Faces of EHS

Faces of EHS: Shannon Overland on Communication and Values

Shannon Overland co-founded a forestry contracting firm 31 years ago that continues to operate in the British Columbia forestry sector. She has worked in all aspects of the forestry industry including chainsaw operation and the heavy equipment operation of a forwarder in a cut-to-length logging operation. Concurrent to the forestry work, Shannon also maintained a small contract workforce, including herself in the northern Canadian oil and gas industry providing medic and safety services to remote drilling and winter camp locations.

Currently, she works as a principal consultant at DEKRA Insights, a company whose consulting practice includes consultants and business partners to many of the world’s largest chemical, oil and gas, transportation, utilities, pharmaceutical, and agriculture companies.

In our latest Faces of EHS profile, we sat down with Shannon to discuss her roots in the forestry industry, the importance of communication skills, and valuing instead of prioritizing safety.

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

I started off as a contractor in the forest industry of British Columbia, Canada, at 22 years old. My brother and I ran a silviculture (tree planting, GPS, project manager for site preparation contractors) contracting company while we were going to university. Our dad oversaw the operation. We started the company in 1991 for the purpose of providing a safe work environment to others after the negative experiences both of us experienced working for large companies for a couple years.

In 1994, our main client, Weyerhaeuser Canada, let us know that we could no longer work for them without having a safety program. We were not happy with the demand and as a result my dad said I could do the safety program because I was the girl and my handwriting was nicer. I was not initially happy about it but can say now it has been the best thing that happened to me. On another note: my brother continues to operate the company we started to this day, which just celebrated its 31st anniversary. It has maintained a reputation for safety for decades now and has received significant recognition.

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

There is no one person that I can attribute the greatest influence on me. I acknowledge the folks at Weyerhaeuser decades ago for not only requiring a safety management system, but for partnering with their contractors to co-create a safety system. Experiencing this team effort helped make some of the greatest gains I experienced in the field of safety.

Q: What’s your favorite part about working in the industry?

My favorite part of working in the safety industry is the people. There are so many times I complete my day exhausted yet completely energized with the shift, progress, or acknowledgements made by the people I am lucky enough to work with.

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

First, I feel that leaders must understand what a value is and how it differs from a priority. I still regularly hear the language of priority when it comes to safety in the field: “safety first,” “safety above all else,” etc. This may sound good to leadership, but the workforce shakes their heads at it. When leaders understand that holding safety as a core value in everything they do means they can prioritize production, money and time, the question becomes “What is necessary to control or reduce the exposures associated and most importantly, at what point would we pause?”

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

There is so much variability in the industry. When we talk about the cultural continuum there appears to be so much of current culture rooted in a compliance-focused environment. Awareness and a plan to move forward are important, but this is like calling the baby ugly! Let’s call the baby ugly and take a step forward!

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

COVID has challenged everyone, especially around communication. To truly evolve to an interdependent, people focused, values based, “want-to culture,” I feel there needs to be the opportunity to have meaningful contact with our people. Leaders have to ensure they get face to face on a regular basis, and demonstrate that they can prioritize the time necessary to show up and create meaningful and transformational conversations with their team. We struggled with the challenges of “silos” and “business units” pre-pandemic. Once again, if we are not intentional with our actions, we can lose the ground we have worked so hard to establish to this point, let alone evolve forward.

Q: How will safety culture look in the future?

I do not know what it will look like. I can say what I envision and would envision for my own organization if I was still operational. The expectations of the safety culture should be established, agreed upon, non-redundant, non-conflicting, co-created, and co-managed with the stakeholders. A compliant focused safety culture tends to build up its “paper” at every turn. There is an opportunity to review for completeness, redundancy, and conflict.

Leadership at every level should be present and visible regularly at the workface where teams and workers are present. Employers should take a coach approach to communication from leaders utilizing inquiry and intentional listening, though there are very few who are good at this naturally, and there needs to be a self-realization or reflection of that. There should also be a strong “pause work” culture.

Q: What are you most proud of?

For myself, it is the awareness in the last eight years of the need to become highly self-reflective. I can look back on my early operational career and see where I was a big part of the cultural problem. I sought blame in the workforce, I was very much in a judger mindset, looking to find fault elsewhere when things did not go as expected or planned. I see the central part of my career, where I provided extensive compliance training to be focused on me talking and others listening feeling I was the voice of knowledge. My goal currently is to be curious: to ask the questions of others and listen intentionally to both what they say and do not say. The level of insights for both myself, and those I am in the discussions with are what I am most proud of. It has been a long journey.

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

Yes! Do it. My first advice would be to grow thick skin and learn the basics, the expectations. Find a mentor and work on these communication skills that I keep bringing up!