It took 26 years for Jana Gessner, vice president of EHS for PepsiCo, to truly understand the connection between the work she did on a daily basis and what impact it had on employees and their families.
In a keynote presentation at EHS Today's Safety Leadership Conference 2019, being held Nov. 5-7 in Dallas, Gessner told the audience the very personal story of her mother and how a slip and fall impacted her and her family as her Mom suffered a traumatic brain injury that led to her death 86 days after the accident.
So every time she is “rolling the ball up the hill” as she described the work of many EHS professionals, she knows why she is doing it.
“Every time I go to a plant and I’m able to get dollars to put towards risk control, that’s what keeps me going,” said Gessner. “I know that I’m impacting lives.”
Impacting the lives of her employees at PepsiCo was why she was brought into the company seven years ago. The company knew it needed to improve its safety practices, and Gessner has the ability to create a system that is easily understood, executed and measured.
“As EHS professionals we need to simplify the case we make to senior leaders for programs,” explained Gessner. “While EH&S is a moral compass it must also have a cost association. You need to be able to show the link between what we are doing and how it impacts the cost of a company.”
She warned EHS professionals to “not fool themselves that we don’t have an impact on the business, we do.”
One way to provide this evidence is to create a structured program such as the one she created at PepsiCo called the Zero Zone.
“At a company like ours which is very strong in marketing, creating a brand around our safety programs, was an easy way to talk about, what we were doing,” said Gessner. The goal of the program is to have zero injuries and collisions. It’s based on five zones, functional areas, and has specific elements in each. “It’s easy to keep everyone on the same page and when we refer to zone 3, element 4, for example when we are talking about safety projects. Everyone knows exactly what we are talking about,” says Gessner.
But what Gessner is really doing is creating a safety culture. At the heart of the Zero Zone is that safety is a value proposition. "Safety’s not a priority it’s the culture," Gessner states.
The cultural shift that Gessner has implemented is captured in the company’s Courage to Care Program, which was launched in 2019. “This program is, in fact, a mindset,” says Gessner. “It’s a shift in how we are doing things. It’s designed to stand the test of time.”
One of its key elements is right out of the company’s overall guiding principles which is to “voice your opinion.” And this core value is taken to the level where employees are empowered to speak up for safety. “We have the courage to care and put protection of our people over the needs of production,” Gessner says.
And with empowerment comes responsibility. “We have the responsibility to teach and lead,” says Gessner. “It’s the only way to change our culture, and to get executives, supervisors, and front-line employees to have the courage to care about people.”
While not always an easy task, from any angle, Gessner reminded the audience that this was well within the scope of possibility. “Don’t ever forget the calling that you have as an EHS professional. “