Faces of EHS

Faces of EHS: Josh Russell on Building Your Own Toolbox

After spending over a decade working in restaurants, landscaping, construction, nightclub security, and mobile electronics, Josh Russell decided he wanted to work in the field of science. In 2001, he was able to land a job as an entry-level laboratory technician working in a DNA sequencing pipeline, and at the time he began taking courses towards a degree in biology. He worked as a hazardous materials technician before taking a position as a safety officer for a startup company that was developing a malaria vaccine.

Five years later, he began his degree in Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) and left the startup to work as an industrial hygiene consultant for the EPA. In 2013, Josh was hired by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s (HHMI) Janelia Research Campus, and he has been there ever since. HHMI is a science philanthropy with a mission to advance basic biomedical research and science education for the benefit of humanity. Janelia consists of scientific researchers, operations personnel, support staff, and science collaborators working towards the common goal of moving science forward.

For our latest Faces of EHS profile, we sat down with Josh to discuss how he found his passion for EHS, using communication and collaboration to lead, and learning and developing from those around him.

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

I honestly took an entry-level job in EHS because the lab position that I was in at the time at the time was being eliminated, and a friend presented the opportunity to me. I went in thinking it would be a placeholder until I could find something else, but almost 20 years later, I am still working in the field and have embraced it as an opportunity to have a positive impact on so many along the way.

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

I don’t feel that I can list just one influence as I have been blessed with many great teachers, leaders, mentors, and colleagues throughout my journey. I believe that in our careers we are basically building our own “toolbox” which consists of knowledge that is gained through experiences and learning from those around us.

I have to say that the biggest influence in my career came this summer while at the 2022 American Society of Safety Professionals conference in Chicago. I spent a substantial amount of time having extremely insightful conversations with some of my connections in the field. These conversations and connections led to the revitalization of my passion for leaving a legacy in the field of EHS.

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

My biggest mistake was allowing my passion for the field of EHS to dwindle. When I got into management, I found a love for leading others, and I lost sight of the opportunities that I still had to be impactful through my work in safety. I realized that my passion, or lack thereof, would directly affect the way that those in my care approached safety, and because of this I refocused on honing my craft and demonstrating a genuine care for my profession. 

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

My favorite part about working in the industry is that I am blessed with being able to help others. My least favorite part is how some in the industry approach their craft using a dictatorial approach. Safety should be a collaborative effort that involves open communication and input from others and should be approached from a position of genuine care. I am reminded quite often how some like to use scare tactics to influence the behaviors of others, and I am dedicated to helping them see how that is not the correct way of achieving the intended outcome in our field.  

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

I feel it’s imperative for company leaders to make safety front and center, and not an afterthought. But even more than that, they need to show that safety is important because they genuinely care about their people and realize they are the most important assets of the organization. Too often companies promote safety because they care about their bottom line and that isn’t an effective way of getting workers to buy in on the safety programs. If leaders show that they value their people, their staff will be more likely to embrace positive values such as safety that are (or should be) part of the company culture.

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

There are many things changing for the better in our industry, but two really stand out to me. First, the use of technology for early detection and prevention of injuries and illnesses is advancing rapidly. I’ve been able to have in-depth discussions with some of the companies that are leading the charge in these areas, and it’s really exciting to see the data around the impact they are having on worker safety.

Second, I am really pleased to see that there is a substantial shift in the way that some professionals are approaching their work. For way too long, safety professionals have been viewed as the workplace police, and that has only led workers to hide unsafe behaviors or conditions instead of feeling comfortable having conversations about how things can be improved. I really hope to see this shift continue as more and more safety professionals see that they have an opportunity to be a resource to help those in their care.  

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

I feel that for a good portion of the pandemic, traditional safety took a backseat because the focus was solely on prevention of community spread and compliance with COVID-19 requirements. Many safety professionals, including myself, had to quickly learn about the virus and continuously shift approaches as information and guidance changed quite frequently.

Q: How will safety culture look in the future?

My belief is that as more data becomes available regarding what approaches to safety are most effective, more companies will shift towards embracing safety as a positive cultural value that is needed because they genuinely care about their people.

Q: What are you most proud of?

I am most proud of the fact that I have been able to lead some amazing early-career safety professionals and help them grow. It has been so rewarding to see their development, and to be honest, I too have developed by learning so much from them. They are passionate about their craft and the way they approach it is the embodiment of what the future of safety should look like.

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

Make sure you are doing it because you are passionate about it. I am a firm believer in authenticity, and if you do not authentically care about your work, people will see that, and you will not get the results that you want. Another thing I would suggest is to build your network. There are so many safety professionals that are willing to share and help others in our industry and it would be a missed opportunity to not take advantage of that. LinkedIn has a huge EHS community, and I have found that to be a great way of growing my network. Some folks I have met through LinkedIn have become not only trusted advisors, but also friends.