based on this, Jac went back to the Netherlands and applied for a job in the chemical industry.

Jac started as a radiation safety expert in the only Phosphorus Industry in Europe located in Vlissingen (NL). In those nine years, Jac worked towards the HSES manager’s role, also finishing a master’s in Safety, Health and Environment at the University in Delft (NL). In 2013, Jac switched over to Eastman Chemical in Middelburg and stepped into the HSES manager’s role for the site with a focus on culture change programs. During this period, Jac increased the focus on behavioral change, finishing a post-academic course at Behavior Change Academy in Nijmegen (NL). Currently, Jac works as an HSES manager of operations at Eastman, a global specialty materials company that produces a broad range of products found in items people use every day.

For our latest Faces of EHS profile, we sat down with Jac to discuss working in the chemical industry, the politics of being a safety professional, and how to be a role model for others.

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

After finishing my PhD in London (U.K.) I returned back to the Netherlands to start as a radiation expert at a phosphorus producer in Zeeland. This was a new work field (and place to live!) for me, and it kept me busy for a few years trying to understand what it is about and what I could do to protect people in their day-to-day work. At that time, we used radioactive devices to monitor the processes in combination with raw materials which included thorium and uranium as natural sources. It was a lot of fun, as radiation is still something of which much was unknown for the site specifically.

The radiation levels people were working with were low and not dangerous, but still there was a lot we could do to make people more comfortable with it by making it more “visible” by introducing measuring techniques and back it up with awareness sessions and proper training for the majority of the group of people working there. With these steps, we made it safer and a better place to work in because people could make decisions what to do and what not in their work environment. This work opportunity brought me into contact with the field “culture and behavior” or the way I would say it, “the way we do things and why and how to influence this in a positive way.”

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

I like to break this question into two parts: the “why” and the “what.”

The reason for me to do the job I am doing are the workers in the field with direct contact to the risks and keeping themselves and the plant safe. It is them we need to protect to any harm or wrongdoing.

The biggest influence for me personally was a “what.” In 2009, I was called into the crisis management team during an accident in a confined space at the phosphorus plant. Two of our employees lost their lives in the accident and I was on the shop floor directly after the incident overseeing the field activities and helping where I needed to do so. This accident, the extent, and the impact on the people involved and throughout the company made deep impact on me and fueled the drive to give it my best to understand how choices are made and how to influence these choices in the positive way not to make crucial mistakes which lead to deviations, incidents, and accidents.

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

Not sure it is my best mistake or even if it is a mistake, but my biggest lesson I’ve learned is to leave room for the people around you. Every day you learn that you personally will not make the big impact that you are looking for, but if you help in the development of the people around you and make sure people can work in the most efficient and quick learning way, you will see the difference you all make in your environment.

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

My least favorite part of my work is the political part of the job. I think every job has some portion of politics and it is a necessary part of the job, but one that I do not get any energy out of. I see the point of the political part, but on the other hand I also do not see the point of it, if you know what I mean.

The best part is the working with people AND on all levels of the organization. It is so interesting to work closely with people and learn from other perspectives, but at the same time share your perspective and contribute to developing great things!

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

Simply put, be the role model on the safety values you are defining for your organization. Be visible for people to be able to see this, but it also works the other way around. During your visibility, you need to be able to see what your people are doing in the organization. Interact, take up the different perspectives, and learn to understand what your people need to be able to live those safety values. If done correctly, you will learn and understand the pressures we all are under. It is easy to say, “just say no if it is not safe,” but the struggle is to translate this into the behavior of not doing the unsafe act.

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

I think the chemical industry is and will be under increasing pressure because of the risks we are working with and the negative environmental footprint in general, combined with the increasing unacceptance of these risks and negative footprint. It is understandable and it means that we need to make bold decisions as a chemical industry, which you see is happening around us, but at the moment this is not fast enough.

On top of this necessary change, we need to make sure that the people who are working in this industry need to change and understand the change just as fast to stay ahead. It is a challenge keeping the right level of safety and understanding which way we are going in a fast-changing environment.

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

To me, the choices we needed to make during the COVID-19 pandemic were exactly opposite to what we want and need to keep the level of safety. We want to be close to people who need to work in the chemical industry to stand next to them, learn, and coach to improve where we can in general.

The distance that was created was bad for people’s mental health and in general put us back a couple of steps in terms of cultural development. This is a gap we now need to fill, rapidly, to avoid any more future damage.

Q: How will safety culture look in the future?

Safety culture will be changing continuously due to the changes in the environment, and to keep it on the right level for good performance as a company, you need to follow a structure. The way this continuous safety performance as a company works, according to me, is dependent on a couple of steps and starts with the basic knowledge of what is safe, protecting the environment and health of people involved, and keeping us secure.

From this, we develop standards and procedures, so we have this documented. But then the hard work really starts, and that is making sure we all understand what we need to do to keep us safe, protecting the environment and health of all involved and keeping us secure. This means we need to tell people and make them aware. Then we must reinforce the message enough times through training to be able to embrace it and live by it.

We need to make sure we have the resources to work the way we need to work. And then we are still not there because then we need to develop the skills and sustain them. This last part, it looks to me, is forgotten most of the times. We need to be out there to see what is happening with our standards, show what is meant and how, be that role model and coach people both about correcting the wrong ways but definitely also give positive feedback about the things we are doing right.

Q: What are you most proud of?

The development of people around me. Seeing them develop, grow, speak up, and get the best out of their personality to fit the needs of the organization they are working in. This is a work in progress and is never ending.

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

People entering the HSES profession need to have a thick skin to protect themselves from all the pressures and opinions around them. To be able to deliver the most to Health, Safety, Security, and Environment for the chemical industry you need to open up to the perspectives of others. Use your tools, systems, and techniques you have learned to conclude the right things to build on forwards to a ZERO incident environment!

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