Faces of EHS

Faces of EHS: Jessica Zirkelbach on Authenticity and Employee Engagement

Jessica Zirkelbach started her career 18 years ago in the Scientists and Engineers Early Development (SEeD) leadership program that she now champions. Across her career she has held various positions from project engineer, Lean leader, and process engineer to production engineer to operations manager of various units. As Jessica grew in her career, so did her recognition of the foundational importance all aspects of safety have in industry. She loves having the opportunity to inspire others and to share her passion.

Currently, Jessica is the Environment and Human Health, Safety, and Security (EHSS) leader for SABIC’s largest manufacturing site in America located in Mount Vernon, IN, and she leads SABIC America’s rotational SEeD program.  SABIC is a chemical company that works in petrochemicals, Agri-nutrients, specialties, and metals, with production at 66 manufacturing and compounding sites, and sales across more than 100 countries. 

For our latest Faces of EHS profile, we sat down with Jessica to discuss how she got her start in the industry, the effects of COVID-19 on employee engagement, and staying true to her authentic self.

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

I studied to be an engineer, but I truly wanted to be a doctor. I decided to interview for engineering jobs as practice while prepping for the MCAT. I surprised myself by accepting a position as a manufacturing engineer only to try it out. I told myself that could always go to med school later. Growing up, I never pictured myself in a hard hat or steel toes, but I fell in love with manufacturing. 

As I progressed in my career, I learned that I did not need to focus all my energy on managing the metrics, the numbers, and the KPIs, which were the things I was being asked about most often by leaders. The team already knew those things were important. They did not need my help managing production, so I shifted my focus to EHSS and the people. I helped resolve lingering personnel issues while engaging the team in frequent discussions on EHSS improvements. Pretty soon, the team was implementing small ideas, housekeeping was improving, morale was on the rise, and our overall performance improved! I was smiling every day and so was my team. This fueled my passion for EHSS, and it has been my focus ever since. 

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

When I first transitioned from individual contributor roles to leadership roles, I was given the opportunity to participate in an experiential class on behavioral management techniques. The timing could not have been better. The leader of the sessions became an influential mentor for me. The environment we are in influences our behavior. Furthermore, as leaders we play a big role in creating the environment our teams work in, and recognition of this was pivotal in my success a team builder.

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

I once followed an extremely successful manager. Everyone loved him, including leaders and operators. He had just earned the big promotion. As he transitioned out and I transitioned into his role, I started off trying to be like him. What he did had worked. It was exhausting trying to be someone else and I believe that everyone could tell I was trying too hard. Then, I remembered it was me who earned me this new role. When I started to be me again, all the pieces fell into place. My learning—always be authentically you! 

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

Employee engagement: Genuinely care about your employees. Get to know them, start every discussion caring about how your team is going to safely execute the tasks at hand. Champion EHSS processes. Focus on safety observation and near miss sharing in a positive way. Ensure corrective actions are immediately taken to resolve safety issues, even if that means introduction of interim actions that are not ideal. Help employees make their ideas for safety improvement become a reality.  Set clear expectations, and celebrate success while driving accountability to meet those executions. 

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

Initially as we entered the COVID-19 pandemic and managed through the first year our engagement and morale climbed. We increased our communication on all levels, we followed CDC guidelines, and decisively made decisions to protect our team members during a very uncertain time. We also collaborated with our community in any way possible. But as the pandemic continued, the fatigue of it settled in and national and world views on it began to divide. Relationships suffered where historical practices were adjusted to reduce face-to-face interaction and masks continued to be required. We are now on the climb to get back to engagement levels pre-COVID-19.

Q: How will safety culture look in the future?

One team is working toward a common vision where all safety processes naturally occur as if they are second nature and ideas for improvement are being implemented in abundance.

Q: What are you most proud of?

I entered my second operations manager role right after a business commitment to convert the chemical operations plant process technology to improve long-term competitiveness. We were also committed to changing our DCS at the same time. Six months of construction while we were still operating and three months of outage. We did all of this on schedule without any safety issues, under strict financial and resource constraints. I received no extra resources to safely take on this challenge. 

Thankfully, I had a wonderful team to work with. I selected one of my up-and-coming leaders to temporarily run my compounding operation, so I could focus solely on chemical operations. We drew out a strategy for each obstacle we needed to safely overcome. I leveraged my compounding operation creating new temporary roles cross-training roles to shift resources. We identified subject matter experts within our team and assigned them to areas and shifting inexperienced resources to partner with their experience. Each mini team became experts on a new portion of the process, leading procedural development, training, and commissioning work for that area.

I took my strongest operations player and removed him from operations; he became the link between construction and operations, leading all proactive safety assessments, pulling the team into decisions. We did it. We safely and successfully converted and commissioned a new plant making in-spec product ahead of our commitments.