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The Science Behind Eliminating Slips, Trips, and Falls with Rob Shaw

The science behind eliminating slips, trips, and falls

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“In reality, most organizations find that slips, trips, and falls are one of their highest causes of regular injury.” According to the CDC, over a million Americans are injured every year from a slip, trip, or fall, which accounts for at least 15% of all workplace injuries in the U.S. Rob Shaw joins The Safety Guru this week to share his insights regarding the science behind eliminating slips, trips, and falls in the workplace. Tune in as Rob explains why root cause analysis and in-depth risk assessment is of the utmost importance when it comes to preventing slips, trips, and falls.

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Real leaders leave a legacy. They capture the hearts and minds of their teams. Their origin story puts the safety and wellbeing of their people first. Great companies, ubiquitously have safe yet productive operations. For those companies, safety is an investment, not a cost. For the C-suite, it’s a real topic of daily focus. This is The Safety Guru with your host, Eric Michrowski, a globally recognized ops and safety guru, public speaker, and author. Are you ready to leave a safety legacy? Your legacy success story begins now. 

Hi, and welcome to the Safety Guru. Today I’m very excited to have with me Rob Shaw, who’s a false prevention expert. Rob, welcome to the show. Really excited to get to know some really tangible ideas that you can share with their listeners around slips, trips and falls, maybe why don’t we get started with a little bit of your background? You have quite a unique background on a topic that often people don’t talk about or assume is I can’t change anything.

Very true, and thank you for having me, Eric. Yeah, my background is I’m now entering my 20th year working full time on slips, trips, and falls, which amazes me more than I think anybody else. You’d be surprised that you could work for this long on a topic that seems very simple on the surface. So, my background was 15 years with the UK health and safety regulator, the Health and Safety Executive, where I worked as a scientist, doing research into why people fall over, what can be done to prevent it, and helping the regulator write their policy documents and their guidance, helping them undertake slip, trip and fall accident investigations and helping clients commercially reduce their risk of slips, trips and falls. And I think when I started the job, I thought it would end up being a bit of an insurance gig and I’d do it for a little while and then I’d find something else. But actually, there’s a lot of science that underpins why people fall over. But once you apply that science, the solutions are quite simple. So, it’s a technical subject that also has direct, practical applications to help companies reduce risk.

And I found that to sort of take my interest for the last 20 plus years. So about five years ago, I started my own consultancy doing the same thing.

Really interesting because it’s a topic that a lot of organizations kind of assume it’s going to happen. So, what’s the size of the problem around slips, trips, and falls in the UK and worldwide?

I think that’s one of the big problems with slips and trips is it’s often seen as very minor something that you can’t do anything about, and there are bigger problems. Industry and organizations worldwide have a lot of safety risks to manage, and some of them are very tangible and could, if there’s a failure, result in serious injury to lots of people. But in reality, most organizations find that slips trips and falls are one of their highest causes of regular injury. So, in the UK, for example, the highest cause of non-fatal major injuries in the UK workplace are slips, trips, and falls every year, about a third of all the major injuries. So, things that require hospital visits, hospital stays, significant time off work result from a slip or a trip. The same is true worldwide. The last time I looked at the statistics in the US, for example, the CDC say that over a million Americans a year are injured following a slip, trip, and fall, including 17,000 fatalities, and they account for at least 15% of all workplace injuries in the US as well. So, they are quite serious.

And when you’re talking about the size of this problem, you’re talking about whether I’m slipping, tripping or falling from different heights or is its same level.

Typically, all those statistics relate to the same level. So, falls from height is its own category of risk, and we know that slips and trips are very closely linked to falls from height, but obviously the consequences are potentially more severe because the resulting fall is from a greater height. So those statistics don’t consider falls from height, falls from ladders, and so on. 

And I know when we spoke originally, one of the things that really struck me is a lot of organizations do root cause analysis around them, and the root cause analysis is very weak and essentially gets to I wasn’t aware of my environment. I slipped. I don’t know why, or I was new to this part of the job, C-Suite, et cetera. So, what are some of the myths that exist around slip, trips, and falls like that, that basically it’s not preventable?

I think that’s exactly the core of it. The common myths are that they’re not particularly serious. And we’ve made the point that actually they result in a lot of serious injuries every year and a large number of fatalities. Unfortunately, my 20-year career has been spent investigating the more serious end of slip strips and falls, and there are some very unpleasant ones. But the second point that you draw on there that they are seen as something that can’t really be prevented, they’re just part of the cost of doing business. People will find a way to fall on floors. And while that’s very true, people are very good at falling over. And walking as bipedal creatures is quite a challenging biomechanical task. It’s heavily influenced by environmental factors and by task factors. So, one of the big myths is that there isn’t really a lot you can do about it. And that’s typically because most root cause analysis, in my experience, tends to come down as far as human error and stop there. And if there has been a slip, trip or fall at some point, there must have been a human error. Somebody has failed to do the walking process properly, but that error is very heavily influenced by the environment, the design of the task, the individual’s capabilities, and so on. 

And I think in root cause analysis, what we do is we get to human error, and it’s a very convenient process, root cause, because we can say, well, there’s nothing else we could have done. The individual needs to pay more attention. We will focus on training, we’ll focus on awareness, but it doesn’t help in managing further risk. If somebody slipped on a wet floor or tripped over an obstacle by not getting down to the root cause of how slippery that floor is when it’s wet, how it was wet in the first place. Why the obstacle? Came to be there, how you would prevent it. Again, it relies on the next individual using that area to do a better job of navigating the hazard rather than proving the underlying hazard. So, I think those are the problems. The three big myths and issues are the perception that they’re not serious, the perception that there’s nothing that you can do about them, and then the poor root cause analysis. And as we will go on to talk about, there are lots of very simple solutions to slips, trips, and falls, but they’re rarely based on good evidence, they’re rarely based on a good root cause analysis and an appropriate scientific selection of an intervention.

And that gives us lots of problems. Because organizations often will have put lots of time, effort, and money into a solution to what they see as the problem. And if it’s not the right solution, it doesn’t work. And that reinforces the opinion that you can’t do anything about them. We’ve invested this time, this money, we bought shoes, we’ve changed the floor, and it didn’t reduce the risk. We still had slips, and that’s likely to be because they didn’t get down to good quality scientific evidence.

So, before we get to some of the drivers and some of the solutions, what would you advise organizations or leaders when they’re looking at root cause analysis? What should they be expecting to see?

I think one of the things that I see routinely with client’s information, and normally, if I’m working with a new client, the first thing I’ll recommend is that we look at their data and look at it from the point of view of an expert. Because one of the most common mistakes is that slips, trips, and falls, particularly in workplace risk assessments, are sort of thought about as a single word, a single line on a risk assessment. Slips, trips, and falls. And often when you break down the issues that there have been, you find that the idea of slips and trips are considered completely within the same category, where the root causes are very different from a slip or a trip, and your solutions are different. And the way that people go about reporting and their engagement with the process is also very important. So, we work with a partner who has a software tool for any data analysis. It’s not just risk data, but it has a really nice feedback loop and a very quick and easy way to go. And so, gathering better quality data is very important, but also querying that data for common themes, common issues, not only between incidents, but across sites, which are your high-risk areas commonly in different sites?

Are they internal versus external? Maybe the kitchen or the toilet environments? And, looking at where perhaps the best effort would be spent in reducing that risk.

Sure. Okay, so really looking at themes and trending to understand where should I go fix first? But should there be something if I’m an executive looking at root cause analysis, should I be challenging my team? If the root cause that’s identified is human error situational awareness or should I accept that?

That’s a very good question and I think I generally say challenge. It doesn’t mean that the wrong root cause has been identified. There will be situations under which human error has occurred. Distraction is an obvious example. You know, if people are on a mobile phone whilst they’re completing a task, we know from the research, and some very good and interesting research was done many years ago. I wasn’t allowed to take part, but it sounds very good fun. That showed that if you were holding an in-depth conversation on a mobile phone whilst walking, the level of distraction was something similar to six shots of whiskey. So, who the control group were for? That I don’t know. Very interesting science, but it does have a significant cognitive load, so it requires you to focus on the conversation, you’re less aware of your environment. So, it doesn’t mean that human error is not a valid part of that root cause analysis. But if it’s the only issue identified, it doesn’t put the organization in a position to do anything positive to reduce that risk in future. So, I would challenge that more should be looked at. And in many cases what we advise is for the investigators.

So, whether it be the safety teams or the facilities management teams, a little bit of training on the risks and the root causes of slips, trips and falls is very valuable because a lot of people don’t know what they don’t know. And the problem with slips and trips is we’ve all had one, and most of us are lucky enough to have had one that we got away from without significant injury. So, we’ve got some predetermined ideas of how it happened. And as humans were also very good at blaming ourselves, it’s very embarrassing when you fall over, particularly if you didn’t injure yourself severely. And so, the first thing we do tend to do is internalize and say, oh, I should have been paying attention. Oh, I’m fine. No. So it might even be that the injured party is saying, no, there was nothing wrong with the environment. I just wasn’t paying attention, because once you’ve lost your balance, either from a slip or a trip, the fall is very, very fast. You hit the ground so quickly, it can be difficult to unpack what happened. So even the language from the reports of the injured party or the immediate investigators might be difficult to rely on, and the actual mechanics of the form might be more informative as to what is likely to have happened. 

Interesting. So, let’s get to some of the drivers and then some of the solutions, because I think ultimately that’s really interesting in terms of how you can make a tangible impact in these areas. So first, drivers around slips, trips, and falls. And you said that the drivers typically are different one from the other. 

Absolutely. Trips in terms of initiating factors, trips are where you catch your foot on something and fall over. So typically, they result from housekeeping issues or maintenance issues, so something that’s underfoot that shouldn’t be there, or something that’s become damaged and is standing proud. But also, trips can happen over permanent obstacles in an environment. So single steps between levels, bunding around machinery, anything that causes a change in level underfoot, particularly if it’s quite hard to see, it gives you the opportunity for your foot to contact that object and cause you to trip. And it doesn’t have to be a solid object or a square edge. You know, it could be a trailing cable or a flap of carpet, something we’ve all encountered. When it comes to slips, they tend to be a little bit more complicated. And this is where the science sort of hooked me in and has kept me interested in 20 plus years. It’s a combination of the floor material you’re walking on, and that could be a carpeted office, but it could also be an access platform in an industrial environment. It could be the back of a vehicle. So, any surface that you’re walking on, the footwear that you have on your feet or not.

We investigate a lot of barefoot slips in leisure environments, in changing rooms and so on, and the contamination present between the two. So those three factors will have a significant determination as to how much grip is available. And then depending on the task you’re trying to achieve, whether you’re walking from a to b, or whether you’re actually pushing and pulling a load, moving some objects, that will all influence how much friction you need to safely complete that task. And all those factors need to be considered when you’re looking at the risk of a slip. So, we tend to gravitate to one issue or another where we’ll replace the floor with a better floor, and that’s a very good collective control, but it may not address some of the other issues around the task and so on.

Interesting. And so, let’s dive a little bit deeper into some of the solutions to it. You talked about changing the floor being one option. One thing that intrigued me was an experiment that you talked about between two fast food companies, one that focused on footwear and then one that focused on the surface that people are walking in. So, tell me a little bit about some of the solutions that exist to address slip strips and falls.

Yeah, so when it comes to slips, and I tend to focus most of my efforts on slips because that’s where the technical issues are. Organizations are generally better at addressing trips because they’re more obvious in terms of hazards, although that does give us some issues. But in terms of slips, the big issues are obviously the flooring, the footwear, and any contamination present. Now, there’s very, very good slip resistant flooring out there. There’s very, very good slip resistant footwear, both of which can essentially eliminate the risk of slips in most typical environments. If we think about outdoor surfaces, outdoor slips tend to be less frequent, and they tend to happen on more challenging surfaces, where you’re walking on grass or mud or something that’s very heavily contaminated with something solid. But typically, walking across a sidewalk or a pavement, we don’t see lots and lots and lots of slips in normal wet conditions. Very normal anyway for our part of the world. So, there’s very good slip resistant surfaces out there and very good slip resistant footwear. The big challenge is identifying something appropriate for your workplace or your organization or your public space is very difficult because there are hundreds and hundreds of different test methods, all of which purport to test slip resistance.

But in reality, what we’re interested in is how slippery is this surface when a person walks on it. Not when moving a car tire at 10 miles an hour at 30 degrees, not when trying to break a rubber sled. There’s lots of different methods, but they need to simulate the dynamic interaction of the pedestrian heel and the floor surface. And there’s only a very small number of tests that do that well. So, one of the challenges is that if you wish to specify a certain floor surface, you can almost certainly find a test somewhere that will tell you that it’s appropriate. But that doesn’t actually mean that when you’ve got it back into the workplace that it’s helping you manage the risk. And we see lots of issues with national standards. There are no agreed international standards on testing the slip resistance of flooring. It’s very different nation to nation, and the quality of the tests and the usefulness of the information varies. When it comes to managing the risk of footwear, the picture is a bit simpler in the test, methods are much more similar. So, there’s a single standard test for how slip resistant footwear is across Europe, and the same test method is used in an ASTM in the US.

Slightly different interpretation of those results, but the same test method. The inherent problem with that is that that test method itself is flawed. It doesn’t test the bit of the interaction we’re interested in, which is at what point does this shoe fail in a challenging environment? It doesn’t challenge the footwear, what it does is forces it to fail and then measures how much friction is generated during the slip, which is a very different question. Those are some of the challenges around slips and then there are lots of issues around human factors and they particularly come into play around the cleaning process. So many floors that are smooth and shiny, for example, will be very slippery when they’re wet, but they’ll offer excellent friction when clean and dry, because you’ve got very good material contact between the footwear and the floor. So, it’s not necessarily the case that having a smooth, shiny floor is always bad, or that any floor is inherently slippery. It’s about managing risk. But one of the big challenges is if those floors do get wet, then you’ve got to be able to manage that very carefully because the risk changes quite dramatically from the dry condition.

So, what we find is that by managing the cleaning both how effective the cleaning is at removing contaminants from the floor and how well managed the cleaning process is itself. So that during any wet part of the cleaning process people are not accessing that floor other than the cleaning staff who need to be considered, then that can also help improve the management of risk. So, the example you talked about with the fast-food restaurants, there are two well-known fast-food brands internationally, but within the UK. Their representatives were members of a food group with the Health and Safety Executive, with the Regulator, and about 20 years ago, we sort of came together with that group and said, right, these are some of the root cause issues, these are the some of the things that we could be doing. And they both decided to go in very different directions with their solutions for preventing slips in their kitchen environments. So, one focused very much on their floor specification and the way they cleaned that floor didn’t do anything about footwear. And the other one moved very much into specifying good slip resistant footwear for all staff and put less emphasis on what the floor was in the kitchen and how often and how well they cleaned it.

And they both had significant reductions in injury rates, I believe about 65% each. It was completely comparable. Two very different solutions, but both worked to control the risk. Now, as those two organizations have matured, they’re now looking at it more holistically. Each one is now looking at flooring footwear and cleaning as they’ve grown into that. But in the first instance, two different solutions, but both appropriate, both selected using relevant science, and both organizations saw a significant reduction in the injuries that they were having in those kitchens.

So, you talked about the regulatory side, regulatory or standard side, where there isn’t a common standard that really addresses the need for slip resistant floors or footwear. How can people navigate around it in the absence of a clean standard that really helps solve that problem?

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It is a real challenge. And what I would say is that you need somebody who is an expert in slip resistance, which sounds very much like a sales pitch and will sound more like a sales pitch when I say that’s quite difficult to do. Because one of the challenges in our industry is there’s a lot of vested interest and a lot of false expertise. So, for example, when it comes to testing flooring, within the UK, especially, there are a lot of people who offer free flooring tests or very, very cheap flooring tests and they will come out and test your floor. It will always say the floor is bad and they will have in the van something you can put on the floor that will make it better and then they’ll sell that to you. And it’s not to say those products don’t work. There are ways of modifying existing floors that improve the slip resistance and improve safety, but the vested interest is always going to be in selling that product and applying that product, when actually in that environment, the floor may not be the key factor that’s going wrong. It may be the management of contamination, it may be the footwear the individuals are wearing, all the tasks they’re being asked to do.

So, it’s really about finding sort of independent advice and guidance. And in the UK, that has always been through the regulator. Now the regulator in the UK has changed the way they do their science a little bit. And slips, trips, and falls is not currently a topic that’s emphasized, it’s a hibernated topic. So, they’re not proactively enforcing on it and working on it, which is why we went independent, because when that happened, I was sort of given the choice of retraining and learning a new safety discipline or carrying on doing what we were doing. And we’ve not fixed slip strips and falls yet. So, yeah, independent expertise. I’m currently the lead for preventing workplace falls for the International Ergonomics Association slips, Trips and Falls Technical Committee. And that technical committee has a wide membership from across the world, lots of scientists and academics from different universities, different commercial organizations, and they host conferences every year and so on. So, this year’s conference is in Toronto, and that sort of organization of independent researchers and consultants and so on is a good place to start.

We’ve touched on the topic of select, how about trips?

So, for trips, the first thing is good risk assessment for the environment. So, identifying low lying hazards, trailing cables for the maintenance defects, damaged tiling or cracked floor surfaces, you know, drain covers that are not sitting properly. A good reporting system is key because the individuals who work in those areas day after day will be very familiar with those hazards, will likely have had near misses around them, or will have spotted them, and you can almost crowdsource your risk assessment if you have a very good reporting process that’s very quick and easy to do. But critically, that reporting process needs some feedback in it. So, if an individual reports are damaged, great, it may not be possible to fix it the following day. You need to get an engineering, you need to find budget for that, and so on. But if nothing at all is done following the report for two months, the individual sort of feels like they’re not being listened to. So, it’s really important that you’re able to go back to them straight away and say, we appreciate that report. We’ve received it. This is what we’re going to do about it and encourage engagement with that process when it comes to permanent trip hazards built into environments.

So single steps, curbs at crossings, bonding around machinery, that kind of thing, visibility is very, very important. And the same is true for navigating steps and stairs, which have their own set of challenges and hazards. So, the visibility of the obstacle is critical. The way that we navigate an environment is we tend to scan ahead of ourselves, not consciously. We subconsciously scan. And if something is visible, if it contrasts with its surroundings, we note it. And as we approach, we find a way to deal with that. And the obvious example I usually use is as you approach a flight of stairs, you don’t get to the bottom and stop, think about what you’re doing, and then place your foot onto the bottom step and start to use the stair. You just seamlessly walk up. Because as you’re scanning the environment, a flight of stairs ahead of you is a very obvious change in level and change in situation. Same is true of a well highlighted ramp. But if you come across a single step that you didn’t notice in your scanning, because it’s not a significant change in level, and it’s perhaps covered in the same-colored carpet or the same-colored floor material, that’s when people tend to trip.

And what the research has shown us, and there’s some great research out of Pittsburgh University that shows that as people approach a visible curb or step, they’ll do one of two things. They’ll take one longer step, so their next step is ready to go. Onto the rise, the change in height, or they’ll take one shorter step when they adjust their gait. But these are all subconscious decisions. Nobody’s thinking about this. So, you need to give people those correct physical and visual cues so that their subconscious processes are working properly. One of the challenges around a root cause analysis ending at human error is that you can’t reliably say to somebody well, be more observant, be more aware of your environment and stop falling over and expect them to do any of those things. Because we don’t consciously think about this as we walk. It’s very much a subconscious process.

Interesting. And how about in an uncontrolled environment? So, what I mean by this is if I’m a field worker as an example, and I’m not working in a natural environment or an environment that I get to control because it’s either third party or I’m outdoors climbing poles, what are some of the strategies in those instances?

It’s a very interesting situation where you’ve got peripatetic workers, for example, who are either out and about outdoors or out on other people’s sites or even contract cleaners who might be on their own sites or other people’s sites but have to access floors that are, for example, slippery when wet and then, as part of their work process, wet them. So, you’ve removed the level of control of the flooring. It may not be your site or your organization. It may be an outdoor surface that can’t be controlled. You’ve removed the element of contamination because of the weather outdoors or it’s somebody else again, somebody else’s site and processes. So, the key control in that situation is footwear. And it’s one that I recommend quite often for contract cleaners and for outdoor workers. And it’s one that we’ve had great success with peripatetic workers. I’ve done a lot of work with utilities companies, both water companies and electricity companies, maintenance engineers and even sales forces. People who are still doing door to door sales and are traveling, getting in and out of vehicles, accessing residential properties or without any control other than what’s on their feet. And a well specified slip resistant shoe can protect in those environments.

And there’s a perception that a lot of slip resistant footwear is developed for indoors and therefore really, it’s an indoor shoe. Actually, the principle works. It’s a very crude analogy, but similar to a car tire, a good piece of slip resistant footwear works by displacing the water or the oil or the contamination beneath the shoe and still giving you some contact between the rubber material of the shoe sole and the flooring. And it will do that in an internal and an external environment. And some of them will even work on snow and ice within certain tolerances. Very good. In the UK, where our freezing temperatures tend to be around about zero to minus five. I did do some work in the onshore Canadian oil fields where they get. Down to about -20 and the rubber properties change quite significantly then. So that has its own challenges, different.

Challenge in those cases, I think all you’re stuck with is metal grip in that case, right?

Yeah. Well, we found a piece of rubber footwear that really did not perform as well as the very top rubber footwear, but whose properties did not change as significantly during the temperature transition and so was still quite appropriate for the environment. So, there’s always something. But you do need to find your specific challenge and find your evidence to make sure you’ve got that correct solution.

It makes me wonder why, if we’re getting in a workplace boot as an example, why you wouldn’t have every workplace boot with that grip resistance as well as the composite toe, why are you solving for composite toe without the grip?

It’s something that I often talk about now within Europe, anything that has that composite toe tends to have a well rated, slip resistant sole on it. The problem is that it can be well rated in the standard test, but it may not offer the protection you need. There was some research done in California that showed that using that standard test, if you chose all the footwear that got the highest rating in that test, you could flip a coin and that’s your chance of getting a boot that’s appropriate for your environment. It was about 50 50. So, of those that passed the test, half of them were good and did offer protection, and half of them weren’t. Because the standard isn’t set up to challenge footwear and to give you a very challenging test method, it’s set up by manufacturers to pass the footwear they already make. Because that’s where the vested interest is and where a lot of people on the committee come from. So that’s a significant challenge.

And so, there’s no way around it for an individual even to figure out which footwear is better than tossing a.

Coin using the standard test. No, there are some better tests out there. So, the regulator in the UK has its own footwear test method, which isn’t set up as a standard, it’s set up as a voluntary scheme for manufacturers. It’s called the HSE Grip Scheme. And the way that works is it uses a biomechanically valid test to test when a piece of footwear fails, rather than how much grip it generates during sliding. But the power of that test is that the past thresholds, as you will, or the rating thresholds, are based on risk, not based on sort of an arbitrary how many pieces of footwear can pass this. And the idea is that you can use a risk assessment, then you don’t always need the best possible shoe, you need one that provides a suitable level of slip resistance as part of whatever else you have in your risk assessment. And the idea is that the manufacturers who already make excellent footwear. Their footwear will pass the standard tests, as the others do, but they can also demonstrate this additional level of performance in this test, almost as a marketing exercise, and it’s very effective. 

And there are two large scale clinical trials showing that this works. One was performed in the US, by Jennifer Bell, and one was in the UK, Mark Little and Co from the Health and Safety Executive. And there were large scale trials using footwear that had achieved a five-star grip rating, so sort of the highest rating on the HSE voluntary scheme. And one was done with hospitality workers in kitchens. That was the US study, and they found that it made a significant reduction in the number of claims and the number of injuries. And in the UK, it looked at healthcare workers. So, working in environments where quite often floors are very smooth and shiny for hygiene reasons, they often get wet, sometimes unpredictably, and asking the question whether if the National Health Service in the UK were to provide footwear for staff in these sorts of high-risk environments, which they don’t currently so it would be a significant financial outlay that they don’t currently undertake. Would it reduce the risk, and would there be a cost benefit? And the answer to that trial was also yes, it would be a significant reduction in risk, and it would be a cost benefit to do that, even though the footwear costs more that they’re not currently spending it’s saving a significant amount in injury, lost time, and claims.

And that was a statistically significant clinical trial of four and a half thousand health care workers. And so we’ve got some very good evidence that that intervention works.

So, thank you very much, Rob, for sharing all these themes. I think the main takeaway is we’re not doing enough around slips, trips, and falls. We’re accepting that there’s a high number and it’s hard to change, as opposed to really getting down to what’s the root cause and what are some potential solutions to addressing them. So, thank you for sharing all these insights. If somebody wants to get in touch with you, Rob, how can they do that?

The best way is by email. My email address is [email protected]. And as you’ve probably gathered, I’m quite happy to talk about slips, trips and falls until the cows come home.

Excellent. Thank you so much, Rob.

Thanks, Eric.

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ABOUT THE GUEST

Rob Shaw is a falls prevention expert in his 20th year providing scientific expertise to the UK regulator, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), as well as commercial consultancy and training in the UK and overseas. Rob was the Technical Team Lead for the Falls Prevention Team at HSE. As a key member of HSE’s falls prevention forensic investigation team, he undertook and oversaw a wide range of incident investigations relating to pedestrian slip assessment and stair fall assessment in many different industries and public spaces. Rob is a trained expert witness with court experience.

Rob has served as the key investigator and project leader on a diverse portfolio of major HSE research projects into various aspects of falls prevention and has helped a wide range of commercial clients successfully reduce fall risk. He is the lead for workplace falls prevention for the International Ergonomics Association Slips, Trips, and Falls Technical Committee, and has almost two decades’ experience in developing and delivering bespoke training, which has resulted in invitations to speak internationally on falls prevention.

In 2018, Rob established Rob Shaw (TFG) Associates Ltd.

Though slips, trips, and falls are commonly seen as unavoidable in many industries it is Rob’s experience that, with the correct scientific evidence, simple interventions can have a significant impact on risk, improve safety for the workforce and members of the public, improve defensibility, and reduce business costs significantly. 

For more information: https://www.robshawassociates.com/

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Workplace Wellbeing Ideas to Address 3 Core Injury Drivers with John Toomey

Workplace wellbeing ideas to address 3 core injury drivers

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ABOUT THE EPISODE

We are excited to have John Toomey join the podcast this week to offer ideas to combat the three core injury drivers: stress, fatigue, and distractions. In this episode, John shares heartfelt personal experiences that focus on the importance of connecting and showing care for others. Tune in to learn inspiring ways to reduce serious incidents and increase personal well-being in the workplace through an intentional culture of care!

READ THIS EPISODE

Real leaders leave a legacy. They capture the hearts and minds of their teams. Their origin story puts the safety and wellbeing of their people first. Great companies ubiquitously have safe yet productive operations. For those companies, safety is an investment, not a cost. For the C-suite, it’s a real topic of daily focus. This is The Safety Guru with your host Eric Michrowski, a globally recognized ops and safety guru, public speaker and author. Are you ready to leave a safety legacy? Your legacy success story begins now.

Hi, and welcome to the Safety Guru. Today I’m very excited to have with me John Toomey. He’s a workplace well-being thought leader out of Melbourne, Australia. He is also the global chairperson at the Global Workplace Wellbeing Initiative, part of the Global Wellness Institute in Miami. So, John, welcome to the show. Really excited to have you with me.

Hey Eric, it’s really good to be here, thank you for having me on this show.

Excellent. So, we’ve got an exciting episode, lots of themes to talk through. Why don’t you start out talking about your story? How did John get into this topic in this area? 

Yeah, look, that’s a fair question. I mean I’m 62 years old and I did my first seminar in a workplace in 1984 because I was actually running fitness leader courses at night, teaching people to be gym instructors and somebody invited me to come and present at their company. I’ve done a lot of things in my life. I’ve worked in high performance roles in professional football for a long time, but I always had this incredible curiosity and I’ve always been one of those people if somebody gives me an answer to a question and it doesn’t land for me, I’ve got to keep looking till I learn. So that takes me to a place where I grasp things and understand them, complex things, and I have a skill to give it back to somebody in a simple way. So, I suppose my superpower of educating workforces in all areas of health and wellbeing, whether it be fatigue prevention, resilience mental wellbeing, all those personal, I suppose self-care topics and I’ve been doing a lot of that in white collar marketplaces. And then in 2008 when the GFC hit, my business evaporated overnight, and it took me a while to find my way into a new realm and that was through safety budgets because they needed the sort of education that I could deliver.

And I found my sweet spot because I grew up in a pub in working class area in Melbourne and I know how to speak to guys in those realms. So yeah, that’s an amazing journey that’s been going on for about twelve years now.

Nobody goes to a pub in Melbourne. I’ve never seen that occur.

No, never done. Never seen how many pubs have been turned into cafes now. Really?

So, we touch on fatigue. Why don’t we start there in terms of the physiology of fatigue and some of the key highlights there because we know fatigue is in a very strong era precursor. If we’re fatigued, we’re more likely to make a mistake. It’s been researched and documented in aviation, but lots of other spaces. So maybe let’s start there.

Yeah, look, it’s a great place to start. And there’s been so much work done really pushing and shoving companies to come up with better off sing systems. And it’s been amazing, the work. And most companies have tried really hard to do everything they can to make it as easy as possible for the worker. Where I focus here on is the personal responsibility of the worker to know what creates fatigue in their universe. Right now, obviously, sleep is one and everybody knows you need to get plenty of sleep and good sleep. And if you’re not a good sleeper, you need to get help with it so that you can master the art of sleep. I mean, I could sleep for Australia, so we help people with that. But there’s a couple of hidden ones. And probably the most significant is dehydration. And this is one that gets skimmed over time and time and time again. And to not go into too much detail around physiology because it takes a bit of time, but basically your body’s trying to get rid of heat all the time and it uses water to do it. Sure, it traps heated molecules of water and those molecules of water end up going to your sweat glands or to your lungs.

Every time you breathe out, you pass out water vapor and all that water’s coming from your bloodstream. And if your blood’s not replenishing, the water level in your blood drops, your blood thickens, which then compromises the efficiency of your circulation. And as soon as that happens, you stop getting adequate blood flow to your brain. And when your brain is not getting enough blood, it’s not getting enough oxygen or glucose. And the very first reflex response that your body kicks into is a yawn because it’s trying to blow off carbon dioxide and get oxygen in. And what happens to most people when they start yawning? They go looking for something to give them a Pick-me-up. So, they might have a coffee or.

A dehydrate or more exactly, or they.

Go those energy drinks, which are even more of a disaster, and they come back to their workstation, and they feel better. But that was because they walked, and the walking pushed their blood pressure up. Now, the challenge for people who are doing manual work, because they’re working physically, their blood pressure is up high, so they can be getting really, really dehydrated and not get that first symptom. And eventually, the second symptom of dehydration is when you haven’t fixed the problem, the body wants to get you horizontally and slow the metabolic rate to reduce heat production. And so, the second symptom is sleepiness. And that’s why people fall asleep at the wheel of motor vehicles. They’re just dehydrated. But again, if somebody is working hard, they can crash into heat stress because they become so critically dehydrated, there’s just not enough water in their body. And to give you a bit of an example of that, I was working with some guys who do road maintenance out in the north of South Australia. And sometimes in the summer out there, the temperatures hover around 50 degrees centigrade.

Just a little bit warm. Very hot.

Yes. For those who are not quite sure what that would be, that’s about 100- and 2223-degrees Fahrenheit. And so some of these guys I was working with, by 04:00 in the afternoon, they were so dehydrated, their urine was dark orange, and they had already consumed 15 liters of water. So, it’s critical. And the tip I give, I mean, I give people a tip that you should drink a liter of water for every 25-body weight per day. But if you’re out working in exposed conditions and it’s hot, you need to drink enough water so that you’re having a big urination every couple of hours and it’s close to watercolor.

Sure.

For some workers, that’s 20 liters of water a day. And obviously, if you’re drinking that amount of water, you also need to supplement minerals. So yeah, dehydration. If most organizations really focused on that one, they would clean up a lot of their fatigue problems.

Interesting. So is this something you talked about, personal responsibility. How do you convey this to an organization? Is it something you train workers to do? How do you touch on it? How do you get into the personal responsibility side?

Yeah, see, the thing is, people are not dumb, right? And when I go into an organization and I give them I’ve got a group of construction workers in front of me, for example, I could have 200 construction workers sitting there in the room, and I take them step by step through the physiology of dehydration, and they recognize the symptoms. They know they have yawning attacks. They know they get sleepy when they’re driving their car in the afternoon. The penny drops for them. And when I give them the instructions as to how to fix it, they just can’t do it. In fact, I’ve had sites where managers have rung me up and said, you won’t believe what I saw today. One of the old gnarly, old blokes, they were loading up the truck to head out to the job, and one of the young blokes turned up and was about to get onto the truck, and the old bloke said, where’s your water bottles? Knocking on this truck without your water bottles? And the thing is, somebody who has been battling dehydration, as soon as they start drinking heat and water, their energy levels go through the roof, so they get instantaneous knowledge of results.

Sure.

So, it’s pretty cool. Yeah. And then it just becomes an easy life habit for them.

Okay, so you touched as well in terms of personal responsibility, how do you drive that within an organization? And I know you’re going to have a pretty incredible story fairly soon from a Melbourne construction project, but tell me about a little bit in terms of how do you drive personal responsibility in an organization?

Yeah, so it’s a really interesting thing, and this is an education thing, and it’s a buy in thing for everybody, and it’s a bit of a process. I’ll give a two-hour seminar on this where I talk to guys through it, but basically anything that shows up in my universe is mine. That includes the response I create to something. So, for example, I could be sitting there, and you could walk into the room and start yelling at me and insulting me.

Sure. Not likely, but we could pretend I. 

Could blame you for destroying my day.

Yes. 

The reality is the response that I created to you doing that to me, that’s my response. I could also have a compassionate response like, wow, what’s happening with Eric today? I hope he’s okay, but we become reactive, and being reactive is no good because you’re out of control. Then people really get this when you actually stop to take note of how you’re responding to things. Even when you and I use storytelling to give guys examples, I say to them, how many of you have ever had somebody cut you off in the traffic and you decided it was your job to teach them a harsh lesson on why you shouldn’t do the traffic. And of course, they’ll put their hands up, and I said, well, think of a time when somebody got caught up in the traffic and they’ll contemplate that. And I said, how do you know that person’s child just didn’t just die? You don’t know. Your mind jumps to all sorts of conclusions because you’re in a reactive state. And the thing is, just by hearing that lecture, that doesn’t take you out of a reactive state. But in the workforce, everybody can help each other a little bit and go, man, you’ve been a bit reactive at the moment.

What’s going on? And it can be compassionate. It can be done with kindness and friendliness to the point where everybody starts to get better at managing their own universe and not just being swept along by temptation and circumstance which can get.

You are also in harm’s way and in danger’s way the minute you start getting reactive. Because you’re not thoughtful and in tentful in terms of your actions.

Well, you know, I mean, I’m careful when I say this, but how many people are in prison in your country, in the US. In Australia, because of a moment of reactive madness? That’s the bottom line. And so as a society and as a community, it’s a good idea to help each other with our reactivity. Absolutely.

You had a great story when we first connected from football to me, connects really well with us. Maybe if you don’t mind sharing it, because I think it’s about the response that you give at one point in time, if it makes sense to jump into that one.

Well, yeah, it’s a good story and I do tell them about workplaces a lot because it’s a genuine wakeup call, and it was a huge wake up call for me. So, for any of your listeners that don’t know what Australian Rules Football is, pull up YouTube and just watch some highlight videos of Australian Rules Football. It’s the best game on the planet and it’s a very fast game and it’s played on a very big field. The fields about 200 yards long and 180 yards wide and it’s oval shaped and there’s no offside, so the players are spread all over the field. And after I finished working in football, I was in my early forties, I went back to play at a local level. And the thing about Australian Rules Football, it is played all over the place, suburban levels. It’s incredible. Anyway, we’re playing a game one day and the team we’re playing, we’re from a pretty tough working-class area of town. There was a guy on their team, big powerful guy, bodybuilder, and he was running around throwing Haymaker’s king, hitting people and getting behind packs and just throwing these punches, belting people from behind.

And I said to the umpire, what are you going to do about that? And the umpire said, just concentrate on your own game, which is umpires speak for I’m too scared to do anything. And fair enough, too, umpires are not big people. I thought to myself, well, I’m the big hero in this team. I’m the biggest. I’m 64 and I’m the most experienced. I’m going to have to pop this bloke off to sleep before he hurts somebody. So, I was running around looking for my opportunity to swing one of him and knock him out. And I must have been just starting to mature a little bit by then, Eric, you know, because I started to have second thoughts on that, and I started to think about the consequences of that action.

Sure.

And I realized that that would be a stupid thing to do because his teammates would then react to that, and it would be full on. So, when the quarter time siren went, I ran over to him and I said, excuse me, mate, you got a SEC? He Shaked up to me. I said, hey, I just want to talk to you. And he said, “What about? I said, Listen, mate, you don’t know me, but I’m a pretty good guy. And all my teammates, brilliant guys, some of them are dads, and their kids are here watching. And I said, look, I imagine you’re a really good guy too, and I imagine all your teammates are really good guys. So, I can’t understand why you’re doing what you’re doing, right? And I swear his face nearly fell off. And he looked at me and he said, oh, mate, I’m so sorry, mate. I can be such an idiot sometimes. I said, really? He goes, oh, I get carried away. I can be such an idiot at times. I don’t even think. I said wow. I said, “I’ll tell you what, put your fists away. Let’s have a good game of Fleet and I’ll buy your beer after the game.

And he goes, yeah, all right, mate. So off I trot and all I can hear behind me is him yelling out, Sorry, mate. So, the rest of the game, we had a great game. I can’t even tell you who won, but there’s a few times you’ve run past me and go, oh, well done, mate. Become an encouraging person. And anyway, after the game I was in the social rooms, and he came walking through the crowd with a couple of beers and handed me one. And I said, I was going to buy you the beer. And he said, oh, no, mate, I owe you the beer. And I said, why? And he said, “Because I’ve not enjoyed a game of footy like that since I was a little kid.

Oh, wow.

And he goes, no. He goes, I loved it out there today. And I said, well, you play a good game. Because I had attention on him. I saw the things he did, and I was able to rattle off a lot of things he’d done. I said, you’re a pretty good player. You should play like that more often. Yeah, you probably should. And the conversation went quiet, and I said, but how about that other stuff? How’s that working for you? And he said, yeah, they’re not pretty good. I said, do you have kids? And he said, “I’ve got three. And I said, do you see them? And he said, no, I don’t. And now for me, that’s heartbreaking, right? That is so heartbreaking. And I thought in that moment, what is his football club doing? Because that’s what football clubs are for, right? So, I said to him, I know a fellow who specializes in working with guys like you. Would you like some help? And he said, I probably need it, don’t. I said you better do. So I went through the process, connected him up with my mate on Monday, hooked him up, and about eleven months later I got a text from my mate and the text just said he’s seen his kids this weekend.

Oh, well.

And as I say to the guys in the seminars, not everybody who’s behaving like an idiot is an idiot, right? So, there’s so much care that we can take of people and the ones who are behaving the worst, they probably need the most care, right?

And I think it’s a powerful story because you could have responded first for first you could have been aggressive. You were about to go down that path, just like the person who cuts you off responding, but instead you leaned in, showed care and tried to connect with them and obviously had a lasting impact in his life.

Yeah, well, it’s like, I could have done it, eric and I would probably still be a legend at Red Hill Football Club today, but he’d be dead. Right.

So, I think it’s very powerful story in terms of personal responsibility and the choices that you make, but in terms of how we show care in an organization, absolutely.

This episode of the Safety Guru podcast is brought to you by Propulo Consulting, the leading safety and safety culture advisory firm. Whether you are looking to assess your safety culture, develop strategies to level up your safety performance, introduce human performance capabilities, reenergize your BBS program, enhance supervisory safety capabilities, or introduce unique safety leadership training and talent solutions, propulo has you covered. Visit [email protected].

So, tell me more about this culture of care, because in safety, we talk about this all the time, the importance of actively caring. You talk about this quite often. You just shared a story around caring. What does it mean culturally to show active care?

Yes. It’s so interesting, Eric, and it’s something that disappears in wealthy societies, and I’m going to justify that. So, if I go back, even if you go to cast your mind back 200 years to where you live right now and think about your forefathers and your four mothers living in those times, there was a lot to pay attention to. Just having water supply was difficult and required constant maintenance. Having a roof over your head that was going to survive when the snow came in, that required constant maintenance. How do you grow your food? How do you manage? How do you care for your crops, your animals, their pens? What do you do with sewage? And so, when people stepped out their front doors in the morning, life demanded their attention. So, their attention went out into the world to monitor, to notice. But it wasn’t just themselves, it was their neighbors as well, the community. You walk down the street, you check things all the time, and when your attention is out in the world, your mind’s not busy, right? But when was the last time you arrived home and put your key in your front door and stopped for a moment and had an anxious thought about the welfare of one of your neighbors?

The reality is, in the modern world, everyone’s okay, everyone’s got a safe place to sleep, they’ve all got food, so we don’t really need to worry about anybody.

Right?

But the problem is, the dangers are different now. It’s not the physical survival stuff, it’s the survival of the self, the mental survival, the spiritual survival, I suppose. Because what’s happening when life’s not demanding your attention, your attention wanders. And there’s lots of people out there working as hard as they can to seduce it. And probably the biggest master of seduction in the blue-collar industry are the betting apps. The gambling apps, sure. The thing is, when I was growing up in Collingwood, if you wanted to place a bet, you have to walk out the door, walk down the street, round the corner to go into the bedding shop, so everybody knew you were having a bet and if they got close enough, they could see how much you were betting. But the reality is, you could have placed a bet while I’ve been talking, and no one would know. So, there’s all these things and Shaquille O’Neill and all these other luminaries are, you know, getting paid huge amounts of money to seduce young men and young women into gambling. And the problem is, they get themselves into trouble and then they try to hide it.

And so now they’re living life, all their attentions back in their mind, gnawing over their regret for their losses and how they’re going to get out of it and have a hidden problem from their partner or whatever. And so they’re stepping onto a worksite and none of their attention is on.

What’s going on around them, which then gets you at higher risk of an accident, because your attention is not on the task in front of you, it’s distracted.

Yeah. And even if you haven’t succumbed to any of those things, most people in the modern world, most of their attention is on themselves. They become very self-absorbed, then they focus on my rights, my rights, my rights. But we actually all have obligations as well. And so, what I’ve been teaching the workforce to do is to relearn how to live in a more virtuous way. Now, I’m not talking about being religious here, I’m talking about bringing kindness back as one of your tools of life. Bringing back encouraging others, acknowledging others, being grateful, you’re practicing all of these things. Because what happens is, you see, if I walk up to you and I’m really kind to you, I’m likely to reciprocate, but I feel good about who I am.

Right.

Like, I was just sitting on a plane in Perth, waiting to take off to Melbourne and there were people loading onto the plane. You know how some people can be very slow getting into their seat?

Really?

And there was a woman, I think it should be a subject at school, actually, how to get on a plane and get off the plane. But anyway, this woman was standing next to me, and I could feel her frustration rising.

Sure.

And she was obviously tired. It was the end of the day, and I could really feel her start to get really agitated. And I just looked at her and I said to her, “That is such a beautiful blouse that you’ve got on. And it was a beautiful blouse. And she goes, oh, thank you so much. Your favorite, isn’t it? And she goes, there it is. I really love it. Immediately. Right? And the guy next to me who runs all the indigenous employment affairs for a company that’s got 8000 employees, he just nudged me, and he goes, that was really cool. I saw what you did there. I feel good, she’s calmed down, she feels better. But when we do those things for others, yes, we give them something beautiful, but we can’t escape the fact that our own self-acceptance rises a little bit. And most people who have got mental health conditions, they’ve been in big time self-deprecation for a long time.

If you don’t mind, let’s pivot to your story about Melbourne. It was a Melbourne construction project where you brought in a culture of care, and I think it was a very powerful story. Can you share that story similar to your football story? I think this is very important.

One to COVID Yeah, sure. We can give people a link to this. I actually published this on Huffington Post, but yeah, see, Melbourne has had a huge program going for the last eight years or so, because Melbourne seven times the world’s most livable city. But its Achilles heel is level crossings. Train crossings where boom gates come down and stop traffic so trains can go through. And so, Melbourne’s train network hit usable peak 30 years ago. And they couldn’t schedule any more trains in the rush hour, peak hour, because if they did, it would send the city into gridlock. And so, we’ve had a very efficient train system, so the only thing that could be done was get rid of those level crossings and there’s over 200 of them. So, this program started and so some of the level crossings, they’ve gone over and some that have gone under. And on this particular project, there were three level crossings. And they call this a package. And so in this job, they had to do all the preparation work, get everything ready, so much to be done. Probably took 18 months to do the preparation work. And then they have what they call an occupation, or effectively known as an Akko, right?

And in the occupation, they close the train line, and they go to, and they do the work. And so, in this occupation, they had 63 days to tear up the train lines, tear down three train stations, dig a valley that amounted to the biggest removal of earth in urban Melbourne history. They had to turn three roads into bridges, they then had to lay new train lines, new overhead cables, and build three new train stations, basically underground. And they had 63 days to do it. And there were going to be a thousand people working on site around the clock. Anyway, I was going past the site office, and I thought I would drop in because I’ve done some seminars for them, and I dropped in. I wanted to see the safety manager and he’s busy. So, I was just walking around chatting to some of the guys and you would have sworn that they’d been told they were going to be facing the firing squad. They were anxious, they were stressed, they were agitated, very reactive. And each one I went to, I thought, oh, my God, this is a disaster. So, I went and knocked on the project manager’s door.

Steve is a beautiful guy, really competent, great leader. And he looked up and he said, John, come in. So, I walked in, and he said, “what’s going on? I said, Steve, somebody’s going to die on this project. And he looked at me and he said, “What do you think? And I said, I’ll bet money on it. And he said, why? I said, because they’re all so stressed out there, you can’t go into this project with them like that. And he said, yeah, I know. What can we do? And I said, you need to get him in a room next week. I want to talk to him. So, we got hundreds of guys in, and I got up and had to talk to them. And I talked to them about what makes a great city. And really the fundamental, the skeleton and the circulatory system of a great city is its infrastructure. We talked about roads, and we talked about sewerage and electricity, and then we talked about train lines, and then I talked about how Melbourne’s archeries are blocked because of these level crossings. And the vital nature of this work was to unclog the arteries of Melbourne. So, I then started to paint the picture of what things were going to look like when these guys finished their job.

And I said, all those people who are stuck in commuter traffic in the mornings, they’ll be able to get on the train and they’ll get a seat on the train because they’ll be able to run trains from the major destinations every two- or three-minutes during rush hour. I said, that means they’re going to get to work quicker, they’ll be more refreshed, they might have been able to knock off some work on the train. I said, they’ll get home quicker, and they’ll be home earlier, which means they get to spend more time with their kids. It means that they get to get more involved in the community sports clubs, so more adults nurturing more kids, and that creates more stable families. And I just kept painting this picture and those kids are going to be able to grow up and live in that area and raise their families as well. And it’s going to create this beautiful, amazing city of incredible communities because people have got more time and they’re not stressed and they’re able to move around the city more quickly. And I said, so you guys are laying the foundation for one of the most incredible cities the world will ever see.

Now, it took me an hour. To paint that picture and take it on that journey. But by the end of it, they were all up on their feet, like, can we start now? And they were so filled with purpose. Anyway, the project started and why it went. It became the biggest tourist attraction in Melbourne for the next couple of months. There were people queued up five deep around the fence watching the project. There was not a single accident, there was not an hour lost for anything. And the only two complaints were two slightly negative tweets about the bus service that was replacing the trains. And they completed it in 61 and a half days under budget.

Wow. And it’s all by painting a picture of purpose, creating pride in the work in terms of driving that impacts very powerful stories. In the last little bit, you’ve talked to us about three of the main drivers of injuries. Stress, you’ve talked about fatigue, and you’ve talked about distractions. And all bring themes and ideas from well-being, but that ultimately impact recordable injuries that ultimately impact serious incidents, because we know that those three drivers are two very important drivers of safety outcomes. So, really cool ideas, principles here. I’d love to pivot to your book. You’ve published a book in it for the long haul. Tell me a little bit about the book, the story, and why somebody should pick it up on Amazon or whichever retailer you use.

Actually, I just sold it off my website, actually. But it’s really interesting. In Australia, we call it FIFO. So, it’s fly in, fly out. But there’s remote workshops all over the world. And you said it earlier, Eric. There’s oil and gas platforms all over the world and the mines up in the north of Canada and remote mines in South America and Africa. And people are leaving home, going away for a specified period of time and working remotely, living in camps and then going home again for a period of time. And it’s become really significant in the last 30, 40 years as the world’s demanded more resources, sure, but people have been going away from home to work for a very long time. As I say to the FIFO workers, when you fly across Australia, if you look out the window of the plane, you see that there are roads down there. Have you ever asked yourself how those roads got there when they did that? But anyway, what’s been happening here in Australia? There’s a lot of suicides on fiber work sites and there’s a lot of relationship breakdowns and there’s a lot of stress and mental illness and that sort of thing.

And I’ve been traveling out there delivering seminars and I know the lay of the land and my life as well. Prior to COVID I was traveling 240 days of the year around Australia to North America, and I was living out of a suitcase. So now it’s like to be away from home and anyway, I heard about another suicide, and I just thought, man, I got to do something. I ran a survey, and it was amazing. Like, 60% of the workers who responded to the survey said they went out to start their FIFO role with no plan. It was amazing. And so, I thought, I know how to do this. And so, I wrote a book. It’s a 250 odd page book. And I wrote about all of the things that come into play to teach these guys and their families how to really master the skill of being a successful FIFO worker. To turn it into something really, really good. Because they get paid a lot of money, and if they do it right, they can do it for five years, ten years, and set themselves up for life. So, I wrote the book and the response to it has been great.

I’m really just trying to push some of the big companies now to buy it in bulk and get it to all of their people so that they can really help. The thing is, I know for sure that some guys won’t read it, but they might take it home and their partner will read it. Sure. Somebody in the house gets those skills. And what’s more, the ones who do read it on site will have more understanding and knowledge to help their workmates.

Sure.

So that was the purpose of it. And that’s the COVID of the book there. And it was so interesting. When I got the COVID design, I told the designer what I wanted, a young Indian guy off that website, fiver. And I talk in the book a lot about finding your light at the end of the tunnel, your purpose in your life, your passion. And also talk about taking care of your mates so they don’t go off the rails. Now, I didn’t say any of that to him. He’s come back with this picture of these miners standing with their backs to the light. Some of them are on the rails and some of them are off the rails. It’s beautiful.

Very cool. So, John, thank you so much for joining us. I think you’ve shared some very interesting, provocative ideas, again, against at least three key drivers of serious injuries that I can think of. If somebody wants to get in touch with you, talk about these themes and how do you bring wellbeing, how do you bring some of these concepts to the workplace? How can they get in touch with you?

Yeah, certainly I’m easy to find on LinkedIn and also my website is Wideawakewellness.com Au for Australia. There’s lots of resources there and I’m more than happy to connect in with somebody and have a bit of a chat if they want, because at the end of the day, this is about my whole mission in life, is making sure that every kid on the planet has a good life. That means mum and dad coming home from work and coming home from work in a good mood, feeling good, very powerful.

And remember those stories you shared? I think they’re very powerful. The football story, the Melbourne construction project, and then the lady who is getting frustrated and agitated on the plane. I think we can all think about some additional ways to bring some acts of kindness and care for others. So, appreciate you sharing those stories. Thank you again for joining us.

Thank you, Eric. It’s been really cool, and you do great work, mate. Thank you.

Thank you.

Thank you for listening to the Safety Guru on C suite Radio. Leave a legacy. Distinguish yourself from the pack. Grow your success. Capture the hearts and minds of your teams. Elevate your safety. Like every successful athlete, top leaders continuously invest in their safety leadership with an expert coach to boost safety performance. Begin your [email protected]. Come back in two weeks for the next episode with your host, Eric Michrowski. Podcast is powered by Propulo Consulting.

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ABOUT THE GUEST

John Toomey is an International Speaker and Thought leader who delivers seminars that inspire, educate, and empower people to take 100% responsibility for their lives, wellness and mental wellbeing. His impressive background in High Performance Roles in Professional Sport, including 7 AFL Clubs, and Culture Development roles in two A League Clubs, and as Coach of an Olympic Gold Medalist, brings richness and depth to his presentations. John holds a Phys Ed degree from Deakin University, did his Masters Studies in Applied Physiology at Victoria University, studied and taught Human Consciousness as an Avatar Master for 15 years, is a published author and has lectured at multiple Universities in PE and Medicine. Currently, John is Global Chair of the Global Wellness Institute’s Workplace Wellbeing Initiative, the world’s premier advisory group on Workplace Wellness. He’s delivered over 3,300 Corporate Presentations, spoken at Conferences worldwide, written hundreds of published articles, and completed 4 National Thought Leadership Tours for QBE. He recently published a book, “In It For the Long Haul: Making the Most of the FIFO Lifestyle,” his effort to reduce the amount of mental illness and suicides on remote worksites across Australia.

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Sleep Deprivation’s Impact on Safety with Ahna De Vena

Sleep Deprivation's Impact on Safety

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Having trouble sleeping or not getting enough sleep? Sleep deprivation and poor sleep quality can affect judgment and mental health, potentially increase the risk of accidents or injuries, and have a negative impact on safety and job performance. In this episode, Ahna shares the importance of quality sleep to improve workplace safety and energize your team. Adequate and quality sleep is a must to keep ourselves and those around us safe. Tune in to learn how you can begin the journey of prioritizing restorative sleep!

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Real leaders leave a legacy. They capture the hearts and minds of their teams. Their origin story puts the safety and well-being of their people first. Great companies, ubiquitously have safe yet productive operations. For those companies, safety is an investment, not a cost. For the C-suite, it’s a real topic of daily focus. This is The Safety Guru with your host Eric Michrowski, a globally recognized ops and safety guru, public speaker, and author. Are you ready to leave a safety legacy? Your legacy success story begins now.

Hi, and welcome to the Safety Guru. Today I’m very excited to have with me, Ahna De Vena. She’s a sleep expert and consultant, has been in this space for well over 20 years, and has worked across many different industries as well as in her not-for-profit work. And the quote on our website that really caught my attention, was from sleepless to sleep, superstar. Anna, welcome to the show. A really important topic to talk about is sleep tiredness has so many impacts on safety and well-being so maybe why don’t you start out by sharing a little bit about your journey in the sleep space and we’ll take it from there?

It’s great to be here, thank you for having me. I would say that my journey began as a sleepless teenager in my early 20s as a result of lack of sleep for over eleven years I had a breakdown mental and physical and ended up collapsing in public I was taken to hospital and diagnosed with some quiet serious autoimmune conditions, and I did a big review of my life and realized things needed to change. When I was offered meds and told I’d have to take them for the rest of my life I said no and decided that I really wanted to learn how to recover from the sleeplessness that I had endured and just live a really healthy life because I could still remember back to when I was younger and was able to sleep very well and I just knew that I could get back there. And so, I changed course and studied natural medicine mainly for my own knowledge and my own recovery. And after applying that for a few years I fully recovered and then decided I really wanted to help others with this issue where there was very little help at that time. And so, I started in schools because for me when I looked back I thought wow, we’re meant to spend one-third of our lives asleep and yet I didn’t receive any sleep education and that’s the primary reason I got into such difficulty. And so, I decided I wanted to be part of changing that in the world. And I began working with kids and teenagers first, which I did for years, and then adults asked me if I could run courses for them, and then I started working with one-on-one clients more and more and very successful private practices throughout the world. So, I’ve lived in quite a few different places. And essentially the work that I do now for groups, I do still work with people one on one, and I’ve got some products and then I work with groups is really a distillation of all the work I’ve done with individuals over the past 20 odd years. And it’s just very takeaway orientated so people can elicit change immediately. And that’s what I’m about. I can have a five-minute conversation with someone at the grocery store and just tune in and give them that little bit of knowledge they need to make a shift. And so, one of my biggest messages is we all have a natural ability to sleep well. When we can tap into that and support that, then we can shift so much and literally change our entire life. Because when we change our sleep, we change our health, we change our outlook, we change our relationships, our productivity, everything. And so that’s, for me, a very important message for people to get. But it’s not rocket science. But we’re very much out of sync now. We’re in a global sleep loss epidemic. It’s worth every year. So, we really need to be focusing on this.

Definitely. We hear more and more about the impact of sleep. And when we think about in the safety space, there are a lot of safety implications if you’ve got some sleep deficit. I’m thinking also about a lot of the work that people are doing that has high risk and involves shifts, which also has its own impact on sleep and there’s also an impact on executives. Can you maybe share a little bit about the importance of sleep and how we can impact safety, performance, and culture overall?

Well, I think one of the easiest ways to look at it is that when we lose sleep when we don’t get the amount of sleep we need, we’re essentially acting in the same way as when we’re drunk. And so, we have very slow reflexes. Our brain doesn’t make good decisions. All our executive functions are impaired. And we become dysfunctional on so many levels. So being tired, in a way, isn’t the worst thing. It’s really our ability to respond, to recognize where we are fully and what’s needed from us on all levels. So, if you’re operating machinery when I lived in New Zealand, I lived at a port in Nelson and I worked with a lot of men who worked at the port and there were accidents because they couldn’t respond, or they were driving machinery and didn’t drive the machinery well enough. I had one guy who was in charge of a large room full of machinery, and he said to me when he came to me for help, he said, someone almost died a few weeks ago. No, because I was so fatigued I couldn’t see how dangerous the situation was.

And I was supposed to be overseeing all the workings in this room, I think on every level from the person operating the machinery to the people overseeing any kind of environment where there’s dangerous equipment being run. There are a lot of risks and then there are risks, say, for the CEO running a company who can’t keep that long-term vision and perspective when he’s making decisions today. And McKinsey did a study involving 1900 individuals across 91 companies and they found that sleep-deprived brains lose the ability to make accurate judgments which then leads to irrational and unjustified claims and I’m quoting here, such as I don’t need sleep, I’m doing fine with just a few hours of sleep. And so, what happens is the brain is so dysfunctional that the sleepless person can’t even realize they’re sleep deprived, and I think their lives are one of the greatest dangers of sleep deprivation.

Interesting, and the other element is if I think about a lot of higher-risk roles, there are a lot of shifts. People maybe are working through the night, maybe they’re alternating from day shifts to night shifts. How does that impact somebody’s ability to rest and to really recover through sleep?

So, shift workers really have the worst end of the stick in many ways. Matthew Walker talks about it a fair bit. They’re at much higher risk of dying than anyone because their body clock and their brains are just so scrambled, you could say. And I have worked with many shift workers, and I’m appalled at the lack of consideration for basic human needs. Honestly, I’m shocked. And then people like nurses and doctors who are performing surgeries or procedures that are potentially life-threatening and having to make decisions that really impact people and they do not have the cognitive ability and even the physical coordination to be able to function properly. To me, this is one of the most kinds of disappointing and astounding aspects of society really, that we’re not protecting people more and particularly shift workers. Like there are very simple things that they could do for shift workers, which I know quite a few companies are starting to do now. But keeping the same shift for a week rather than doing three different shifts in a week allows the body to at least get some rest in a rhythmical manner. Whereas if you’re doing three different kinds of shifts in a week, it’s almost impossible to get the rest that you need to function properly.

But if you are diligent and you are very careful about how you manage the time your downtime, then you can at least get deep rest. And I think that deep rest isn’t respected enough, and people think if I’m not asleep then it’s a waste of time. But, if we know and train ourselves to rest deeply, that can then turn into sleep. But deep rest is extremely valuable. Back to your question. Shift workers need to learn the skills needed to switch off quickly more than anyone else on the planet. They really need that because their downtime is so precious and so they don’t have the luxury of hours of agitation that they can’t they just don’t have it. They’ve got to be back at work in X number of hours. So, they need to understand how to support their bodies down out of high stress, which is where everybody, and when I say everybody is I mean our bodies go into very high stress and high inflammation when we’re sleep deprived. So, it’s just so critical that shift workers know how to bring that inflammation down and how to bring the stress hormones down and then come into a state of deep rest where sleep is possible.

And you’ve got some other elements that are also mixing into it. For example, maybe their rest time is when the sun starts coming up and all the lights are up, and activity noise is higher because that’s when most people are active. So, you’ve got all sorts of things I’m even thinking about airline crews that are flying all sorts of different hours’ time zones. Jet lag all these pieces really require they mentioned some degree of awareness training in terms of tactics and then.

Carry a kit with them where they can make a room they can rest in because if we just go willy-nilly without being prepared then we could lose that time that we could be sleeping. Where are a pair of earplugs, an eye mask, and some tape? Tape is something that I tell everyone who’s sleeping in hotel rooms or unfamiliar places that they should take some black tape. It doesn’t leave marks on things. So, they can black out the room or cover over bright light shining down on them or out of the wall. Yeah. So just those three things can make a massive difference when you’re traveling and then also knowing how to manage time zones and how to prepare for travel but obviously, that’s a bit different. But although shift workers sometimes are traveling over time zone fly and fly out people.

So, it gets a good segue into getting into a little bit of the elements that an organization can do in teams of bringing sleep as part of a wellness or safety program. What are some of the best practices that you’ve seen in this space?

I think that the first thing that needs to be acknowledged is that sleep and work aren’t separate. I think for too long companies have thought of sleep as something outside of any realm that they need to address which, having worked with thousands of people the impact that work has on someone’s sleep. I’ve seen first-hand the number of people who can’t get to sleep who lie there thinking, worrying, or problem-solving in the middle of the night for their job because they’re so committed or they’re so stressed or they’re just so impacted by their work or inspired. I’ve had quite a lot of clients who are just overly inspired to the point where they can’t sleep. So, it’s not always a negative.

Sure.

So, I think companies need to acknowledge that sleep is impacted by work, and work is impacted by sleep length and quality hugely. If their employees are turning up tired, it’s costing them in many ways. And Deloitte Access Economics did a study combined with the Australian Sleep Foundation and the final report was aptly named Asleep on the Job. And they quantified the cost of insufficient sleep in Australia, and this was in 2016 to 2017 and just the productivity loss of productivity costs Australia 18 billion a year. So that’s huge. So, if we think about it, what sleeplessness is costing us professionally and personally, it’s just hard to quantify really, because if you’re living your days feeling exhausted, unable to be present, afraid of making a mistake, or even just making mistakes that have a serious impact, then that’s not really living. So, I think there needs to be a shift in how people view sleep, and any company that wants to help their employees well then needs to come right up to the top of priorities. Because traditionally diet and exercise and weight loss are areas that wellness programs have covered, and sleep has a massive impact on all three of those areas.

If you don’t get sufficient sleep, your diet just goes out the window. You actually don’t have control over what you eat because all the peptides that control appetite are just completely thrown, and you put on weight, and exercise can be detrimental. When we haven’t had sufficient sleep, if we do it in a way that elevates our stress, for instance, or if we do it at the wrong time of day, or it just doesn’t get done at all because we’re so tired, sleep needs to be the foundation of a wellness program. That’s my opinion after so many years working in this industry and its time and I feel that people are starting to wake up to this fact. I’m very grateful for Matthew Walker who’s written the fantastic book Why We Sleep. That’s a great read for anyone because we all sleep. I just want a little warning there for people who read it to be aware that you might become absolutely terrified of not getting enough sleep when you read it because he goes into all the nitty-gritty of what happens to our bodies and our minds when we don’t get the sleep we need.

Definitely, something to read to provoke thinking in that space.

This episode of the Safety Guru podcast is brought to you by Propulo Consulting, the leading safety, and safety culture advisory firm. Whether you are looking to assess your safety culture, develop strategies to level up your safety performance, introduce human performance capabilities, re-energize your BBS program, enhance supervisory safety capabilities, or introduce unique safety leadership training and talent solutions. Propulo has you covered. Visit us at propolo.com.

In a wellness program. It sounds like there are elements around teaching people the importance of sleep. Correct me if I’m wrong, but also have some strategies around how to get better sleep and maybe recognize signs of fatigue. Are those the types of themes that typically are covered?

Yes. I think that people need to understand why sleep is important and not just getting sufficient sleep, but sufficient quality sleep. There’s too much emphasis put on the length of sleep we’re getting and not enough at all on the quality of sleep we’re getting. And if we flip that around and focus on getting quality sleep then we will naturally get the length of sleep we need. And that’s something people need to become more aware of you can sleep seven to 8 hours and still wake up tired. In fact, when I do my pre-course survey, about 60% of participants report that they were getting around 7 hours of sleep but still waking up tired. And so, this is part of the epidemic that we’re now in that people might be in bed for that time, perhaps asleep, but the amount of quality sleep they’re getting, the amount of deep sleep they’re getting is way lower than what they need to truly rejuvenate while they’re sleeping.

Interesting. It makes me think that there’s also a need for awareness at the boardroom level in terms of decision-making because there are impacts that the organization creates that have an impact on safety around. We talked about before shifts and shift patterns. The other thing that comes to mind is overtime, which can be a delicate balance because sometimes overtime can be very high remuneration for the employee, and they see it as an encroachment. But if you’re working 18 hours a day or 24 hours a day and getting minimal rest and recovery, it strikes me that in high-risk role, that’s incredibly dangerous actually probably in any role, not just in a high-risk role.

Yes, it is. And I’ve seen a lot of people compromising their health and their well-being and their capacity to perform at an optimum level, taking shifts, doing overtime, or just saying yes because they’re afraid of losing their job. If they say no, that’s something that happens. There’s bullying. People know that they shouldn’t take it, but they’re afraid to say no or they’re afraid not to do it for fear of losing their job. So, in terms of a company culture that needs to be interwoven so that people aren’t afraid, that people are able to really take stock of how they are and make a decision that reflects their ability, not oh God, I better say yes because otherwise, my job is at risk. Sure, that kind of company culture is beyond toxic. That kind of thing just so needs to change.

And I’ve seen it even at a crew level. So, there’s corporate culture and then there can also be team dynamics that create that need to be in check where somebody’s like just do the extra or just push a little bit harder or something like that, that can also be toxic. 

Yeah. And if you’ve got a leader of your team who’s doing over many extra hours and kind of creating this we don’t need sleep, I don’t need sleep. So, you shouldn’t need sleep, what’s wrong with you? Type thing wearing a badge almost of being a hero for operating on very little sleep. That’s extremely dangerous. And just on that note, there is a small percentage of the population, 3% of the population have a gene that makes it possible for them to function normally on 6 hours of sleep. And so, if you’ve got them as a team leader, if you got one of them as a team leader, that’s a scary position to be in because then you start trying to exist on the same amount of sleep as one of these people.

Sure.

If you look at burnout now and the prevalence of burnout now compared to even just ten years ago, it’s so much more prevalent. And I think since covert our stress levels are so much higher and there is a direct link to high stress and lack of sleep and those they feed each other. So generally, lack of sleep will start occurring due to some kind of height and stress. And then if we don’t have the skills and the ability to get out of that cycle, then one just feeds the other. Lack of sleep feeds the high stress. The high stress leads to more lack of sleep and then it just goes on and on and-on-and people feel they can’t get out, but they also just start to think of it as normal. And that’s something I try to tell people. It’s not normal. Even though it feels normal, even though you think you don’t have a problem, there actually is an issue here that needs addressing. And so that’s one of the hardest things to get people to recognize there is a problem and it needs addressing.

And I think that’s where the need for as well the organization to bring this at the forefront from a safety standpoint, from a wellness standpoint becomes really important.

Yes.

So let’s pivot to some of the strategies to improve sleep. You shared one around when you’re traveling to have some tape to be able to make sure the room is dark. What are some of the strategies that you teach in your programs to help somebody become a better master at sleep?

Well, the first thing is to see sleep as a must-have instead of a nice-to-have. So, I think people don’t have enough of a healthy perspective on how important quality sleep is. And I would say that the first thing needs to be an acknowledgment of how important it is because once you have that, then you can start connecting with why you want to get great sleep.

Sure.

And of course, those two things are kind of interconnected. But unless we have a strong connection to why. We want to get great sleep. Win the battle with the creature of habit that makes us do the same thing over and over and over again and continue getting mediocre or poor sleep already. Is anyone listening to this? The creature of habit inside you is standing on guard and saying. None of this stuff is going to work for me. Whatever she says, it’s not going to work, or I don’t want to do that even before I speak. And so, you’ve got to be aware that this battle has already started and will be there for a month. As you incorporate new patterns of behavior, even a new mindset, you have to battle. And in order to begin to win that battle, you’ve got to have a why. And I say to people, how do you want to feel when you wake up in the morning? And how do you want to feel as you engage with the people in your life, the people you love, how you are able to perform at work and how you’re able to contribute in the world?

How do you want to feel? And so, when you can get in touch with that and then come to a place of saying, you know what? I want to be fully alive. I want my brain to work as well as it can work. I want super brain powers and I want endless energy. And I want the ability to be patient and to be able to listen and to be able to communicate clearly, to be able to keep a long-term perspective. When I’m making decisions for myself, for my family, for my colleagues, and for my company, we have to really have a strong why in order to make any changes. So that would be my first suggestion. The second suggestion is around your relationship with light. We have a segment of our brain called the super charismatic nucleus. And this part of our brain actually regulates our sleep-wake cycle. And the main environmental cues that trigger the sleep-wake cycle are light and temperature. And so, when we are exposed to full spectrum light, that signal from the environment is read through brain cells that are in our eyes called Retinal ganglion cells. And those brain cells in our eyes send a signal to the super charismatic nucleus and say, hey, it’s time to wake up.

And then the super charismatic nucleus says to the adrenal cortex, start making cortisol. Cortisol isn’t just a stress hormone, it’s an energy hormone. And also, is a regulating hormone. It’s an activating hormone. It’s actually very good for us in the white quantities at the right time. So, we need this signal of light. We also need to increase our body temperature to switch on in the morning and then in the evening, we need the signal of darkness, which is also read by these retinal ganglion cells. And these signals are sent to the SCN, okay, stop making cortisol and start making melatonin. Darkness is the best sleeping pill. I’m going to repeat that. Darkness is the best and really the only sleeping pill. We should use long-term signals to our bodies to start making the hormones that we need to get good quality sleep. And this is true for people of all ages and children. All humans need darkness and then coolness the opposite to morning coolness. The body needs to cool down in order to sleep well. So overheated rooms or overheated beds are just going to make you frustrated, and your body won’t be able to fall asleep.

So, if everyone follows this advice, everyone’s quality and length of sleep would improve. And it’s simple, but it’s tricky because we’re living in a time where our evenings are polluted by artificial light. Now, the amount of sleep we’ve gotten globally has declined since artificial light started polluting our evenings. In 1942, the average sleep adults got on the planet was 7.9 hours a night. Now it’s 6.5 and decreasing every year. The last time that was measured was actually discovered. So, in the surveys, I’m doing, my estimate is it’s down to six already as an average. And we need 7.5 to 9 hours, depending on who we are, the average is around eight. To be well mentally and physically, children and teenagers need much more than that. 90% of teenagers are sleep deprived. This is a problem that is yet to be acknowledged and yet to be addressed. I plan on addressing it in the next few years with my sleep kit for teens. I’ve already got a sleep kit for kids. But yeah, everything I’m saying applies to people of all ages.

Interesting, these are all techniques that people can easily implement, and I think it also links back to what you’re talking about. The tip when you’re traveling is to make sure you’ve got a dark environment, is there something as well about when you’re talking about artificial light? People are watching TV more and more using their computers, which from everything I’ve read, stimulates and also counteracts what we’re trying to do in the hours before sleep.

Yeah, so as I said when we get the opposite cue to what the body needs, so the body needs darkness. And when we have this very bright light being read by these brain cells in our eyes, these retinal ganglion cells, they’re getting the opposite signal to what they need. And so, it confuses everything, and it inhibits the production of melatonin, which melatonin should start being produced quite a while before we go to sleep. Whereas people are taking their phones to bed, right, and they’re sending this light signal. And so, one of the things people say to me when they come to me for help, they say, I just don’t get tired at night. I just don’t get tired. I don’t feel sleepy. I said, well, what are you doing? And so, it’s always something that involves light, whether it’s a screen, generally, it’s a screen. But we need to understand what’s happening physiologically. Not just our screens aren’t good for us, but understand that when you’re doing that, but understand that when you’re doing that, that you are confusing your body and messing with your body chemistry. And so, when you do eventually get to sleep, it’s light sleep.

And yes, there are some things you can do. You can wear good quality blue light-blocking glasses. One of the things that I suggest is setting an electronic sundown time and having that be something that everyone in the house adheres to so that parents are setting an example. So, you have a box, and all the phones get put into the box. Anyone letting a teenager or child take their phone or device into their bedroom, yeah, it’s one of the most disastrous and unloving things that a parent can do. That sounds very judgmental, but it’s true because it’s interrupting their development at such a deep level. And it’s just like sending an alcoholic into a room with a bottle of scotch. They don’t have control and they’re severely addicted, so they’ll tell you they’re not on it, but I can tell you they are interesting.

So, you do a lot of programs for organizations. You coach, work, and people with people one on one. If somebody is interested in learning more, how can they get in touch with you?

Great. So, through my website. Sleep well and thrive. Or you can just contact me through LinkedIn Ahna De Vena. They’re the two best places to get in touch with me. And you can read about my corporate programs on my website. And there are lots of testimonials from different companies that have worked with me, and there’s lots of information there.

Excellent. Thank you very much for joining me today. I think it’s an important topic and definitely one that’s been top of mind with the pandemic. Lots of articles have talked about this, but I think it’s important for organizations to, as you propose, really look at it seriously in terms of their wellness programs, their safety programs, looking at their decision-making, how different decisions around shifts, around overtime, can impact restful sleep, but also provide tools for team members around this. So, thank you so much for coming to share your thoughts on this.

My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Thank you for listening to the Safety Guru on C-suite Radio. Leave a legacy. Distinguish yourself from the path. Grow your success. Capture the hearts and minds of your teams. Elevate your safety. Like every successful athlete, top leaders continuously invest in their safety leadership with an expert coach to boost safety performance. Begin your journey at execsafetycoach.com. Come back in two weeks for the next episode with your host, Eric Michrowski. This podcast is powered by Propulo Consulting.

The Safety Guru with Eric Michrowski

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ABOUT THE GUEST

Ahna De Vena has been a pioneer in the sleep-improvement field for 20+ years. She has extensive experience working with individuals and organisations throughout the world and her corporate program is changing thousands of lives every year. Ahna has developed a unique approach to sleep improvement and stress reduction from observation in her clinical practice and created effective products including a Sleep Cd that was featured on Qantas inflight entertainment for 4 years and a Sleep Kit for Kids that has already helped thousands of kids and families throughout Australia. She’s also the founder of the Sleep & Dream Foundation—a charity that supports children and families who’ve experienced trauma to sleep well and heal.

You can learn more about Ahna’s corporate sleep improvement program or 1:1 sleep recovery package by visiting her website: www.sleepwellandthrive.com or by emailing her directly: [email protected]

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Levelling Up Safety by Embracing Total Wellness at Denver Fire Department with Manuel Almaguer

Levelling up safety by embracing total wellness at Denver fire department

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“At that time, we had focused so much on line of duty deaths, but what we did not know is that suicides were starting to outpace line of duty deaths in the fire service.” Manuel Almaguer remembers back to 2013 when the Denver Fire Department began to roll out training with an intentional focus on discussing stressors, risk factors, and ways to take care of themselves and each other in public safety. Tune in as Manuel discusses steps the Denver Fire Department has implemented through the years to beat the stigma, build trust through vulnerability, and prioritize peer support to embrace total wellness throughout the fire department.

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Real leaders leave a legacy. They capture the hearts and minds of their teams. Their origin story puts the safety and wellbeing of their people first. Great companies ubiquitously have safe yet productive operations. For those companies, safety is an investment, not a cost. For the C-Suite, it’s a real topic of daily focus. This is The Safety Guru with your host, Eric Michrowski, a globally recognized ops and safety guru, public speaker and author. Are you ready to leave a safety legacy? Your legacy success story begins now.

Hi, and welcome to the Safety Guru. Today I’m very excited to have with me Manuel Almaguer. He’s the assistant Chief with the Denver Fire, 20-year veteran champion of mental health and we’re here to talk about some incredibly powerful actions that he’s taken. He’s driven within Denver Fire to bring the topic of mental health to the forefront. So many really excited to have you with me today.

Hey. Good morning, Eric. It’s my pleasure and looking forward to this conversation for quite some time. Thank you.

Excellent. So many your story has been shared in many different forms that I’ve heard. In terms of the work you’ve done in Denver Fire, maybe let’s start a little bit about what got you inspired to do some very powerful things which we’ll get to very soon around mental health within Denver Fire.

That’s great. It’s a great intro. And my background before I came into Denver Fire Department was in psychiatric settings. So, I was a psychiatric registered nurse and I worked in institutional settings with the developmentally disabled as well as those with some severe mental illness concerns that would require the institutional setting. So, I’d worked in that setting for eleven years and then I went into the career change with Denver Fire and really thought, okay, I pretty much have seen what I’m going to see in life and there’s really nothing that’s going to be shocking to me or something that’s going to as I thought would be traumatic. So, this was in the year 2000 and then I started to see trends and people that I had worked with and people who had retired from the fire service and taking their own lives. But where it really impacted me, and a few others was in 2013 when there was a suicide of one of our respected captains in the Democratic Department and just a man that many of us kind of looked up to as a mentor. And you have to keep this perspective when you come into public safety and specifically the fire service and you always think of somebody who’s stoic, somebody who doesn’t have any issues personally, somebody who’s just kind of that man’s, man, firefighter, firefighter.

He just never really looked deep into the layer of anything that could be preoccupying them in any way. So, this individual took their life in 2013 and it crippled a handful of us. And at the time it was with an employee group called Firefighters Incorporated for Racial Equality and maybe on the executive board worked with this individual in the firehouse. So, what was so interesting about this is that at that time, we had just started to get at the forefront of suicide in the fire service. And at that time, Denver fire collaborated with the National Pawn Firefighters Foundation. We were focusing on the Life Safety Initiative, which is mental health. So, we started to roll out some training. It was very basic training. It was called stress first aid. So, at that time was the very first introduction that I could recall in the fire service, where we started talking about stressors risk factors and ways to take care of yourself and each other. But we were influenced in all of this. We were just trying to get the message out. Well, while we were doing this, right under our nose is when the suicide of the captain occurred.

So, at that time, we knew we had to do something that had a little bit more teeth to it, that was more sustainable, and actually would capture the attention of the importance of this pattern that was starting to go on in the fire service. Because at that time, we had focused so much online of duty deaths, but what we did not know is that suicides were starting to outpace line of duty deaths in the fire service, but we never even so at the time, a task force was formed with FRE. There’s about three to five of us that says, okay, let’s go out and see what we can do. We’ve had enough and we were broken. Eric we really did not know what we were going to get into, but we knew we needed to do something. And so, what we did is the firefighter mentality. We picked up our bootstraps, we marched forward and said you were not going to take no for an answer. But we really didn’t have an idea. We started to look at resources in the state of Colorado, city of Denver, and at that time, we were knocked on many doors.

We’re here, we’re men. We lost somebody very close to us. We have a lot of the same DNA running through our bodies. We’re high-risk factors. We’re at a high stress job. And people are like, yeah, that’s great. That’s a tough culture, tough stigma. Let us know if you have somebody that’d be willing to work with you. It was to us as like, boy, we were just kind of like, whoa, I guess we are kind of in our own little category of high-risk occupations. Well, then what happened at the time is I just happened to be looking on YouTube and I saw there was a local department of the region down to the south of Denver that had put together this video called Dealing with the Aftermath of Suicide. So, I watched it very captivated, like, wow, this is what we’re trying to get into.

Sure.

I looked at the credits, and in the credits was Dr. Sally Spencer Thomas. And I looked at, wait a minute here. She’s down the street from us. So, we made contact with her. About three of us went in there to talk to her, and immediately we knew we were in the right hand. She almost was, like, waiting for us. And at that time, she was recognizing this pattern and trend that was going on amongst working agents, specifically in the public safety industry as well as the construction industry. So, what we did at that time was we collaborated with Sally, and we started at a very, very we had a strategy to go and get some focus groups. And so, what we did is we got members from all ranks, probably about ten to 15 members of the Denver fire department of all ranks. We just went into a room, and we just started talking about what we were all going through and what was so glaring and all that. And I knew everybody in this room, and I thought I had a pretty good idea of who they were as men and as women and as firefighters.

The out is I really had no idea what they were going through. And they were raw. They were tough conversations and very real and eye-opening dialogue. And we had felt that the common thread we had all had been we were all stressed. We take home our work, and we knew we had a system that needed more resources. Keep in mind, at the time when I came on the Denver fire department in the year 2000, we had a city policy that had kind of made its way into our department policies. And it basically was, if you’re experiencing a crisis or if you need mental health resources, call this number.

Sure.

And it was office of employee assistance as a paragraph, probably that big, and every city employee, this was the avenue for resources. So, at the time I thought, well, I don’t want to minimize what anybody in a city employee is going through, but I felt pretty confident that somebody in the library or somebody in parks and rec wasn’t dealing with the same stressors. And that’s me.

I think that’s probably a fair assumption.

And so those are the types of things we knew we had to start having in place in order to have options for our members. Because, you know, the more options you have, the better choices you’re going to make, and there are resources that are better suited for you and your own individual needs. But at that time, our most used resource was our care support team, and that is members of the Democratic department through specialized training. And that is what we had. It was most widely used. We had a department of psychologist. But if you did not feel comfortable with those two resources, then all you had was just the city OOE EAP employee assistance program. So, what we did with that focus group is we looked at a strength and needs assessment. What are the strengths of the fire service? What are the strengths of the Denver fire department? We knew the strengths are we’re a family, we take care of each other. We all have the risk factors that we all can pretty much unspoken language know that, okay, this person, he or she is going through probably the same challenges that I’m going through.

We knew that the strengths are with the firefighter mentality. Give us a task, we’ll take care of it. And the weaknesses we have were lack of resources, lack of trust. Lack of trust meaning that we didn’t feel confident that we could come forward with vulnerability. It was a weakness at the time, and we felt that we didn’t have trust and there would be no labeling the stigma attached. And I want to promote in the fire service well if I come forward and I start talking about the course I’ve taken in my career with dealing with my mental health challenges or concerns, does this impact me where I go on my future? He felt very, very leery about crossing the boundaries of being leaders in the fire service and conveying vulnerability to our peers. And then our peers felt I don’t trust leadership because they’re going to go and use this against me in my career. All these obstacles, we just kind of hashed them all out. And so, we also had done a survey and got to keep in mind a survey in public safety. We probably have 2% to 5% Ops participation. We put this survey and we asked what do I think about mental illness?

What do I think my peer thinks about mental illness? What do I think leadership thinks about mental illness? Can I name five risk factors, somebody who may be experiencing a crisis? Can I list five resources that are available to me and to my peers? We had about a 20% participation rate in the fire service and to many in a company organization, I might not see my calaba. To us it was huge. And we knew at the time that people want to be heard and people are struggling. So, we found out some very alarming data from that. People couldn’t even name resources other than the EAP. And so, with that, we put together a training and said, okay, we’re going to go through this model called the working minds model. We’re going to train the trainer because we knew in the fire service public safety, you bring in an outside speaker to tell you, you know, this is what you’re going through. You automatically get suspicion. You’re going to get the fear of conspiracy. So, we knew in order for it to be effective, it had to be biased for us and we had to put people who’ve actually walked this path.

We’re in positions of leadership and basically say, okay, this is what we’re dealing with. That was the first challenge. The second challenge is we knew we could not go in there and just say, we’re going to talk about mental health and resiliency. Sure, you’re probably going to get callings that day. You’re probably going to get people who have some other thing they want, training they got to take care of. But we knew we couldn’t do that. So right at that time in the fire service, we always are championing physical health. Cancer is high amongst firefighters, heart attacks amongst firefighters and first responders. So, we knew we had to capitalize on that and morph it together, what we call the total wellness. So, let’s talk about what we’re going to take care of our physical health, checkups physicals body composition analysis, propensity for injury, and then let’s start talking about our minds, what’s going on here? As below, as above, so below, that’s kind of our approach. So, we coupled it all together. We called it total wellness and we got great buying. And it was something that we felt that became a model that continued to be used in corporate America.

But it was something, like I said, if I look back on it and it was probably the best thing that we could have done, but there’s was something missing. We had just started to capture data and at that time the data was alarming because like I mentioned before, you think of firefighters, you think of the worst possible thing that could happen is a line of duty death. But when we start talking about working age, men, fire service, the risk factors we all bring in, we’re risktakers by nature. We’re around death all the time. We know if we are in a crisis. We know the mechanisms to take our own life. And we had captured the attention of the data of the people we were presenting to on the organization. But we knew in order to get that knockout punch to really deliver the message. At the time, Dr. Sally says, let’s get about five people in leadership positions. Let’s put together a video. And I want you to talk about moments in your career when you are vulnerable, maybe going through a difficult time, have soft treatment, and you are now triumphant, if you mind.

The ten of us that are going through this, we’re like, we’re very passionate. We know what needs to be done. But all ten of us are like, I don’t know anybody like that, do you? We’re kind of looking around the room. In reality, we were part of our own story. This is part of our own healing. And those of us who were deeply impacted by the suicide of the captain, I look back on it and going through this was part of the best thing we could have done for ourselves because we were able to lay our hearts on the table, be open be vulnerable. So, once we got together, a group of us that basically talked about seeking help, advocating for mental health and resilience building, which is what captured the attention of the members of the department of everything we did. And it was all great. People said, you know what, I never knew that you were going through this, and I admire you so much for your courage and vulnerability and coming forward and that we were able to build on. And I firmly believed, unfortunately, we had a line of duty death about a year and a half later, and this was a firefighter who had fallen through a roof and had lost his life two weeks later.

Well, because we had already started to build those skills of resiliency, crisis intervention, suicide prevention, we were able to teach the entire department on grief and loss. And I firmly would never have been able to broach that topic if we hadn’t already built that trust. And so that is kind of the story in a nutshell on how Denver Fire Department began to morph into championing mental health, coming up with more programs, recognize the value of resource building internally through peer support. Department psychologists were able to come up with a chaplain service for people who are more inclined to have spiritual intervention for mental health. And we were able to collaborate with many, many agencies and suicide prevention organizations and champions. But that’s how it all began.

I think the story is incredibly powerful. A couple of things that really hit home for me was the importance of peer support. And I think the message you shared around without trying to minimize the challenges that other groups may go through. EAP and many organizations that actually remember having the conversation earlier this week is the EP group that you’ve got prepared to address themes. Do they understand what you’re going through saying in the fire department or whether it’s law enforcement without its construction, whatever industry that you’re in because it seems maybe different construction, sometimes you could be away for six weeks or you might be flying to see your family for a day, which could create new stressors and differences. So, I think the peer support piece is something I’m hugely in favor of. I think it’s incredibly important. I love how you adapted things; you made it for the fire department, you adjusted terminology, the total wellness. I think these things are powerful because if it feels like it’s something that’s corporate that’s being pushed, people won’t use. And I think that’s incredibly powerful. And your message around vulnerability, I’ve seen it time and time again when people are comfortable, and leaders are comfortable being vulnerable.

It’s so powerful in terms of getting people to understand.

This episode of the Safety Guru podcast is brought to you by Propulo Consulting, the leading safety and safety culture advisory firm. Whether you are looking to assess your safety culture, develop strategies to level up your safety performance, introduce human performance capabilities, reenergize your BBS program, enhance supervisory safety capabilities, or introduce unique safety leadership training and talent solutions. Propulo has you covered. Visit [email protected].

That’s a great point, Eric. And this is a story I want to share with you recently. About two weeks ago, I was at a call downtown on an actual suicide of an individual who had taken their life by jumping off of a structure. And so, if that would have happened 1520 years ago, those who were part of that incident had witnessed what had happened, we would lose them because we would never address what they’re feeling now or what they may be feeling next day down the road. So, after everything was mitigated and during that time when I’m getting the company back in service, the first call I made was our purpose support director. And I said, this is what happened. These are the individuals that were on the scene. Please give them a call by the end of the day or tomorrow morning. So, to see that transition and now it’s part of our call process. First incident, I would never have even thought of that 1520 years ago. It was just something that you went home, you took it home with. If you were able to talk with members of your family or of your own internal support network, fantastic.

But if you didn’t have those, then this is carried with you, and it be accumulated through your career.

Right. And I think one of the reasons why I think your story’s powerful and obviously we’re talking mostly about safety. You’re in the public safety space, you do incredibly dangerous workday in and day out. What’s the impact of mental health and not addressing on physical safety of a team member? That because I think the two things are intertwined. We know from a physical safety standpoint, distractions, all sorts of things that can be exacerbated by mental health can have an impact in terms of my choices, my decisions, and how I stay physically safe as well.

Yeah, that’s a great question. So, as I mentioned earlier, we started to recognize the trend and pattern in line of duty death being surpassed by suicides, not just in the fire service, but in public safety. And this has continued to be the trend for almost ten years. I think the only time we had line of duty deaths that were outpacing suicide was during COVID, but we don’t see a drop off in these trends. So, the cumulative effect, if these stressors and risk factors aren’t addressed, obviously the worst-case scenario is the suicide of a member. But you can also attach it to the things that maybe we don’t consider taking it home to your loved ones. Anger, substance use. And that data we had done back in 2014, we started to see the prevalence of substance use. We started to see the prevalence of domestic issues that were going on in the home. We started to see a trend in the number of divorces in the fire service. We started to see the number of disciplines in the fire service. We started to see a number in injuries. So, all the things you can easily attribute to not taking care of yourself.

And when you look at the number of calls that the peer support receives on an annual basis, of course they’re all confidential. But we do look at the types of calls and they all are on family, substance use, anger management, feeling loss of value and a sense of purpose because of injuries. And you have to keep in mind we’re all kind of have our bread to be on the frontline, to be out there riding on the rig, to be a part of a crew. And when you have issues where you’re taking time off of work, whether for recovery, whether it’s mentally or physically, you lose that sense of value being a part of something bigger than yourself, part of a team. So those are all the things that you can attribute to not taking care of yourself. And then we were also seeing trends, and this is something that may be surprising to a few, is our retirees were taking their lives in the past two years. I probably have a handful of retirees who once they were off the department, had taken their lives. It’s a sense of possibly not having a support network of the brothers and sisters of the fire department to bounce things off and maybe not having the support network that they once had.

And I’ve seen this in other industries as well, where there’s a very strong bond connection to the mission, even in the aviation space, pilots as well, risk factors after they retire. All of that also changes the context that you’re operating within. So, is this something you’ve also extended to people that have left the fire department in terms of the peer support or not yet?

No. Well, we’ve brought it to the attention of administration. We brought it to the attention of the union. Of the union. And yes, I believe it’s part of the message that this is what we’ve seen, these are the resources available to you. But we don’t really have to touch points like we would have members who are currently in the department. But I will tell you what we did that I really felt that was a game changer for us is that I really didn’t start talking about mental health until my 15th year on the department. When I came on in the year 2000, if there was anything going on with me internally, I’d dare not say anything. And even if I was to say, hey, I’m having a bad day, I’ll be quiet kid, just move on, get on the rig. So, part of the academy process, when the new recruits come in, they are automatically just within that first 17 weeks of their training are instructed on the importance of self care, are instructed on being able to have the courage to intervene if a member or a colleague. And I use this story, and I’ve used it with the recruits.

So, in the fire service, we’re safety oriented. Everything’s about safety, of course. And when you’re on a call, all of us are responsible and have an obligation to safety. It doesn’t matter if you’re the chief. It doesn’t matter if you are the brand-new firefighter in the city. You come up on a house fire and you see a roof sagging, I ask the most junior person, the least seniority on the department, what would you do? You roll up on this. What would you do? Oh, Chief, you know what? I immediately talked to the incident commander, but there’s a safety issue right there. The roof is saying, we need to pull people off the roof without hesitation, with confidence. I said, okay, you go back to the firehouse, and you happen to walk past your officer’s room, and you see your officer with his head in his hands and he saw me. What are you going to do? They look around, I don’t know. I said, the mindset is we’re safety officers on the fire ground and in the firehouse, if somebody is in danger or there’s a concern or somebody is not themselves, just like reading smoke, we can tell when there’s turbulence.

We should be able to read each other when there’s inner turbulence, have the courage to intervene and have that dialogue. So that’s the mindset that we’re trying to have. Our entry level recruits have those skills and at least the awareness of themselves and their peers that they can start having that conversation and start moving things in that direction early in their career.

Thank you, Manny. That’s very powerful. So, Manny, thank you for sharing all these great ideas and your experience through this. If somebody wants to get in touch with you to explore your journey within Denver Fire, to explore how to leverage some of the insights you’ve had there in the organization, how can they get in touch with you?

Eric, they can contact me through my personal email. And that is [email protected].

Perfect. And I also want to thank you for coming, sharing your story, for the work that you’ve done within Denver Fire and how you brought all the teams together behind this. I think it’s a very encouraging story and a story I wish a lot of others started thinking about. How do I embark on a similar journey and ultimately as well, thank you for your service within Denver Fire and keeping people safe day in and day out. Really appreciate everything you’ve done. Thank you.

Yeah, thanks, sir.

It’s been a pleasure.

Thank you for listening to the safety guru on C-suite Radio. Leave a legacy. Distinguish yourself from the pack. Grow your success. Capture the hearts and minds of your teams elevate your safety. Like every successful athlete, top leaders continuously invest in their safety. Leadership with an expert coach to boost safety performance. Begin your journey at execsafetycoach.com. Come back in two weeks for the next episode with your host, Eric Michrowski. This podcast is powered by Propulo consulting.

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ABOUT THE GUEST

Assistant Chief, Manuel Almaguer, has been a Denver Firefighter for 22 years. Chief Almaguer has served in many roles in the Denver Fire Department. This includes Division Chief of Fire Prevention, Assistant Chief in both Training and Operations. Hazardous Materials Captain, and Lieutenant in Administration. He is a national champion of mental health and resiliency. He has spoken at The White House and Pentagon on Suicide Prevention and Men’s Health.

For more information: [email protected]

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