Novolex Director of Corporate Health and Safety Courtney Kuykendall was promoted to her position the same day that COVID-19 travel restrictions were put into place, which happened to create a different set of plans she had anticipated when she took on the role.
"I had to do both the job I accepted and the job that was needed, all while following an entirely different playbook," Kuykendall said. "As the pandemic is easing, it continues to be a challenge to manage many expectations and competing priorities. Many managers across the health and safety field are having to navigate current challenges while planning for and managing what the future workplace looks like.
"Keeping in mind those who feel uncomfortable with in-person work while also trying to move forward with in-person training and safety protocols will be a challenge I will continue to navigate for the foreseeable future," she added.
Kuykendall said the most difficult thing throughout the pandemic was how scared people were: "We were trying to provide trainings virtually, working with a sometimes reduced workforce, but people were often uncomfortable being physically present in our facilities."
She said what made it manageable was having the support of her "team and co-workers who trust that we will work as hard as we can to make it safe for them to come to work."
Responsibilities that fall under her title include maintaining a safe workplace and ensuring all processes, procedures and guidelines are adhered to across 55 manufacturing plants worldwide.
"Promoting the health and safety of our employees is the ultimate goal, and that took on a whole new meaning this past year walking through the pandemic," she said.
Kuykendall graduated from Columbia Southern University in Alabama with a master's degree in occupational safety and health/environmental management and Tennessee's Bethel University with a bachelor's degree in organizational leadership.
"I think succeeding as a woman in a male-dominated industry like manufacturing has really shaped my career, and I view it as a great accomplishment," Kuykendall said. "Persevering in the manufacturing arena taught me that you should never let your personal differences or others' assumptions limit your choices or opportunities. Sometimes, especially as women, we might feel like our choices are more limited, but my encouragement to others is [to] not let norms and expectations hold you back."
Q: What was your first plastics job and why were you interested in the industry?
Kuykendall: Novolex is my first job in the plastics industry. It was an organic next step for my career following my previous experience working within the paper manufacturing industry, since Novolex also makes fiber packaging. Environmental practices and sustainability are longtime interests of mine, and Novolex's prioritization of developing sustainable products and solutions while designing products for and supporting recycling programs nationwide — and running two recycling facilities — is what initially attracted me to the company in 2018.
Q: What is your greatest achievement?
Kuykendall: When I was started my current role as director of corporate health and safety in March 2020, not only was I jumping into a new role, but I was also diving into a new range of pandemic-era challenges. My team and I had to think on our feet and identify solutions to protect our 10,000 employees from contracting the virus while on the job. Through collaboration with HR, communications and other departments, we were able to swiftly implement previously unnecessary initiatives — mask wearing, temperature taking, social distancing, enhanced hygiene protocols and more — to reduce exposure to COVID-19. We even launched a "Mask Up" campaign that engaged employees by inviting them to say why wearing a face mask was important to them.
Q: What about the plastics industry surprises you?
Kuykendall: I am surprised by the innovative solutions the plastic industry is quickly developing to become more efficient, sustainable and environmentally centric. As consumer's interests evolve to become greener and corporations become more eco-conscious, the plastics industry continues to rise to the occasion to decrease the footprint we leave on our planet. Both the industry and Novolex embrace this goal with the use of more PCR, committing to Operation Clean Sweep and designing products that can be recycled or composted.