Faces of EHS, Safety Culture, Technology and Innovation

Faces of EHS: John White on Building Trust and Safety Culture

John White started his career as a federal OSHA health and safety officer in Washington, D.C., where he worked to keep employers in compliance of general industry standards. As his career progressed in the healthcare, construction, and manufacturing industries, he realized a better way to maintain employee quality. Now in his current career path, John is the director of environmental, health and safety (EHS) at Cox Automotive, a company that uses technology, market intelligence, and products and services to simplify the exchange and mobility of vehicles and maximizes value for dealers, manufacturers and car shoppers.

For our latest Faces of EHS profile, we sat down with John to discuss how he got his start in the industry, the pros and cons of EHS technologies, and building trust to build safety culture. 

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

From my own personal experience as a prep-cook in high school. I was injured cutting an onion and felt leadership did not take my personal safety seriously. The experience led me to my major in EHS.

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

I was able to work with Professor Sidney Dekker in Australia on a few projects, as well as Andrea Baker on Human and Operational Performance. These concepts of designing resilient working systems and understanding human behavior changed how I approach my programs.

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

Early in my career the belief that fixing the worker was something I pushed, way too much. Sometimes I think back to injuries or incidents that lead to employee writeups or termination and feel responsible that as leaders, we did not project the employee effectively. Their normal human error just exposed our shortcomings.

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

My favorite part is always learning from the subject matter experts, which are the employees that do the job. When we look at doing anything to improve the employee quality in our company, we always interact with the ones that do the job.

If I could change anything in the industry, it would be the understanding that many of the tools, key performance indicators, and safety initiatives are outdated. Really outdated. Most have been around since the early 1900s. It is hard to think of another profession that still depends on tactics that were around Henry Ford’s automobile industry was established.

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

Safety culture is about building trust. If your employees, the individuals that have the answers, don’t trust you then you will always hit a ceiling with your safety program. Having programs that drug test every injury, initiatives for not getting hurt, or even have the general saying of “Safety First” creates distrust. We all know making money is first or we would not have a job.

You must pull your employees into the meetings, build working instructions around how the job is really done, and most importantly, listen to their concerns. Learning is vital.

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

Engagement with cross-functional departments, employees on the floor, and then operational leadership.

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

Technology is critical to the innovation of safety programs moving forward. We are now in an era where EHS professionals need to educate themselves on projects or solutions that our mentors did not have. It is exciting to see how forklift safety, ergonomic risks, and even reporting have been made easier with newer systems just released in the past few years.

However, as safety professionals, we must be careful that technology does not create an environment of false security. For example, interlocking gates are great to reduce lockout/tagout, but once that system is bypassed we only have very expensive caution tape protecting our workforce.

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

Always do the right thing and don’t settle for an environment of fear leadership.

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