At Waste Management (WM), Sheri Hummel has earned a reputation for her commitment to building a culture that focuses on employee safety. In her position as director of safety for Waste Management’s Northern California-Nevada region, Hummel created a multifaceted program designed to prevent injuries and accidents.
She started her career at WM 12 years ago as a safety manager and later became an environmental protection manager. She then served as the area safety manager for the region of Southern California and Hawaii, which covered about 4,000 employees. In that role, she implemented a program that greatly reduced safety incidents.
Hummel, who was named a 2019 Waste360 40 Under 40 award recipient, discusses how she has worked to support the safety of Waste Management employees in the region where she serves and why she finds occupational safety to be a dynamic field.
Waste360: What are your major responsibilities in your position as the director of safety for Waste Management?
Sheri Hummel: I manage all aspects of safety for the Northern California-Nevada area, which comprises about 2,500 employees. In this role, I analyze and trend incidents, strategize on preventative measures to prevent employee injuries and workplace accidents, develop job hazard analysis and develop new policies and procedures. There is an OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] compliance aspect to what we do as well, helping the sites and guiding them to maintain OSHA compliance.
We have a Mission to Zero culture at Waste Management, which is obviously zero tolerance for unsafe acts and behaviors and building accountability or work buy-in for making the safe choice when it comes to performing our work tasks and going home in the condition that you came to work each day.
We are a people-first type of organization. We work with our people to change behaviors through coaching and mentoring. Coaching people to make safer choices in the field and while performing job tasks, following policies and procedures and working with sites to appropriately address concerns brought forward by employees as well.
Waste360: What are some challenges and successes you've experienced as you've worked in the safety arena?
Sheri Hummel: I think the implementation of managing our multiple incident employees was probably [the most challenging]. Southern California had a high frequency of incidents when I came into the area, and it was a high frequency with the multiple incident employees, those employees having two or more incidents in a rolling 12-month period of time.
I created a program for our multiple incident employees, working with the districts. I covered about 50 districts down in Southern California, and I worked with the director of operations and the district managers to create a program to manage these employees through an intervention process and through safety observations in the field, as well as coaching, mentoring and additional training.
We were able to have a significant decrease in our total number of multiple incident employees, as well as a 30 percent reduction in our accidents and injuries across the area as a result of managing these employees and creating a sustainable program, which is still in place to this day down in Southern California. That was probably my biggest challenge going into the area. It also had a substantial cost benefit to the area in reduction of preventable incidents.
Waste360: How did you prepare for working in the safety field?
Sheri Hummel: I went to college at Sacramento State University. I majored in occupational health and safety and environmental studies, and I had internships in industrial hygiene at Aerojet and Network Environmental Systems.
My first job was at Ryder Transportation as a safety and loss prevention specialist, so that's where I learned about DOT [Department of Transportation] regulations from the fleet side and really got my introduction into the transportation industry. That’s how I came across Waste Management. Waste Management was in transportation but also refuse, so solid waste added an entire new aspect to my learning and development that I hadn’t previously had.
I was also introduced to Latent Cause Analysis, which is a specific theory of analyzing safety trends, and it’s one of my favorite theories of safety because you look more to latencies rather than employee actions. It’s a deeper level of investigation, which I find to be much more beneficial for managers—to essentially look in the mirror to see what we could do differently to help motivate our employees and change the decisions and behaviors they’re making in the field. It comes down to self-accountability for all of us, which I think adds a whole new layer to prevention, in general.
Waste360: Why do you think safety is an exciting field that is also dynamic?
Sheri Hummel: Safety is incredibly rewarding. You get to interact with people when something has gone wrong, and you get to help them to succeed moving forward. Oftentimes, changing behavior is one of the hardest things that we can do.
I can give you an example. One of the common ones that is used is very simple in transportation. It’s the use of a seatbelt and how that saves lives. For an adult who has created a behavior over the years of not fastening their seatbelt, they don’t find the value in that because they haven’t yet experienced some sort of trauma that creates the trigger making them want to fasten the seatbelt. But, if you were to sit that same person down and ask them if they were about to put a two-year-old in the backseat of their car, would they fasten the seatbelt and why, then you talk about the value of life.
If you’re the person who is the breadwinner in your family and you’re the person who is supplying the medical benefits for your children and putting food on the table and [providing] their Christmas presents in the winter, then your life is truly just as valuable as the two-year-old’s whose seatbelt you’re fastening. It’s using all kinds of ways of motivating people and getting them to do the right thing, which is all about saving somebody's life, potentially, who doesn’t understand the risk and the severity of their actions.
Waste360: What about your experience at Waste Management? What has been positive for you?
Sheri Hummel: I’ve found that Waste Management as an organization truly values their employees, and our frontline employees are our greatest asset. In terms of safety, there’s absolutely no compromise. Waste Management is willing to invest in their employees and invest in the appropriate engineering controls to keep employees safe, and I think that’s reciprocated in the high-quality service that’s provided as a result.
Waste360: As you're having fires and other natural disasters in the Northern California region, how is that affecting the safety of your workers?
Sheri Hummel: We have an aggressive disaster plan in place for our area. As part of my role, I am constantly updating our districts and working with our districts through these challenges, and we prepare at the beginning of the year to do assessments. We also conduct drills throughout the year to account for our employees, and we have appropriate housing and personal protective equipment such as dust masks available.
When fires have occurred, I can tell you that in our area, we had employees—managers and frontline employees—that have lost their homes. Waste Management has been a great organization, giving resources, housing, food, clothing, everything that you can imagine to these employees in their time of need. It’s very inclusive. Everybody chips in and helps and participates. It’s a very community-based approach to disaster preparation and management.