Laurie Shelby '83

Laurie Shelby ’83 holds a B.S. in chemistry from Radford University and a M.S. in occupational health and industrial hygiene from the VCU School of Medicine (formerly the Medical College of Virginia). She resides in Alameda, California with her husband, Joe Shelby ’84. Photo courtesy of Tesla, Inc.

Laurie Shelby ’83 is blending empathy with science in a world of rigorous standards, technology and environmental safety. As the Vice President of Environmental, Health, and Safety at Tesla, Inc., she’s on a mission to help Tesla become the safest automobile factory. The path to that goal is a continuous study of human nature and a road map for anticipating and preventing the next workplace injury.

Shelby has spent the greater part of her career as an industrial hygienist tackling some weighty environmental issues for companies like Alcoa and Reynolds Metals. She has been a trailblazer in a field that saw few women when she started with Dominion Power in the 80s.

When she began her academic career at Radford University, Shelby was on track to become a nurse. She has a passion for helping people, but would discover she could take that passion into another field.

“At the beginning of my sophomore year, I was talking with my counselor about graduation requirements. She said I didn’t sound very excited about working in the medical field, and she was right. I wanted to make things. At the time, I wanted to make perfume. And, I knew I had to graduate on time, so I was focused on taking my nursing classes. But, she saw something else in me and gave me great advice,” says Shelby.

“She suggested that I change my major, which I did – to chemistry, and I graduated on time. If you’re not passionate about something, look onward,” states Shelby. “I moved from a [then] all-female career path to a mostly male career path.”

“After graduation, I responded to a job posting at Dominion Power. They wanted someone with a biology or chemistry degree that was interested in worker health. That was me,” she stated. “I knew I could combine what I learned in nursing with my science degree.”

She got the job and was in the field monitoring industrial hygiene in fossil fuel and nuclear power plants across Dominion Power operations. Shelby explained that her nursing classes taught her what it really means to have empathy for people. She has carried that lesson with her and is inspired to bring progressive safety-related change to the workplace.

“For the past seven years, I’ve been practicing human and organization performance – what people do and why they do it. How can you predict human error caused by time, pressure and distractions? I plan for errors by thinking about safety,” explains Shelby.

Her commitment to safety made a considerable impression (via a great LinkedIn profile) on Tesla CEO Elon Musk. Shelby’s track record in safety management caught his attention, and Musk reached out to her with an offer of an environmental, health, and safety position at Tesla.

Tesla is doing “super cool” things, and safety is integrated in its culture. Shelby’s goal is to drive continuous improvement in environmental, health, wellness and safety. She explains that serious and fatal injuries are going up and plateauing globally across many different workplace environments in the industry. She wants to bring those numbers down.

“We’re humans, so we’re going to make mistakes. We’ve got to put controls in place so when humans do make mistakes, they fail safely. It’s a game changer,” says Shelby. “It’s so easy to say, ‘Gosh, why did that person do that?’ [At Tesla], our leaders drive at what failed, not who failed. It’s huge when you can get off that ‘people only’ focus and not accept human error as the root cause.”

Her work with the American Society of Safety Professionals (formerly the American Society of Safety Engineers), the global association for occupational safety and health professionals, extends her focus on safety to policy change. She is a sub-committee lead for the organization’s Health and Safety Management System team focused on reducing fatal and serious injury.

“I’m inspired to change how government agencies like OSHA view and regulate safety standards,” she says. “I want to have an impact on people and workplace safety.”