Faces of EHS, Safety Culture

Faces of EHS – Tricia Kagerer on Women in Safety

Tricia Kagerer has been in the Safety and Risk Management field for over 25 years. She is currently serving as the Executive Vice President of Risk Management and Safety at Jordan Foster and as a board member of the Board of Certified Safety Professionals (BCSP). At Jordan Foster, her role encompasses creating an overall risk management strategy where they identify risks, prevent everything they possibly can, and mitigate challenges when they arise.

Jordan Foster Construction is a large general contractor performing civil, commercial, and multifamily construction across Texas. The building group establishes trade partner relationships to build various projects from warehouses, assisted living centers, hotels, and apartments.  

For our latest Faces of EHS profile, we sat down with Tricia to discuss her biggest industry influences, embracing technology and diversity, and breaking down barriers for women in EHS.

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

My first “professional job” after graduating from college was as a workers’ compensation claims adjuster for a Texas insurance company in El Paso, Texas. For four years, I handled workers’ compensation claims for injured workers in all industries, including construction, manufacturing, and public entities. It was a great entry point in risk management. Still, I became increasingly frustrated with the position because someone was injured, they were often frustrated with the workers’ compensation system, and my job was to follow the law to adjust the claim. I had an opportunity to work in claims management in a stone-wash denim manufacturing plant. At 24 years old, I took the position. I spoke Spanish, and I tried to solve the problem when incidents occurred. At one point, three team members sustained back injuries from a similar incident. They were pulling heavy pallets of rocks from under a sizeable industrial washer. I went out into the plant and investigated. When I asked why they weren’t using a pallet jack, they responded, “They are all broken.” So, I went over to the maintenance department and introduced myself. I asked if he could fix the pallet jacks. He did. Problem solved. 

A few weeks later, a corporate safety director visited the plant. He introduced himself and asked if I was interested in becoming a Safety Manager. I said, “Absolutely, yes!” I had no idea what that meant. Soon I was hooked. Safety is one of the best ways to influence positive change and make a significant difference. When organizations integrate safety into their business philosophy, real change benefits the organization and those closest to the work.

I was fortunate because the company invested in my education and training, and I ultimately got my CSP and became a safety professional. This led to other opportunities in Risk Management and started a unique, rewarding, and exciting career that I love.

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

I am fortunate to have many mentors and colleagues whom I have admired and respected over the years. Maria Guy is a Partner at Giant Worldwide (www.giantworldwide.com), a leadership consulting company on a mission to change the standard of leadership worldwide. Before becoming a partner with Giant, Maria was a vice president for a large construction company and the first female president of the AGC of New Mexico. I saw Maria speak on leadership several years ago at a women’s leadership conference. Her message was aligned with my approach to safety and risk management, and I had never heard anyone break down the importance of a servant leadership culture into a common language. Shortly afterward, I signed up for Giant Sherpa training and became certified in several leadership initiatives. I am now leading the Catalyst Leadership cohort for Jordan Foster Construction, where we multiply and create a leadership culture by teaching everyone a common leadership language. Maria has become a mentor and a friend, and I am grateful for her guidance and support over the years.

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

My biggest mistake was trying to be something I was not to fit in. Twenty years ago, women in construction safety were few and far between. When I joined the industry, many people believed I didn’t belong and that I would fail. I tried to put on a “tough guy” mentality briefly. If someone questioned me, I became defensive and snapped back. After a few misguided results, I realized that my success with safety was directly tied to my ability to connect with people. I returned to what I did best and became genuinely interested in learning everything I could about construction from those who knew the most about it: the operations team.

I remember driving onto a project. As I exited my truck, the superintendent yelled from the trailer’s steps, “You again! Are you here to write me up?” I smiled and explained, “Nope! Could you teach me how to build a bowling alley?” That moment changed everything for me. We walked the project together for hours, and I learned more that afternoon about all the challenges a superintendent goes through to build a project. I was always a good storyteller and an excellent listener. Those skills translate into becoming a great safety professional as well. Taking the time to learn from the field and develop relationships with people makes all the difference in the world.

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

My favorite part of working in safety is the common element that no one can argue with. Safety is life-changing; we can prevent incidents and keep people out of harm’s way. It is a noble profession, and when we influence the definition of profitability to include our workforce’s overall safety and well-being, we make a difference.

My least favorite part about the industry is the limiting belief that it is only for men. If I were to change anything, I would break down the barriers for women to join the industry. The safety industry has always male-dominated. Each year I see more women joining the industry, but we still have more work to do.  We must create a pipeline of women interested in joining the industry while simultaneously creating an industry that welcomes women brave enough to pursue it. 

I am so passionate about this topic that I wrote a book called “The B Words: 13 Words Women Must Navigate for Success,” I use that book to spark a conversation around change for industries like safety, where women still need to be present and have a voice.

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

There is a saying that culture eats strategy for lunch; in my experience, it is very accurate. Executives spend efforts and resources to create a strategic plan on paper. Yet how much time do they spend aligning that strategic plan with the reality facing those who must implement and be held accountable for it? Organizations that get their safety culture right create inclusive organizations where they hear from everyone. Everyone speaks, but only some are heard. A company that creates a thriving safety culture must multiply that culture throughout its projects and organization. 

A safe culture is easy to describe but challenging to create. You know it when you experience it. For example, I recently visited a highway project we are building in El Paso with members of our safety team.  The field leaders were excited to share the details of the project’s progress. The safety team member knew all our field team members by name. The superintendent talked openly about what was working and what were opportunities for improvement. We had an open conversation about what we could do to support operations. Overall, it was a great day: a rewarding experience where people worked together.

That is a safe culture—you know it when you experience it. The goal of the safety professional is to influence leadership to multiply that culture over and over. It takes time, effort, executive leadership visibility, support, and trust. 

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

The construction industry faces one of its most significant risks as we have been unable to attract and retain our workforce. A perfect storm of issues, including immigration rules, an aging workforce, reputation and image, mental health challenges, and a lack of diversity, contribute to our inability as an industry to recruit and retain our workforce. Similarly, these same issues impact every aspect of safety.

By expanding the focus on safety to become aware of these issues and their impact on the overall business risk, we can change the dialogue and bring solutions to the executive table. We are expanding the definition of safety to include the whole holistic person. Until safety is no longer siloed, safety professionals face the risk of playing a game of “Whack A Mole” to fix the problem of the day without influencing and recognizing the bigger picture.

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

Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) principles are becoming increasingly crucial for businesses and investors as they seek to balance profitability with sustainability and ethical responsibility. ESG encourages interaction to collaborate with local communities to understand concerns and perspectives. ESG also drives a business risk management approach that identifies emerging risks so that these concerns can be engrained in the executive decision-making process.

Organizations that have successfully integrated EHS into their business model have a strategic advantage and a road map to follow to establish ESG best practices. EHS and ESG are well aligned when prioritizing stakeholder engagement and sustainability—risk management best practices and reputation into the overall business philosophy.

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

Years ago, I worked with a safety software company to automate our safety checklist process. We changed from paper to automated and began trending leading indicators. Back then, rolling the technology process out required a genuine cultural shift and many conflict resolution skills, change management, and patience. Today, our young workforce demands technological solutions and is always ready to embrace them. Executive decision-makers need to recognize that if they are set in their ways on technology that is not evolving with their operations, they risk losing their top talent.

Technology makes basic safety techniques like audits, inspections, and compliance easier to identify and trend. The future use of artificial intelligence to measure a culture of care and deliver education, best practices, and constant communication to those closest to the work who are at risk are already shifting the responsibilities and expectations of EHS professionals. 

Wearables, cameras, sensors, and movement tracking will all contribute to the new way we define safety best practices. Jordan Foster Construction continues to explore all these aspects of technology in our quest to be the absolute best at safety. We have partnered with HCSS, Mind Forge, Samsara, and Factorlab to ensure we lead the next best practices. With so many options and an ever-changing opportunity, it requires a visionary attitude and a “let’s try it” philosophy. Keeping technology in the status quo is a risk today, and construction organizations must get comfortable with embracing technology and change.

Q: What are you most proud of?

I am most proud of my family and how I successfully navigated a tricky career path to become one of the few female construction industry executives while raising two kids with a husband who traveled 90% of the time. Looking back, somehow, we figured it out, and everything turned out great. I’m incredibly proud of my kids, who are now embracing their careers, going out, and living their own lives on their terms.

I am also very proud of my work breaking down gender bias in male-dominated industries like construction. My hobby is writing, and when my daughter decided to study the male-dominated industry of engineering, I started writing my book “The B Words, 13 Words Women Must Navigate for Success.”  My goal is to spark a conversation and lend my voice to all the women out there who sometimes feel like they don’t belong. Over the past 25 years, I was often the only woman in my role, in the field, or on the executive leadership team. I never felt like I had anyone to ask for advice or network with. The book is my catalyst to lend my voice and spark necessary conversations that don’t happen enough today.

EHS and construction are still male-dominated industries, and we have more work to do to change that dynamic. I dream that one day the term “non-traditional” will no longer apply to career decisions. Women will perform the work they are drawn to do, be compensated equally, and be treated equitably for their time. 

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

Any young professional considering a career in EHS, especially female candidates who believe they don’t belong or should not attempt, I say go for it! We need you in our industry to become role models for the future and ultimately change the limiting beliefs around gender roles.  

I have had the time of my life and a fulfilling career in safety. The industry is thriving with great pay, excellent benefits, and a long-term future of success. There are opportunities in every aspect of the business, including the field, technology, shared services, loss control, emergency preparedness and risk management.

It is essential to research companies to find one with a culture like Jordan Foster’s that celebrates an entrepreneurial spirit and a willingness to invest in your future. 

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

For more information about me and my book, you can find me at www.triciakagerer.com or on social media @triciakagerer

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