Faces of EHS, Safety Culture

Faces of EHS: Rod Courtney on Making Safety Part of a Company’s DNA

Rod Courtney began his career in the US military. He served as an Army Combat Medic from 1990-1998. He has been a Certified Safety Technician for 25 years and became a Certified Utility Safety Professional (CUSP) in 2019. In 2007, he went to work in the renewable energy sector building thousands of megawatts of wind turbines and solar plants across the country. 

Currently, Rod works as the HSE Director for Ampirical, an engineering and construction firm in the electric utility industry. Since 2006, Ampirical has developed an industry track record for bringing complex and diverse electrical transmission and distribution projects to completion, within budget, and on schedule, for investor-owned utilities, municipalities, rural cooperatives, and industrial clients.

For our latest Faces of EHS profile, we sat down with Rod to discuss how he got his start in the industry, the future of wearables and new technologies, and the need to make safety part of an organization’s DNA.

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

I started my career in the U.S. military as a combat medic. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the medic is the “Safety Guy” for the Army. I was doing safety back then and didn’t even realize it. Once I got out of the Army I went into law enforcement for a few years, which is public safety. In 1997, I moved back home to Louisiana and needed a job. So I applied to be a scaffold builder at United Scaffolding in Baton Rouge. They saw my previous experience and asked, “What do you know about safety?” And the rest is history.

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

There is no way I can answer this with just one person. When it comes to communication, my biggest influence was my Section Sergeant in the Army. His name is Lance Hollis, and we are friends to this very day. When it comes to leadership, my biggest influence has been Jocko Willink and Leif Babin from Echelon Front. They are two former Navy Seals that wrote the books “Extreme Ownership” and “The Dichotomy of Leadership.” My different view of safety was influenced by Todd Conklin and Sidney Dekker.

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

When I started in the industry, I was trained how to be a “Safety Cop.” And I was very good at it. With my background in law enforcement, it came very naturally to me. But looking back, it was extremely counterproductive.

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

My favorite part is definitely helping companies and individuals understand how to do safety differently, and helping them to understand that safety is not the absence of accidents, it’s the presence of capacity. Within my own organization, I would not change a thing. But in the industry as a whole, I would make safety the responsibility of operations. The system should be value driven and operationally based.

Q: What are your thoughts on safety culture? How can company leaders make safety a value within their organization?

Company leaders that want to be compliant will never get there unless they have a paradigm shift and understand that being compliant is the absolute bare minimum you need to do. If you want to be excellent then it takes enthusiastic commitment from all levels of leadership. They, with a just safety culture, safety can become a never yielding value. 

The next evolution is to make safety just part of your company’s DNA. It’s not a priority or a value. It’s not on any list of “important” things. For example, when creating your personal or company priorities/values you never put “breathing” on the list. But if you don’t breathe you will not survive. Safety is like breathing. It needs to be just part of who you are.

Q: What safety concerns or issues do you think need more prioritization in EHS programs?

Behavior Based Safety, at its very foundation, is counterproductive and does not work. This is backed up by facts and if we cannot expect to get different results if we keep doing the same things.

Q: What will be the impact of Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) principles on the EHS industry?

Corporate sustainability is here to stay. Like workplace safety was in the early ’70s sustainability is going to change the landscape of our industry over time. The key here is “OVER TIME.” Sustainability is not an objective, it’s about making quantifiable progress toward a cleaner world. It’s also not just an idea. It’s a commitment to renovate action requiring new ways of working and new ways of collaborating.

Q: How will new safety technologies influence the work being done by EHS professionals?

With the development of digital check in apps for job sites like Safe Site Check In, as well as Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Reality, we are going to be able to do things never even dreamed of in the past. With jobsite check in data, “wearable” devices and camera monitoring systems we will be able to collect the TRUE data we need to finally be able to “focus on the leading indicators.”

Q: What are you most proud of?

In life I am most proud of my family. My wife, both of my daughters and each of my four grandsons. Professionally, I am most proud of the book I wrote, The 8 Habits of a Highly Effective Safety Culture, and the change it is helping to create in all industries.

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

Become a student of communication, influence and leadership. These three skill sets will help you to be successful in anything you do.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

I’ve mentioned we must have a paradigm shift in order to evolve. We cannot get better doing what we’ve been doing. The two areas I believe will take the biggest adjustment are:

  1. We have to stop trying to fix the worker and fix the work instead. We have to design our system so it is safe for our employees to fail.
  2. Behavior Based Safety does not work. We need to flip safety on its head and focus on the significant injuries and fatalities.

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