Faces of EHS, Training

Faces of EHS: Rachel Walla-Housman on the Future of Safety Training

Rachel Walla-Housman, CSP, CIH is a Certified Safety Professional and Certified Industrial Hygienist with 11 years of experience. She started her career in manufacturing and construction doing everything from field audits to industrial hygiene sampling and eventually moved on to consulting for large consulting firms. In 2017, she began working for herself as a freelance independent consultant for both national and international companies while she traveled the world with a backpack and a laptop. 

Rachel founded Ally Safety in 2019, a company that creates entertaining safety training videos with the goal of continuously improving safety training to be better at conveying key safety concepts while being engaging, entertaining, and most of all, relatable. Currently, she is the only full-time employee, and she works long hours and most weekends to try to keep up. She has a small, lean team of video contractors she works with on video projects as well.

She is also the recent winner of the EHS Daily Advisor Safety Standout Award for Innovations and Safety Training.

For our latest Faces of EHS profile, we sat down with Rachel to discuss how she got her start in the industry, safety as a potential third-party service, and the importance of engaging, relatable safety training.

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

I always joke that people only end up in the safety industry by accident and that’s true for me. It wasn’t a literal accident, but I wouldn’t have considered it if it hadn’t been for this chain of events. In college, I started out majoring in Petroleum Engineering. After my freshman year summer internship in Texas, I knew I thought the oil industry was pretty interesting and I also knew that I did not want to be an engineer. Through the next year I explored some different options, mostly to do with geology, but just couldn’t see myself in any of the engineering disciplines.

The next summer the economy had crashed, I was remodeling a house I had bought to live in during college and the only job I could find was $12/hour for planting 600 trees per day on a superfund site with no shade and a ton of wind. I had done hard work for my dad’s logging and construction company my entire upbringing, but this was a challenge. It was hard physical work and although us girls on site did a good job of keeping up, I found my upper body strength needed to massively increase and fast.

In addition to the physical challenges, despite working 50 hours a week, I couldn’t make ends meet and I was having trouble making my mortgage payments. My house needed a new roof before winter, and it seemed like something was always falling apart. When the leaders at the site asked if anyone could run a forklift on the weekends, I was the first and I think only to raise my hand. I had learned to run heavy equipment working for my dad and this wasn’t a normal forklift, it was a tractor with forks on it so I knew I could do it. Soon I was working 60 hours a week. The financial boost was a big relief.

That led me to getting to know the site leaders on the weekends and when an opportunity came up for a new site safety manager, they asked if I’d be interested. I had taken a few mandatory safety courses in school and felt that I could figure it out, so I said yes. I spent the rest of the summer as the site safety manager and when I returned to college in the fall, I changed my major and have been in safety ever since.

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

My biggest career mistake is how I went about starting my own business. When I quit my last corporate job, I was working at a location I really loved, and I cared deeply about my team and the people who worked there so it was a difficult decision to leave. However, my younger sister had died in a car accident recently and due to that and some other challenges in my life at the time, I was burned out, feeling cynical and had lost inspiration. I needed a change, and I knew staying at my corporate job wasn’t ultimately going to provide the career I really wanted.

I made the decision to leave and live out of a backpack, working from my laptop as a freelance safety pro. At the time, Yellow Bird wasn’t a thing and so I relied on previous clients and new clients from UpWork to make ends meet. It worked, and I was able to see the world, but it was also extremely stressful. Looking back on it, I think the change is what I really needed.

What I would do differently is research much more about the opportunities and make sure I had multiple streams of income, rather than being dependent on two. I would also invest more into re-educating myself. For example, I knew I wanted to get into video work sooner or later. I should have started this adventure with a good online course on business management and then moved on to touching up on my technical writing skills, and then taken a video production course. You can, of course, do all of this easily online through so many different offerings. Instead, I learned everything the hard way and pieced it together using YouTube. This worked but to be honest, having a better business plan and a focused investment on re-educating myself for a new career would have been much smarter.

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

Haha, I think if you watch my videos, you can probably see that I want to change how we do training. I just feel the average safety pro is so busy with a million other things that they don’t have time to make training great, even if they are very passionate about it, and that is a huge missed opportunity if we don’t engage employees at the point of training. There are lots of ways our industry can advance and change. I’ve chosen to target training because it’s where I feel I make the best contribution. One thing I’d suggest to anyone who feels like me, is to really evaluate your own skillset and think about what you uniquely can bring to the table and focus your energy there.

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

Be real. I think the average person has a much more accurate BS meter than many company leaders may perceive. For example, a manager or CEO who uses all the company jargon to talk the talk but doesn’t walk the walk, does more damage than good. Talk to people like you talk to a friend. Be as honest as you can be and sincerely try to make safety a value with yourself first and that example will have a much bigger impact than leaning on the gift of gab.

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

Honestly, I think the best direction for safety to go is to heavily invest in employees who aren’t in safety. As many of you know, the organizations with great cultures are utilizing their safety pros as subject matter experts while other employees lead safety. I can see us moving more towards safety as a third-party service, just based on my experience in consulting.

However, I caution that the only way that works is if you invest heavily in the safety expertise of your managers, supervisors, and employee safety leaders. Safety pros are super important to the workplace, but we need to move away from the idea that safety is all done at the level of the safety department because that just doesn’t work, and it also leads to safety pro burnout.

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

My biggest concern with how COVID-19 has impacted safety, is it exacerbated problems of trust in both the government and industry experts. People are more skeptical than before, and I’ve seen that translate from health and into safety as well. As an example, masking in the workplace was a challenge not only in deciding if it was the best course of action for safety, but also because of the political tug-of-war it incited. I think we’ll continue to see more employees questioning decisions and being skeptical of safety protocols as this tension between safety and personal freedoms hasn’t been put to rest yet.

Q: How will safety culture look in the future?

I am actually super interested to see how Gen Z will handle workplace safety. From what I’ve experienced with the younger generations, they take personal safety more seriously and aren’t as willing to take risks. They are also the generation that looks for instructions on tasks, so I have seen that they respond quite well to procedures. Many want to see a clear path laid out and know how to protect themselves from workplace hazards.

My biggest concern is the huge loss of industry knowledge we are encountering as more people retire. In my video work, I see companies who are working hard to create videos as well as procedures to capture this expertise. However, there are many companies who are entirely unprepared to lose such a knowledgeable workforce.

Based on these two factors, what I think we will see is companies who are prepared for this enormous generational shift will have a huge advantage over those who are not.

Q: What are you most proud of?

I’m just so happy to have found my niche in this industry. I’m proud of what we’ve done so far in terms of our videos, but I have so many more dreams and ambitions of how we can improve and make training better. I just feel honored to get to work in an area where I feel so energized and challenged at the same time.

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

It’s a tricky industry to start in and can be very intimidating. Stay strong, lean on other safety pros because we’re great at helping each other out, and know that you’ve chosen a meaningful career that’s worth the challenges. It won’t take long, and you’ll build your confidence.