'I came in like a whirlwind' says agent of change safety star

How Jennifer Spies transformed her career and then changed a safety culture

'I came in like a whirlwind' says agent of change safety star

When Jennifer Spies was hired at Superior Trenching she warned her employer things wouldn’t be the same. "I came in like a whirlwind. I'm going to change your stuff," she declares with confidence.

That commitment to transformation and growth is a thread woven throughout her professional life, which has been rooted in safety, but only specifically focused on occupational health and safety for the past few years.

Spies had previously worked as an emergency medical technician (EMT) in Alberta’s oil fields, responding to incidents on-site. However, a severe back injury forced her to reevaluate her career. "I looked at my options, and safety was a direct correlation to what I was already doing," she explains. "Instead of responding to incidents, it would be on the prevention side, which really interested me."

Even before working as an EMT, Spies had experience keeping people safe and healthy. She was a lifeguard and swimming instructor. She also spent time working in a hospital emergency department. Her transition into health and safety seemed almost destined.

But following the back injury while working as an EMT, it didn’t appear obvious. "I had to have a huge paradigm shift in looking at what I was physically capable of doing," explains Spies.

The career shift came later in life compared to most of her peers. She was 32 years old when she enrolled in the occupational health and safety program at Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.

Upon graduating, Spies faced the challenges of a job market still grappling with the pandemic. "The job market was hit and miss, with short-term contracts," she recalls. Despite these uncertain times, Spies found her footing, initially securing a three-month contract with Homeland Housing, where she assisted in developing a core safety program. Her next role saw her aiding a friend who owned a construction company, using her expertise to create a comprehensive safety program from the ground up.

Lately, Spies has been overhauling the safety program at Superior Trenching. She says the company's external audit score increased significantly under her guidance, from not initially passing to a high score of 88.

She introduced new technologies that enhanced communication between workers and management. Her innovative approaches, like conducting surveys to gauge perceptions, and handing out candy to foster engagement, have bolstered morale and improved the overall safety culture.

Spies dedication has not gone unnoticed. She was nominated for the CSEA Rising Star Award. Her direct manager nominated her, a gesture that deeply touched Spies. "It was an honor," she says. "They were looking for someone to revamp their safety program, and I knew that's what I could do."

Looking ahead, Spies sees herself continuing to refine and test her safety program at Superior Trenching. Her long-term ambition involves imparting her hands-on knowledge to the next generation of safety professionals. She envisions herself teaching at educational institutions like NAIT or the University of Alberta, influencing future safety leaders. And she already has teaching experience, offering piano lessons on the side for the past five years.

In her relatively short time in the field, Spies has made an imprint on her profession. As she continues to shine, her impact on safety culture and the professionals she mentors is bound to be profound.