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Improving EHS Communication and Collaboration: A Q&A with Dennis Hu

When Dennis Hu brings his team at Ball Aerospace together for a monthly meeting, the goal is no less than shifting the way others at the company view their business value. Hu, the director of environmental, health and safety, and systems safety engineering, puts the focus on effective communication and collaboration.

“We changed our mindset as EHS professionals,” he says. As a result, his team is being invited to work on critical business decisions earlier. Hu will be discussing how to achieve this during a workshop at the 2017 Environmental Leader Conference in June. Recently we caught up with him to find out more about how the EHS profession is evolving, and the advantages for organizations.

What does environmental health and safety management mean for Ball Aerospace?

At Ball Aerospace, we have a robust staff for environmental health and safety. In aerospace we also have systems safety engineering (SSE), a unique EHS field. It’s a heavy engineering discipline that looks at the safety and environmental aspects of the things we build. I liken it to product safety, except it’s a one-of-a-kind product that took 10 years to build and it goes up into space.

How is the EHS profession changing?

I’ve spent most of my career of 24 years as an EHS professional, and I’m an environmental engineer by degree. Most of the time, EHS professionals are kept arm’s distance away and only dealt with when something bad has happened. That is not necessarily the fault of the business.

How the profession started is how it needed to start, which was more of a compliance cop. That was needed back in the 1970s, when the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, EPA, and OSHA were formed. That was new to business. We had to have more of a ‘no, you can’t do this’ mentality.

We need to evolve now so we can help businesses make better decisions, and help sell what we know is something that’s good to do for the business. If we can’t articulate it, then we ought to question whether it’s something we should be doing. Do you really need 5,000 automatic external defibrillators? Maybe 50 will work.

What’s a common pitfall for EHS?

EHS professionals love to make their training module as long as possible and cover as much information as possible. When you bought your last high-tech piece of equipment for the home, did you get an owner’s manual? No, you didn’t. They say go online for the 100-page manual, but here’s one page of how to get started. EHS professionals need to think about their training and procedures. You can still have the 80-page document if somebody really wants it, but make it useful for the mechanic, the operator down on the shop floor.

If EHS professionals could do one thing to improve communication and collaboration right now, what should that be?

One thing that’s easy for most EHS professionals to work on immediately is basic business acumen. Know how to read financial statements, how a balance sheet works, how an income statement works. Know whether your company pays dividends. Know what drives your company’s financial business.

We don’t talk that way so business leaders tune out. They don’t need to know the details of a strong lockout-tagout program. What they need to know is why it’s important and how it impacts the business.

What steps helped EHS became an integral part of Ball Aerospace?

When I get the team together for a few hours every month, we talk about things like managing change. We talk about business communication, how to write better emails, how to have better conversations, be better listeners, be more empathetic. We talk about how to improve our ability to influence, whether we’re a giver or a taker.

The main reason we’re enjoying high-level collaboration within the business is because we changed our mindset. That was the catalyst. Because of that, people in other groups changed their perceptions of us. We’re able to be more effective, make the workplace even safer, make the environmental footprint even smaller. Now people ask us early on to join them in a meeting before we even started to think about designing a satellite, or a new product, or process.

We’re not immediately saying no in the cases where there’s flexibility. The law is pretty black and white, but that’s usually not the problem. In the gray area, we’re looking to be collaborative. We’re going to help you solve your problem, do it safely and with environmental stewardship in mind, educate you on what the impacts are, and together we’ll make a much better decision.

What are some specific examples?

In Colorado, we deal with inclement weather every winter — a lot of northern-facing buildings that don’t get sunlight. There are slick areas. We have slips and falls, and sometimes they’re pretty serious. One of the things we wanted to do was reduce them.

We engaged with facilities. We were able to show them data: These slips and falls cost the company X amount of dollars. When the people are out of work, this is the cost to the company. We partnered with facilities and said, ‘Can we put sand bins out across all locations? These sand bins are not for facilities, snowplow, or landscaping people. We’ll tell everybody that anybody can spread sand.’ Facilities said that sounds like a great idea. This was proactive planning together, sharing costs, sharing implementation burdens. So instead of just a handful of facilities people managing slips and falls, we had every employee in the company helping.

On the environmental side, a business group was trying to expand their operation and wanted a new location to generate hazardous waste. We said, ‘You can do that, but you’ve got to have storage correct, we’re probably going to be inspected, this is the documentation. And by the way, we have another hazardous waste storage location on the property. This may save you a little time now, but is it really worth it?’

The business unit eventually said, ‘We had no idea. Thank you. We didn’t even need to generate that much hazardous waste. Because you guys told us about the impacts, we thought about options for how we could change our process.’ In the past, I could see an EHS professional saying no and that’s it. There are a lot of different options — you’ve got to collaborate and communicate.

What do you see as the future of EHS and corporate governance?

The EHS professional is going to continue to be highly needed within an organization. The organizations that have integrated EHS teams and leadership helping drive business decisions, drive strategy, are going to be more successful. The ones that don’t will fall behind.

Dennis Hu will be speaking at the Environmental Leader Conference in Denver June 5-7, 2017. His workshop, Organizational Leadership in the 21st-Century Corporation, starts at 1 pm on June 5.

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