EHS Management, Faces of EHS, Technology and Innovation

Faces of EHS: Helen Harris on Data Analysis and EHS Controls

For the majority of her career, Helen Harris worked in the oil and gas industry, primarily for wellhead manufacturing and service companies. In 2012 while working for General Electric, she met Todd Conklin and was introduced to Human and Organizational Performance (HOP), kicking off her continuous exploration of thought leadership in HOP and reliability and resilience engineering. She enrolled at the University of Alabama-Birmingham during the pandemic and completed her Master of Engineering in Advanced Safety and Engineering Management.

In August 2022, Helen joined WestRock where she serves as the Health & Safety Center of Excellence Leader, coaching organizational influencers to harness operational knowledge for holistic workplace safety improvements. WestRock is a leader in sustainable, fiber-based packaging solutions with 58,000 team members across 300+ production facilities worldwide.

For our latest Faces of EHS profile, we sat down with Helen to discuss her biggest industry influence, the layers of controls in an environmental, health and safety (EHS) system, and how EHS professionals will soon be learning data analysis.

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

I was working in an administrative role on a process safety management project when I was exposed to the work of safety professionals. At the time, I had finished associate degrees in math and business administration but the thought of completing a higher-level degree in those fields was not appealing to me. Working in the petrochemical plant, I was very fortunate to be able to spend time with wonderful people who were passionate about the EHS field and encouraged me to explore it further. I officially moved into EHS in 2005 after completing a B.S. in Environmental Science, minor in Industrial Hygiene and Safety from the University of Houston- Clear Lake. I’ve been a practicing EHS professional since. 

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

Todd Conklin has far and away been the most influential. He opened my eyes to a different way to approach work as a safety professional and through that work I began to see the world differently. My approach to safety was very stringent and ultimately detrimental to my ability to connect with frontline team members and learn about the challenges they face. Because of my inflexibility, it made it difficult for people to share difficult news and information with me. As a result, the support I could provide was unhelpful. Changing the way I interact with team members has been such a game changer and instrumental to implementing effective solutions to challenging problems. Fortunately, now I hear about those problems and the operational challenges that come along during normal work.

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

That’s a tough question! There are so many to choose from. I’ll have to say the mistake that has been difficult to learn is that it can be beneficial to change my mind, especially in the face of new data and context. There were times when I published guidance only to find out later that there are significant operational challenges for affected employees. Having to go back and update guidance, even when there was a good reason, never felt very good. I thought it gave the impression of being indecisive. Now, when I feel myself starting to dig my heels about guidance, I try to remember that it’s ok to change paths as emerging information becomes available. That’s not indecisive, it’s smart.

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

My favorite part of being a health and safety professional is the sense of purpose and fulfillment. I enjoy knowing my work makes a difference in the lives of my fellow team members. I do wish I had known about the safety professional earlier in my life. As a young person, I was steered toward engineering, education, and accounting because of my interest in science and technology. So, if I would change anything about the profession, it would be to increase advocacy of the profession for high school students.

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

I think safety culture is tough to define and measure. There are so many tools out there for the safety professional to use when establishing a baseline and monitoring the maturity of the safety culture but there isn’t a great deal of research to support the use of those tools. I’m a firm believer that company leaders can change safety in their organizations by changing how they view and talk about the risk of injury. In discussions about safety, try to understand where operational challenges exist and what controls are in place when failures occur—when the failure occurs, not if it occurs.

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

An interesting discussion came to mind with this question. The discussion was around whether there was a need for a more robust machine guarding strategy or additional support and attention on the lockout/tagout (LOTO) program. Through the progression of the conversation, we realized that both programs are fairly robust. Instead, what was concerning is the how those programs come together and work cohesively as layers of controls when necessary. I’d like to see a prioritization on the layering of controls and how those controls work simultaneously. I think the understanding of protective systems will be more and more important as our systems become more and more complex.

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

I think ESG principles have helped to bring attention to EHS and highlight the importance of both environmental sustainability and EHS to team members. These two focuses are inextricably intertwined and can be a great focus for an organization. With the growing expectation for environmental sustainability from the workforce, customers, and consumers, ESG and EHS are mutually beneficial and can be used to leverage support from executives.

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

I would like to say that it is going to make our work easier and it’s my sincere hope! While I believe some technology will make some things easier to do, I also think it will add complexity to our work. So many of the technological advances have to do with the ability to gather data, some of which will require authorization by the employee because of the personal data being gathered. All of the data gathering is said to be predictive in nature, but I think what that actually means is the EHS professionals will need the ability to evaluate the data to determine where and how to prioritize improvement efforts. What I love about the new technological advancements is that the changes mean a new opportunity to improve and gain a new skill—data analysis!

Q: What are you most proud of?

Several years ago, after much debate on the best way to get healthy, I settled on biking and set my sights on America’s Most Beautiful Bike Ride around Lake Tahoe. When I need a boost to my mental health, I think about crossing the finish line with my training team. I rode 72 miles around the lake, climbing up and flying down mountains. It was the most difficult physical and mental challenge I’ve ever encountered. It was scary! But now I know without a doubt that I can do anything that is important to me.

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

Be open to change and super curious about the work happening for the people you support. Practice listening as much as possible. You’ll be amazed by the things you learn. 

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