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Diving Deep: Navigating Organizational Learning through Storytelling with Gareth Lock

Deep Dive: Navigating Organizational Learning through Storytelling



Dive into another captivating conversation with us as Gareth Lock returns to The Safety Guru! Tune in as Gareth dives deep into navigating organizational learning through storytelling and discusses creating an environment of shared trust to encourage vulnerable and productive structured debriefs. Gareth’s profound insights and compelling examples will unveil the hidden layers of organizational growth. Ensure you don’t miss this insightful episode!


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’s success story begins now.

Hi, and welcome to The Safety Guru. Today I’m very excited to have back on our show Gareth Lock from the human diver. He’s an author. He’s brought a lot of experience from his 25 years in the Royal Air Force, to oil and gas, to many different industries, including diving. But my favorite is his branding around Counter-errorism. So, Gareth, welcome back to the show. Tell me a little bit first about Counter-errorism and your journey into safety and diving.

Eric, thanks very much for inviting me back in. As we know from the last time, there’s just so much to talk about this stuff, and I’m really quite passionate about sharing my knowledge and that journey that’s there. So, the whole piece about Counter-errorism in diving is just recognizing that we’re all fallible. My first idea about the diving business was the fallible diver. And people are like, That’s really negative. We know that humans are fallible, so why not make it a human diver? It’s like, Yeah, okay. And so, it’s both sides of what I would say that the bow tie that some of your listeners might know about is the prevention piece and then the mitigation afterward and recognizing that human error is normal, the first principle of human and organizational performance. I’ve got a really broad experience and operational background in aviation, research and development, flight trials, and procurement systems engineering. Left the Air Force in February ’15, set up my own business, and worked in oil and gas and health care and software teams. But my passion is really about trying to bring this stuff into the, predominantly the sports diving space, but now starting to work with military and scientific and commercial dive teams as well because people are people.

We’re all wired the same way, and we all behave broadly the same way. So, the knowledge is easily transportable. As long as you can have an open mind and say, you know what, that’s the context and the behaviors that lead to error outcomes, let’s see how we can bridge that into whatever space that I’m working in.

Excellent. And then today, a topic we’re going to touch on is organizational learning, something that is a very, very powerful and important concept that is really at the crux of safety, but more specifically around the power of storytelling when it pertains to learning. So, tell me a little bit about some of the work you’ve done around learning and listening to stories.

Yeah. So, one of the challenges in any environment is getting lessons to be transferred from one person to another. And the difference as well between lessons identified and lessons learned. People will experience something, they’ve gone wrong. They then need to take a little bit time to reflect and unpack what’s just happened. And there’s almost an altruistic need to share that story beyond yourself. Organizations or domains mandate or regulate reporting. So, aviation, there is an obligation that said, you had an event, you are to report. Now, actually, would it be nice if we could actually get people to share those stories voluntarily? They get that out there. And for that to happen, we’ve got to have both a psychologically safe environment, so we know that we can make those mistakes, but also, we’ve got to have a just culture that recognizes that we’re all fallible. And there is this gray line that sits between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. So, in the diving space, where my real interest in human factors and diving came from in 2005, where I had a near miss. Diving had a close call. I recovered from the situation. I got back to the UK, and I said, well, how do I report this?

Because that was my military aviation background, I had a near miss. Let’s share it. I found it really difficult to do that. So, since 2005 and now, really, it’s been about trying to create an environment where people can share stories and tell stories. I’m doing a Masters’s degree at Lund University, and one of the things that I’m looking at there is where people share stories. What are the barriers? What are the enablers? Who will they share with? Why won’t they share? And so, as I’ve gone through the literature, there is a couple of reasons. Organizations would like stories to be shared, and incident stories to be shared, because they believe that they, as an organization, can learn and improve. But for that to happen, the person who’s been involved in the story has to have some value to do that. Now, that value could be internal, so we unpack it. We got a cathartic approach to sit there and go, Wow, okay, that was close. What happened? What was the context? What led to that? Because actually, I don’t want that to happen again. But that’s potentially counter to what an organization wants, where they’re looking at much bigger things, or often they’re counting stories, and they’re not actually listening or reading the narratives that are there.

And so, there are two conflicts between storytelling following incidents. And that work from Santa in 2008 just looked at actually frontline railway engineers, operators, and trackside engineers. They tell stories to keep themselves and their buddies safe. My research in the diving space has shown that people share stories in a close, trusted group because they don’t want it to go further. Even though organizations talk about having psychological safety or a just culture in place, there’s often a fear that people will be ridiculous for being stupid. And if we can’t recognize and can’t accept fallibility, then the stories that get shared are not complete. So, it’s a huge opportunity, but we’ve got to create almost a theater to be able to tell those stories.

That is a very interesting point. And I know when you talk about stories, there was some research I was reading recently from Harvard around retention, and we retain stories considerably better than statistics. Difference at the end of the day in terms of what you do remember to the tune of 33 % versus 73 % of what you’re doing your members. So substantial differences. So how do you create that environment? How do you create this setting? So, what you describe in diving, to me, sounds like a group of buddies together, sharing maybe after work. And so, it’s more social learning, but it’s not necessarily embedded in the organization.

Absolutely. So how do you do it? You create an environment where people can share, where you have a structure of a debrief. So, in some of the original work from Gary Klein with Firefighters, how do they make decisions in uncertain environments? Time pressure, incomplete information. And what he noticed was that they would finish their shift, and they’d clean up their gear, and then they’d go and grab a brew, and they would talk about what they heard, what they smelled, what they felt, what was going through their mind. And that was as a team. And so, what was happening is they were sharing and creating shared mental models within their teams. And that then helped them make decisions in uncertainty. And it helps pass on tacit knowledge. So, the environment is critical. There has to be a level of trust. And you’ve got to have a norm of doing a debrief. And that’s what I’ve been trying to bring into the diving space, having a structure for a debrief because often people don’t know how to tell a story. And that’s, again, what’s come out of my research is that novice divers, especially, they’re lacking in two things.

One is they don’t know how to tell a learning story to get a point to cross. And the other thing is actually they often don’t know what they don’t know. So, it’s that bit that they don’t know they’ve had a near miss because they have got more concept of what right, wrong, good, bad looks like. And as a consequence, they’re not even looking at where things are. When we get to, I’m going to say, the more mature area of the diving space, we talk about instructors. Now we’ve got credibility, we’ve got the reputation, we’ve got litigation involved. And in that sense, instructors won’t tell their near-miss stories because there’s this fear of, oh, look, there’s an important instructor. Hang on a minute. I’m supposed to be doing some training with him, and he’s talking about mistakes that have happened. It’s like, Yeah, they’re human, too. That’s no different than surgeons. The society holds surgeons on a pedestal of excellence. Police officers operating in dynamic, uncertain environments. It’s really difficult to tell a multi-actor truthful story because people will be able to play the news clips back or the body cam stuff back and go, hey, look, you missed that, and you missed that because they don’t understand human fallibility.

So, this bit, how do you create an environment? It’s leaders, peers, role models that and you can start in small groups and build shared trust or psychological safety. But for a start, you’ve got to know where something has gone wrong. And I recently wrote about near misses, were you lucky, or were you good? But often, near misses are treated as successes rather than failures because we got a good outcome, even though we were really close. And so, we just move on, pat in the back, off you go. It takes a very different mindset to sit there and go and ask that question, were we lucky, or were we good? Oh, yeah, we were good. All right. What do we do that we can replicate the next time and the time after that? Oh, yeah. Actually, we were pretty lucky then. All right. So, let’s look at what we missed and build those stories and then share them as it goes. And the problem with stories is that they get modified and changed because of the way that our memory works. We embellish certain factors, and we hide other ones because we don’t have that side of psychological safety, that security to show our vulnerabilities.

Very interesting. When you mentioned you talk about storytelling debriefing, a scenario that comes to mind is the approach that the US Army has used around after-action reviews, which are originally intended to be essentially storytelling from multiple different perspectives to walk through. What do we go through, whether or not there was something good or bad as an outcome, but really trying to look at what we plan and where was it different than what we expected it to look like? Is that something similar what you’re describing?

Yeah, totally. This needs to get into the habit of running a debrief. So often, debriefs or after-action reviews are run when something has gone wrong. Now, if you don’t perceive that something has gone wrong, why are we running this debrief? And it just then loses its value, and people then lose get out of the habit of doing it. Whereas actually, if we frame the debrief and we can put something in the show notes, a link to a debriefing guide that I use, and it follows the word debrief. And so, the key learnings that are in there are internal learning. What did I do well and why? What do I need to improve on, and how am I going to do it? And the E is the external learning, the team. What did the team do well and why? And what did the team need to improve, and how are they going to do it? And the why and the how questions are the most important because we can make an observation about something that went well or we need to improve, but it takes a lot of thinking to say, why did that go well?

Or how are we going to make that improvement? And then the final part, the F of the debriefing framework, is about fixed files or follow-up. So, you’ve done an activity, you’ve briefed it, you planned it, you briefed it, you’ve done it, you’ve debriefed it. Now that you’ve identified some lessons, what are you going to do with them? And that’s the difference between lessons learned and lessons identified. Many organizations have got loads of lessons identified, but far fewer lessons learned. And the lessons you’ve learned are where you’ve looked at something, you’ve put something in place, and you’ve measured its improvement. Or actually, you realized that that intervention didn’t work, and so you’ve learned that that didn’t work. So, the difference between lessons learned and lessons identified is, did a change happen afterward? And that’s a huge piece.

It is because a lot of times, like you said, organizations learn the same thing over and over and over because the change is not embedded. It’s just something on a policy document that says thou shalt do it this way, which may or may not solve the problem or may or may not be operationalized.

Absolutely. And that takes strong leadership. I was recently involved in a major review, and the accountable individual, the duty holder for this, wouldn’t sign off the actions or the recommendations as being complete until they’d actually been completed and put in place. Because one of the parts of the review that we picked up was that there were recommendations made in previous reviews that never actually got fulfilled. And it was like, hang on a minute, these were not directly contributor entries towards the event, but they did recognize that hang on a minute, we’re not very good at learning here because we capture this stuff, and we don’t fix those things that are faulty or failed.

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I love your storytelling approach to learning. How do you disseminate that across an organization so that the divers that get together, they can do that casually? How do you make sure that that same insight gets cascaded to groups that can’t be there physically?

So as a direct example, what I put together is a documentary called If Only. And that looks at a diving fatality through the lens of human factors and just culture. And I’ll send you the link for that as a human diver or slash, If only. And I was really fortunate to get involved with the widow of the diver and the dive team, three members of this, three surviving members of the dive team. So, we flew out to Hawaii, and we had a face-to-camera work, we re-enacted it, and we shot about five and a half hours of video. And then that was reduced to 24, 25 for 25 minutes, and then I added some other stuff. And the editor said, Look, you’re going to have to make it shorter than 20 minutes. I’m like, what do you take out? I don’t know. So, I created this 34-minute documentary which has been downloaded thousands of times. And that then goes out. And I know that people in the non-diving space have looked at this and gone because the failures are multiple within the system. And often, it’s about psychological safety, decisions, inability to speak up, drift, about equipment not being set up correctly, which carry across many other domains as well.

So, to me, the ability to share engaging, emotional, sometimes really quite powerful stories to get across there. So that’s one way. The blogs that I write, I often start a blog with a story because people… When you open it up, and you go, what’s going to happen next? You started off with, and the diver was on so and so, and this, and you go, Right, what’s happening next? And you’ve got to put a hook in there, and then you’ve got to stitch the theory into the story so that it becomes a learning lesson, and they can relate to the individual. There is a really powerful bias of distancing through differencing, and this sits not just at an individual level but an organizational level as well, where we will look at somebody or some organization and go, They’re different to us. We wouldn’t make that mistake. And you sit there and go, yes, you would. From the diving side, I put together under pressure the book that I published, and there’s another one called Close Calls, which is a similar story. Mine’s got theory woven in and out. Close Calls is just stories from names across the industry.

And people like to read them. The hard part is, does it actually change people’s behavior? Because ultimately, that’s what we want to do, get people to think differently and understand the context in which they were. Not to turn around and say, I wouldn’t do that as an outcome because the outcome is too late. What we’re trying to do is spot the context developing and sit there and go, oh, I recognize this, and I can see where the trajectory is. But that’s really hard to get across. And even when you’ve got known stories, so there’s a paper I read recently from Dylan and Tinsley, or might be just big Dylan on their own, talking about using lessons from Challenger to get the ideas across. And what they did was they created a scenario of an aircraft that needed to fly some spares to a remote location, but the temperature was low, and the oil seals might leak on the engines. And if the oil seals broke, they’d need to shut down the engine. They’d probably ditch, and then the crew might not survive the ditching. And what was really interesting was that even though the story was told as if it was Challenger, the people didn’t recognize it was Challenger.

And still, about 70 odd % of people went, Yeah, we’ll launch. Off you go. So even when you’re given a narrative, we often can’t make the connection because it’s just the way our brains are wired, unfortunately. So, it has to be really visceral. It has to be that’s me, and I would do that.

Interesting. And I’ve seen this many times in organizations. When you talk about small group sharing their mistakes, part of it is there is camaraderie, people know each other. Is there a way that you seem to extend this so that people don’t say that won’t happen to me? I wouldn’t make that silly mistake. To really overcome that element, to recognize that, yes, as humans, we’re all bound to make those mistakes.

So, I’d say probably US Forest Service with their lessons learned center that they’ve got. And I think the important bit is to get away from the individual’s this erroneous performance and look at the context and the error-producing conditions which are there. And that’s why I was referring to earlier understanding what goes into a good learning story is understanding what sets somebody up for failure in this scenario they’re in. Because, by definition, if we knew what the outcome of the event would be, we would have stopped it.


So, this bit about, Right, think about all those bad things that are going to happen. Yeah, well, how am I going to spot them? I don’t know the significance of those. So, what we have to do then is actually, what can we tell in terms of the situation developing that I will encounter? And then sit there and go, this is the system or the situation changing. Okay, that’s a flag. Not, I won’t make that mistake. It’s, I’m now in a situation where I’m more likely to make a mistake. Can I raise my game? Is this something that’s a flag that says, look-out.

Interesting. So, move it away from the area itself to the context of the situation that people are in because then you’re more likely to relate, saying, that set of circumstances could happen to me as well.

Yeah, totally. And so, aviation moved from cockpit resource management to crew resource management, now threat and error management. So, there’s this expectation that the aircrew is competent to do what they need to do. We don’t need to train them more and more to do that. The threat and error management situation are. I’m potentially going into a busy airfield. The wind is marginal. Do I set up the opposite runway, ILS or approach systems, or the other frequencies? The weather forecast has got thunderstorms in the area or whatever it is. It’s a potentially confusing runway. Let’s think about how we set ourselves up for success, not failure because generally, that’s about sharing stories where you know what, the situation got away from people. So, can we get ahead of things and provide that flag that says, Whoa, that’s enough? And in the majority of high-risk industries, we have something called stop work authority. My simplistic view is that often, that’s a stop by an organization to say, I’m going to give you a card. If you think it’s unsafe, then hold this card up and stop the job. But most people don’t know that it’s all going horribly wrong until it’s gone wrong.

And then the organization says, why didn’t you stop the job? Because you could see it was there. And there are a whole bunch of social, technical reasons why people find it hard to say stop because there are goals that are around there. So, if we can start to say, Let’s look at the conditions that are around us, then that’s actually easier to raise a flag.

Yeah. And also helps people understand where I am entering dangerous territory. Your example about maybe this confusing runway. There have been some runways where there’s been more than one flight that almost landed not on the runway but landed on another airplane that was taxing. But you know which airports those are. So, you could be on high alert if you know, okay, I’m approaching San Francisco is one of them, I believe, has come up a few times and say, okay, on this approach, here’s what I need to pay extra attention to.

Yes. And so, we’ve got a limited capacity to pay attention. So, in that bit that says, actually, here’s the high-threat situation. I’m now going to not quite ignore the other things, but I’m going to point my attention. And one of the things I try to get across in my training is we’ve got a limited capacity to pay attention. So, it’s not that people weren’t paying attention because often the response is, Pay more. We can’t pay more attention. What we can do is focus it somewhere else. So, what we’re trying to do is, what’s the threat that we’re encountering? And that comes from understanding the near misses that are out there and the context that’s encountered.

So, Rich, topic. To me, organizational learning is probably one of the most challenging parts of safety that we keep talking about. Hardest one to do. But I love your angle in terms of sharing stories, trying to learn on a regular, continuous basis, just so that people reflect and think through the stories. And then how do you disseminate those stories through scenarios on the context as opposed to the individual and the error that they made? I think these are very powerful concepts that hopefully help organizations move from learning the same thing over and over to learning and actually embedding that change. 

Totally. And what I would say from my experience as well as people are more likely to share a context-rich story than a closed narrative story which is focused on the individual. So, if you can get more context, more system if you can get multi actors in there, there’s a paper out there looking at when an incident report has got multiple narratives, then people are more likely to look at systems causes than a single narrative which is a synthesis by the investigator who will have their own perspective. And often, it’s about compliance, noncompliance. And so, people will look at that and say, here are the recommendations which are focused on fixing the person. Whereas actually, if you have multiple actors and you can hear the conflict and the different ideas, and when you’ve got six actors involved in an incident, expect six stories. It’s not because they’re lying; it’s because they’ve got different perceptions about what happened. So, if you’ve got the opportunity to share a multi-actor story, that’s the way to go about it.

So soon, we’ll be writing Hollywood scripts through those stories.

Well, we often have multiple actors in a story in a film.

But there’s some truth to the way you share stories because even in Hollywood, they say there are seven-story themes to every movie that’s sold across the board. Rags to Rich is an example. But it’s a narrative that we tend to listen to. The personas and everything else get us to associate with it and then remember that story.

Totally. And there’s a paper from Drew Ray which talks about the different safety stories and how you share them. Do you tell the outcome and then build it up on a different narrative? Do you tell one narrative where people jump to conclusions, and then then you tell the context-rich story, which then brings the learning point out? So, this goes back to what’s the purpose of the story and who’s the audience you’re trying to tell the story to, and the learning point you’re trying to get across.

Excellent. Well, Gareth, thank you very much for coming back to our show. Appreciate you sharing some of your thoughts about learning, organizational learning, and storytelling. I think it’s very powerful. Sayers of ideas to take forward. Thank you.

Brilliant. Thank you very much, Eric. I love being on it again. Thank you.

Thank you for listening to the Safety Guru on C-suite Radio. Leave a legacy. Distinguish yourself from the pack and 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 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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Gareth Lock is the founder of The Human Diver, an organization set up to deliver education and research into the role and benefit of applying human factors, non-technical skills, psychological safety, and ‘just culture’ in sports, military, and scientific diving. He has published the book ‘Under Pressure’ and produced the documentary ‘If Only…,’ both focused on improving diving safety and performance by looking at incidents through the lens of human factors. While primarily focused on diving, he also works in other high-risk, high-uncertainty domains such as healthcare, oil & gas, maritime, and software. He is currently undertaking an MSc in HF and System Safety at Lund University where he is looking at the power (and limitations) of storytelling to improve learning.

For more information:

The Debrief Guide:

If Only:

Sanne (Santa in the transcript) – Incident reporting or storytelling? Competing schemes in a safety-critical and hazardous work setting –

Klein and firefighters – Naturalistic Decision Making




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Head & Heart Leadership: Strategies for Safety Leadership and Governance with Dr. Kirstin Ferguson

Head and Heart Leadership Strategies for Safety Leadership and Governance



“Safety is such an important gauge of how an organization is performing.” You don’t want to miss our latest episode of The Safety Guru featuring Dr. Kirstin Ferguson, Australia’s most prominent leadership expert and author of Head & Heart: The Art of Modern Leadership. Tune in to hear Kirstin share her expertise about head-based and heart-based leadership attributes and the art of knowing which one is needed and when. Listen in to gain a deeper understanding of Kirstin’s unparalleled and distinguished strategies for safety leadership and governance.


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’s success story begins now.

Hi, and welcome to The Safety Guru. Today I’m very excited to have with me Dr. Kirstin Ferguson, who is Australia’s most prominent leadership expert. She was an officer in the Royal Australian Air Force. She was the CEO of an international consulting firm, and she was appointed as acting chair and deputy chair of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. She’s a weekly columnist in the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age. She holds a Ph.D. in leadership and is probably one of the few authors that have done incredible work around safety governance, which we will touch on in that regard very soon, and some elements around expectations for the top management team. She’s also an adjunct professor at QUT Business School. Kirsten, welcome to the show. Really excited to have you with me.

Thank you, Eric. I’m excited to be here.

You’re just about to launch a book, Head and Heart. I’d love to start out by hearing a little bit about what does… You talk about a series of moments. What does that mean from a leadership standpoint?

That’s a really great question. I’m conscious there’s going to be a lot of health and safety professionals listening today. And you guys know better than most those moments where you notice someone doing the right thing and going and acknowledging that and saying, Thanks for keeping people safe. There are also those moments, though, when we witness leadership where it’s not particularly helpful, and there’s a shame and blame culture. So, I guess for me, I really believe that leadership is simply a series of moments, and every moment offers us this opportunity for us to leave a positive legacy in our wake. And I think so often, life is moving so quickly, we’re in a digital age, and we can have unintended impacts very easily. But we need to be conscious that every single moment is an opportunity to leave a positive or sometimes a negative legacy in our wake. And it can impact. That’s what builds cultures. That’s what drives safety cultures as well.

And that a topic you touch on in your book is around the concept of a modern leader and the difference between a modern leader and a not modern leader, essentially. Educated, I don’t think those are the words you use.

I know. Well, dinosaurs and dick heads are somewhat in the traditional leader bucket. And apologies for the language. You’ll have to have a language warning now. But I think everyone knows the traditional leaders that really object to working from home or workplace flexibility. They like to stick with the way things have always been done. Modern leaders, though, are the leaders, I think, new generations and also most others want around them. And for me, the art of modern leadership, which is what this book is about, is about being able to lead with the head and the heart. I mean, that’s a metaphor we’re all very familiar with. But I wanted to go and actually understand what attributes we need as leaders through leading with the head and the heart. And it’s all about balance. And I think for safety professionals, this is particularly relevant because, as safety leaders, we know that the head side of things is all of our compliance metrics and lead and lag indicators and all of those capabilities we have as professionals. But without leading with the heart and actually having empathy for how people within your organizations are actually grappling with the jobs that they’re doing, having that humility that perhaps we don’t really know as much as we might think we know, the self-awareness of the impact our policies are having on others, then we can’t truly be the modern safety professionals that we need.

And I think leading with the head and the heart is such an opportunity for the safety world to really capture ways of leading that still ensure high performance, high quality, and high safety but also bring everyone along the journey.

And I love that metaphor. I think it’s very simple to understand and sends a very strong message. And you’ve broken it down into four attributes for the head and the heart. Is it worthwhile maybe getting into some of those attributes and maybe some circumstances where it would be beneficial to lead from the head?

Absolutely. The art is knowing what’s needed and when. I should say for every listener if you go to, you can measure your own head and heart leadership. It’s all free, and you’ll get a personalized report. I built that tool with one of the universities here in Australia because I think it’s important to be able to self-assess where you sit now. And a lot of people are very surprised because Eric, I’d ask you, would you say intuitively you’re more of a head or a heart-based leader?

Intuitively, I would actually say probably more heart. And then head still matters and probably historically more head, but more recently more heart.

Which is good to know. And of course, you realize, though, you need both. You can’t have one or the other in any situation. But I’d love you to go online along with your listeners, and you can see whether or not you actually self-assessment the heart because most people find them, they’re surprised. But the attributes of leading with our head, and I won’t go into all of them in detail, but the curiosity, wisdom, which is about really weighing up decisions in the face of very little information, weighing up risk and reward, perspective, which is about reading the room and capability. And I think for the safety profession, curiosity is incredibly important. I think in so many situations, we may think we know the best safety outcome in any given task or role, but perhaps we’re not curious enough just to find out why that hasn’t been implemented or why it’s not been successful or taken up by those on the ground. And that curiosity is around accepting and acknowledging. We actually don’t know everything, and so we’re always seeking to learn and challenge our own assumptions as well. And then the second of the head-based attributes I think are most relevant for the safety profession is one I’ve called perspective.

And that’s about really, in layman’s terms, reading the room and understanding the environment you’re leading in and also noticing who’s missing from the room and what’s going on outside of the room and really being conscious of your environment or the context that you’re operating in and that you’re trying to drive change in and trying to see a few steps ahead and the implications of your decisions. Those kinds of things, I think, in the safety profession, are incredibly important, obviously. But so, too is leading with the heart. And the four attributes of leading with the heart are humility, self-awareness, courage to speak up in the face of pressure, often not to do so, and empathy. I think courage is a particularly important skill for safety professionals because often you do need to speak up in the face of pressures around productivity or profit or whatever it might be that’s driving a contrary safety outcome, and it can be difficult to do so. You could have a whole heap of line managers saying, Actually, that’s not our biggest priority. As we know, as safety professionals, it needs to be if we truly want to keep everyone safe.

So, I think modern leaders understand that we still need to make decisions that are the right thing to do, even in the face of pressure from others not to do so. And leading with courage means you create psychologically safe cultures where everyone else feels able to speak up and have courage as well. And then the other attribute of the heart that I just wanted to call out is self-awareness. And I have noticed in my experience as a board director and in all the work I’ve done with the safety profession it can be easy to fall into a bubble that the work we’re doing is the most important thing in the organization and that, of course, we should be spending whatever we need to and keeping people safe. And in theory, everyone will agree with that. But I think having self-awareness of what’s going on around you and then how you’re responding to that and your awareness of the impact your actions and leadership and behavior is having on those you work with; I think is incredibly relevant. Self-awareness is all about knowing your limitations and working on those as well.

Is this something where you flex? Depending on the circumstances, you may lead more from the head, more from the heart, absolutely.

And this is the art. The art of modern leadership is knowing what’s needed and when. And there will be some situations where you go in to write a policy or implement a policy or something that’s going to use all your capabilities. There’s a lot of head-based work there. However, it’s never done in isolation. You also got to have some understanding, empathy for the people that have to actually live this policy. And the other thing to be aware of is even when you think you’re in a meeting that’s very head based, and of course, this is just a metaphor, it can easily turn. You can easily realize that, actually, what I thought was going to happen hasn’t happened, and it’s now becoming quite a difficult conversation. I need to really draw on my humility to understand and listen, my curiosity, and also my awareness of how I’m being triggered right now and how I’m responding. It’s that art that is impossible to put in a box and say here it is, but that each of us learns and develops as leaders.

Interesting. Is this something that people can learn skills? Absolutely. Typically, the head skills tend to be perceived as taut skills in some cases. But is it really true? We talk about emotional intelligence as an example. That’s also something that you can learn and flex.

All of the skills, and these eight attributes that I talk about can be learned, but they’re not in a textbook-learned way. They’re in an experiential way. And by being willing to learn and have a growth mindset and all of those sorts of things, I think the intellectual learning we do is probably the easier part of being a leader because you can actually open a book and study it with practice. All of these attributes are capable of being learned. Empathy can be learned. You can put yourself into a situation where you’re really using that empathy muscle, and that’s going to help you lead with empathy. It’s also important to remember that it doesn’t matter what your position title is. It doesn’t matter what your business card might say. We are all leading, and this is appropriate for everyone because we’re leading in our families, we’re leading our communities, we’re leading in our organizations. And even if you’re listening and you’re a safety supervisor or a safety team member, in the org chart, you might not be sitting at the top. You’re still leading. You’re still in the decisions you make those moments, in every impact you have, you are leading.

I think that’s something we need to remind the people we lead for those listening who are at the top of the org chart. If you went and asked everyone in your team, do they actually understand that they, too, are leaders?

In the safety arena, I think it’s so essential because you’re really trying to influence somebody’s choice when nobody’s watching. And that whole influence base is leadership.

That whole, what are they doing when no one’s there? And the idea of the way we do things around here, which obviously in the safety world, we talk about a lot, that is personal leadership by that person at 2 AM in the morning, and whether or not they choose to put their hard hat on or use three points of contact or shortcut way to do something so that they avoid doing it safely, that is leading. That is a moment, and that is a true moment where it is either going to end in disaster or it’s going to show that this is the culture we have in our organization. And so those moments apply regardless of who you are. But I think in the safety profession. It’s those moments you’re chasing. That’s the job, chasing those moments and hoping that in that moment and in the moment, you are leading, the right choice is made.

Absolutely. In your book, you also talk about emotional self-awareness. Can you tell me a little bit more about what that means for the modern leader and why it’s so critical?

Well, I’m going to give you an example. I was in a meeting maybe a month ago, and I had thought the meeting would go one way, and in fact, a quite positive way for me. And then, within a few minutes, I’m like, Okay, this isn’t where I was going. And in fact, it ended up being the absolute opposite. So I completely misjudged what I thought the meeting would be and how it would end. But what I was aware of within moments was those traffic riggers we all have, that feeling. For me, it was that flash of adrenaline, tight chested, feeling hot, thinking, hang on, what’s going on? A bit of fight or flight. And because I was aware of that, I was then really conscious because it was an important relationship with this person that I needed to manage myself. And that is emotional self-awareness. It’s aware of what Daniel Goleman, the father of emotional intelligence, called an amygdala hijack. Being aware that right now, it’s actually really important I stay present, and stay conscious of what I’m talking about because my body is reacting to the fact that this meeting isn’t what I wanted.

Whatever feelings trigger for you, it could be embarrassment or shame or anger or whatever it is, we all have it, and we all have those moments. That is emotional self-awareness. I think it’s having that insight into knowing what kinds of things are going to trigger you and then being really present and being aware of what’s happening so that you can have a really productive meeting, even though the outcome might not be what you want. I always think about, remember the Oscars last year when Will Smith jumped on stage. Now, that is a classic example of an amygdala hijack. And unfortunately for him, it was done in front of millions, hundreds of millions of people. We all want to try and avoid those. And that’s why emotional self-awareness is so important.

And how can you develop that? Because part of it is recognizing the signs. At least that’s the way I see it is you recognize the signs where something doesn’t feel the way you do, just like you would have a trigger before you respond the wrong way.

Well, sometimes it’s hard, and you miss it. I mean, I would have had more meetings where I’ve missed it than I have caught it. And I think I’m pretty normal in that respect. So there’s a bit of trial and error. Feedback. I’m a real believer in feedback. And in the book, there’s a lot of time spent on how to have really effective feedback conversations and how to give feedback and receive feedback. Because we’re unfortunately not very self-aware, there are some statistics from some research that I quote where 97 % of us, something, think we’re pretty self-aware. Most of us feel like, yeah, I know what’s going on. Only 10 % to 15 % of those we lead agree. Now, that is terrifying, Eric. I know I can see your face. Listeners, you can’t see Eric’s face, but his face is how mine was when I read that statistic. And that is why feedback is so important because self-awareness is hard to assess. We can look for the signs. We can learn to look for the signs. But if you can develop really good relationships with those around you who are prepared to give you helpful feedback that lets you know what’s going on and what others are observing, that’s going to really help build that skill.

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 us at

Excellent. Your book, Head and Heart, is already debuting in Australia’s best-seller list. Thinkers 50 is already identified as the top 10 new management book of 2023, and you’ve been nicknamed Australia’s Bernie Brown. Quite impressive as a resume.

Look, it’s been a whirlwind. But safety is where I started. That’s how you and I came to know each other, Eric. I love the work that I’m doing now, but I’ve still got a very soft spot for the health and safety profession.

If I may, I’d love to touch on one of the topics that were key before this book was key to your Ph.D. really around safety governance. You’ve authored some of the most relevant work in this space. I think the importance of the top management team, and the importance of governance, are so critical. Unfortunately, a lot of organizations don’t do that well. What are some of the key attributes that make for good governance from your perspective?

I can answer this from both. Obviously, the Ph.D. research I did specifically looked at the role of boards and senior executives in safety governance and safety leadership, but also has been a director now, sitting on public boards, private boards, and government boards for about 15 years. I think as much as the Ph.D. took 100,000 words to say it. I actually think I can now narrow it down to one sentence, which is really role modeling what it means to be someone who believes in the vision of keeping everyone safe. And that role modeling idea means setting a vision for what it looks like in that organization and then holding people to account for that, but not in a blaming way. And I’m a true believer that if you get safety right, everything else follows. That means you tend to get higher quality levels, you get lower absenteeism, and you get higher overall operational excellence. And so, safety is such an important gauge of how an organization is performing. And if a board gets that, and frankly, not all boards do get that, I think many boards see safety as a cost of doing business as opposed to this wonderful opportunity to Excel in business.

But if you have boards that get it, the conversations I’ve noticed are much different. They’re much more high quality than they’re more mature around. How can we really now take it to the next level as opposed to looking at lag indicators and what happened last month and focusing on slips, trips, and falls when there are these enormous hazards right in front of their face that they’re not spending time on? So, I think most people listening probably know those kinds of leaders who get it and don’t get it. It’s hard if you’re working with a board or an executive team where no one gets it. I don’t know that that will then change unless something dreadful happens and there’s a real burning platform that means they have to change. If you have even one board director, and I’ve been in this experience where they are passionate and they get it, that can help drive different questions, different kinds of reporting, different quality of conversation. But we talked before we started recording about how in Australia and the UK, there are particularly stringent laws that govern health and safety. And that was implemented about a decade ago. And it’s really driven a changing culture by our boards and their focus on health and safety.

It’s sad that that had to do, had to be it. Why should it have been enough on its own? But it has led to an incredibly mature conversation in those two countries about health and safety. Usually, the risk of jail time will drive. It’s a pretty good deterrent. It does its job. It does do its job. And as we were shared before, there are occasional examples of CEOs that have lost their job specifically because of numerous fatalities. A series of fatalities have occurred. And that also sends a message to others to say, Maybe I do need to care about this as well.

Don’t you think, though, Eric, I find it really depressing that it takes someone going to jail because clearly a life has been lost or a serious injury for someone to go, oh, maybe I do need to pay attention? Ideally, you would have people going, I don’t want that person to lose their life. Regardless, what can I do to make sure that never happens?

But sometimes I believe it has a disconnect that if you’re on a board and you’ve never actually been on a shop floor in a mining environment, high risk, high hazard environment if you become an accountant, you become a lawyer, normally you’re not exposed to people dying on your watch, and it’s not the same. It’s theoretical. It’s not real.

Yeah. And that’s a really important point. And I think for the health and safety profession, bringing to life… Do you know what I talked about earlier about perspective and reading the room? If you’re presenting to a board about a hazard that you need to communicate, and some of those board members have never been on a side or understand it, you really need to read that room and understand how you can best influence the decision. And I know I was on one board years and years ago, and the poor health and safety professional kept bringing papers to say, here’s this hazardous task that’s being done, and we needed an investment. And the board just didn’t grasp when no one had done that role. They didn’t really understand. I didn’t understand. I knew that I was listening to the person, but I couldn’t picture it. At the next meeting, they brought along a video of the person doing the task. And the whole meeting was like, Oh, my God. Really? Did we ask someone to do that? That’s got to stop. How much money do you need? I think health and safety people really need to think and put themselves in the shoes of others.

And that’s the attribute of empathy and think, okay, if that director is an accountant out of New York and they’ve never been in a mine site before, how can I best communicate to them what I need?

I’ve seen, in some instances, organizations bring the board to a mine site or bring the board to a high-hazard environment so that you start with a tour, you visit it, and you experience what it means.

Best practice. Absolutely. Site visits are a no-brainer, and that should be part of every board’s understanding of the organization they’re governing. I think all the site visits I’ve ever done in my life can be quite structured. And they’re called wedding parties, you’re taking along, and you’re meeting everyone, and it’s all clean and perfect. And you’re not going to observe that really hazardous event. They’re important to do, but the more natural you can keep them, the better.

Yeah, I would agree. When you roll up the red carpet, and everything’s perfect, you’re not getting a real experience. I’ve heard some, even where it’s less structured, they’re allowing more variability. Obviously, there’s still some protection around where you want the board members to go, but where it’s more free, and maybe it’s a ride along with somebody.

Even better is not the whole board going. You paid off, and it’s not eight or ten people all going on a tour, but you’re in pairs with another director, and you’re given a specific thing to think about or look at. People can’t help but answer questions if they’re given questions. Probably the best site-visits I’ve ever been part of, where I was with another director. So, it’s good to have someone else because you’ll have different skills and different things you can talk about. But there are only two of you. So, if you are talking with someone on the shop floor, they’re not feeling overwhelmed like there are ten big bosses. And there’s something in the back of my mind we’ve been asked to think about. Now, it could be as simple as housekeeping, but it could be more complex on how open you find the people that you are speaking with answering your questions. How willing are they to tell you what keeps them up at night? Even that is a cultural touchstone that you can then come back and go, Actually, I found out no one would tell me, or I got a really rote answer that was pretty benign.

That tells you something because there will be issues keeping them up at night. How are we creating a safe enough environment they can speak up?

We shared a couple of examples just there of influencing the board in terms of what areas to look at. We talked about listening tours or going to a site, visiting, listening, and what’s happening. We talked about the videos, which I think are a great way of depicting what the challenge is. What are some of the other ways that an organization can influence the board? Maybe open up the view you talked about. Boards sometimes will go focus on an injury rate as opposed to looking at serious injuries and fatality risk. That’s a shift in mindset even. Have you had some successes where people influence the board? 

Yeah. I think I’ve worked with a whole range of health and safety professionals. The best are those that have a strategic mindset. What I mean by that is they’re not looking at coming to the board as a monthly job they have to do to report their paper and stats and take questions and then leave again. They will be thinking about what is going on in the business more broadly. There might be a merger and acquisition going on. There might be a divestment that’s happening. There might be something that’s going on in the organization. Or the share price has fallen through the floor, and there’s a lot of distraction. They actually link what’s going on more broadly because, you know, the board will have been talking about that to how it’s impacting what they’re seeing on the ground. Stats, statistics, and data are all very interesting, but without giving a story and being great storytellers about what it means in practice, I think you can lose people along the way. And so, I would encourage anyone listening to think of themselves as the thought leader, the strategic expert in that organization, around how health and safety can drive operational excellence.

What is it around that merger and acquisition that’s happening that’s distracting people, why is it that you’re noticing some impact on the shop floor because people are worried for their jobs or whatever it might be? So, I do think it’s about thinking of yourself as a strategic storyteller. I’ve just come up with that on the spot. But in the health and safety space, because that is where you’ll win hearts and minds.

I agree. Well, Kristen, thank you so much for coming to the show. I think your insights are really, really helpful, both in terms of the leadership elements as well as some of the elements on the governance side. Definitely encourage readers to do the self-assessment. We’ll put the link in the show notes. Pick up head and heart as it gets launched. Thank you so much.

Fifth of September. I can’t wait to have everyone in North America get a copy. I’d love to hear from anyone. I’d love to hear how you apply it in your environment.

Perfect. Thank you so much for joining me today.

Thanks, Eric.

Thank you for listening to the Safety Guru on C-suite Radio. Leave a legacy, distinguish yourself from the pack, and grow your success. Capture the hearts and minds of your teams, and 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 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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Dr. Kirstin Ferguson is Australia’s most prominent leadership expert and a highly experienced business leader in her own right. Beginning her career as an officer in the Royal Australian Air Force, Kirstin has held roles that have included CEO of an international consulting firm and was appointed acting chair and deputy chair of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation by the Australian Prime Minister. Kirstin writes a highly popular weekly column in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. She holds a PhD in leadership and is an Adjunct Professor at QUT Business School. Kirstin was included on Thinkers50 Radar List in 2021 and shortlisted for the Thinkers50 Distinguished Achievement Award in Leadership. In 2023, she was appointed a member of the Order of Australia, in recognition of her “significant service to business and gender equality.”
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The Importance of Connecting Your Safety Management System (SMS) with Your Safety Culture with Jim Francis

The Importance of Connecting Your Safety Management System (SMS) with Your Safety Culture



“When you center the Safety Management System on the worker and the worker’s perspective, it allows them to have more of a say in the objectives, the goals, the initiatives, and the things that you’re going to go do. It also really started equipping them and engaging them in the solutions.” We’re excited to have Jim Francis, Vice President of SMS Consulting at ENTRUST Solutions Group, join the podcast this week to share his expertise about implementing Safety Management Systems that lead to noticeable and positive change. Tune in as Jim uncovers how to connect your Safety Management System with your safety culture in a way that is relevant to the way your organization functions to reduce risk and produce the most meaningful and beneficial outcomes.


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’s success story begins now.

Hi, and welcome to The Safety Guru. Today I’m very excited to have Jim Francis with me. He’s the VP of SMS Consulting at Entrust Solutions Group. We’ve known each other for a little while now. Jim, why don’t you share a little bit about your background and how you got passionate about safety?

Yeah, sure. Good to see you. It’s funny. I have a long history working for a utility, and I come with an engineering and operations background, and most of my career was spent on the compliance side of things. But naturally, when you work in a safety-forward industry in an organization like a utility, you naturally get into the safety aspect of things. My journey really began on the pipeline safety side, with a lot of compliance-related programs and things that we would do to try to improve the performance of our pipelines and reduce risk. Naturally, that connects you to the workforce and the folks that are actually working out there all the time. As my career matured, I picked up more opportunities to work in safety and safety management systems and all sorts of things related to risk and risk mitigation. It was a really good journey, and a lot of things built upon themselves. It took me forward to where I’m at today at the end trust Solutions group, where I’m consulting with utilities and others all over the country on safety management systems.

Sounds great. Let’s go there. Let’s talk a little bit about what is a safety management system and what the main value is.

Yeah. The safety management system is a, I’ll say, structural approach to reducing risk. So, you put a very formalized process and procedures in place to identify and manage risk, really from the worker’s perspective. There are a lot of standards out there by which safety management systems are built and constructed, and it really just starts to define the key elements and the things that really ought to have in place. You need committed leaders, you need to find ways to engage with your stakeholders, you need to find ways to identify and mitigate risk, to validate whether the improvements in the things that you’re making, to communicate effectively with people, to have a process to know whether or not your results are being achieved and the outcomes of your goals and objectives are being achieved. And really, the safety management system puts all of that in a well-defined, constructed approach where those processes all work it interdependently, and just to make sure the system is functioning in the right way and achieving what you wanted to achieve out of it, reducing risk ultimately.

When would you consider starting looking at a journey around a safety management system? Is it something you do early on? What stage? And again, it may depend on the organization that you’re in.

There are tools that, frankly, if you’re starting with something brand new, you could use some of the tools in risk management to try to understand, hey, what am I trying to accomplish here? But generally speaking, there’s no real well-defined starting point with it. It’s more of a question of how your organization is performing. So, let’s look at the results and the things you’re trying to achieve. So, are you having more safety incidents than you really ought to? Are you concerned about the way you’re operating? Do you have inefficiencies in the way you operate? Is your cost structure off? There are a lot of ties to the business functions that might be a trigger to you wanting to implement a safety management system. But ultimately, what you’re trying to do is reduce risk and improve safety performance. So, let’s start with the safety numbers. Let’s start with your charts, your injuries, your incidents, any fatalities, the serious things that might happen to you. And those are really good indicators of, hey, maybe we ought to look at how are we functioning as an organization or as a company to see whether or not we need to be building a safety management system to help us improve ourselves.

And so, you touched a little bit on different models that exist, ISO and Z10 as an example, different models that exist. Is it about the certification, or could you build one in the absence, essentially, of a desire to certify? And maybe what would be the considerations to say, I want a certification, and maybe which one I should take?

Yeah, you know what? I’m of the opinion that you don’t need the certification, and you really ought to not start with that, with the intent in mind, because I think when you start with the focus on, I need a certification, the drivers are likely coming from an external pressure. There’s a regulatory issue, there’s a legal issue, there’s some legislative thing that is driving you to that. Not that there’s no value in those. I think the value of a certification is having a third party validate whether or not the processes in your safety management system are functioning well. Really, the motivation really ought to be about internal improvement in the way you’re functioning as an organization and whether or not you’re driving the safety outcomes that you really want. What’s interesting about it, too, and this is a question that I get a lot, is, if I’m a small company or I’m a large company, is this thing, am I able to do it? Am I able to apply a framework around that? I think the beauty of the safety management system is you don’t necessarily have to do it all. You have to build it for you as an organization and what fits your operations, I’ve seen it where literally somebody can put every single employee they’ve got in a room together, and they can talk every single week.

And there are great advantages to that. And I’ve seen it where there are companies so large that that communication piece becomes challenging. But yet, their system can function for both of them very effectively.

That’s interesting. So, we’ve talked before in terms of how a safety management system can be an accelerator for culture. Can you give me some examples of where you’ve seen that become an accelerator, something that helps business performance on the cultural side?

I think back to my own journey in this, and I’d say it really began in the mid-2010s. We were struggling, frankly, from a cultural perspective. We’ve had to have somebody come in and evaluate where we were, the relationships between us and our unions, and some of those sorts of things. We had some bad policies, we had some bad processes, some things we had to get out of the way. That was led into us building our safety management system. Once we did, one of the beauties of the system and the approach we took was that we were now collecting risks and things that were relevant to the worker. And when you center their safety management system on the worker and the worker’s perspective, it allows them to have more of a say in the objectives, the goals, and the initiatives and the things that you’re going to do. It also really started to equip them and engage them in the solutions, which far too often, I think, sometimes management tips back, and they start to create all the solutions without contemplating the worker.

Too often.

Because they don’t want to pull those guys from their day-to-day jobs and the things that they’re doing. Then what do you see? You get the workers complaining about the new processes and the things that are in place. What I saw, what we experienced was a group of people who are suddenly like, oh, my gosh, they’re listening to me. They’re actually taking my advice. They are prioritizing the things that are relevant to me, and they’re asking me to help with the improvements. They’re asking me to work on the solutions for that. I literally saw guys chasing people from our quality assurance team and our SMS team down on the docks of the buildings trying to make sure, Hey, I got something I want to talk about. That thing was like, Holy cow. It was one of those intangible moments where you go, this thing is really functioning. It’s really working. It was largely based on that.

One of the criticisms I sometimes see around safety management systems is that it’s too much paper exercise. It becomes lots of documentation, lots of paperwork, but it doesn’t necessarily change the experience the employee feels. Tell me a little bit about how you can overcome that challenge so that it doesn’t become purely paper-based exercise.

I think part of it is making sure that you’re right sizing the system to fit your organization. As I mentioned before, it’s got to be something relevant to you and the way your organization functions. Even simple things like how are you going to engage your workforce in the conversation around identifying risk? The mechanisms to do so may not be some big fancy IT system that you’re trying to get somebody to plug something in on their laptop or whatever. It may be, Let’s just sit in the conference room and have a conversation. I think the important piece of it is defining processes in a way that your organization has resources that are dedicated to the exercise of it. The point of a safety management system is to reduce risk. When you take risk management as an example, most of the workforce doesn’t understand risk management. They don’t really care about what a risk register is. They don’t really care about all the processes and the risk matrix and those sorts of things, but you got to have that structure. So build that structure relevant to you and your organization and allow a group of people to facilitate it. And then you engage your workforce in the right way so that it’s meaningful to them. Unfortunately, and I think with any standard, there’s a compliance aspect of it. You have no choice but to have some of the paper pushing and the documentation and the record-keeping aspects of it. Because at the end of the day, you got to prove to somebody that you’re actually reducing risk and you’re in your racing on the right things. But I would say you build the processes that are relevant to your organization that are meaningful and then figure out where some of the other ones fit and how they’re related and whether or not you need something that’s really structured around it or whether you can leverage things that you’re already doing as an organization.

That makes sense. In terms of, what you talked about on the risk register, there are lots of different components of a typical management system. Where is it that people typically find the biggest value or something that they’re not currently doing that really drives critical thinking? You also brought up employee involvement in solutions. What are some of the areas where you’ve seen the biggest improvements?

I think there are probably three or four key areas. Now, one, risk management is the engine that drives the whole thing. But the moment you go into that, you’ve got to start engaging your stakeholders. The stakeholders are not just your workers but it’s also your leaders. The one thing that the system starts to do is it starts to connect those two groups of people into a common conversation. That doesn’t mean they’re always sitting in the room together, but they’re having a common conversation about the things that are most important to them so that, as an organization, they can collectively put their resources toward it. I think that’s where you see a lot of value in that the organization becomes a little more efficient in the way they operate. So, management gets excited about that. They start to see actually injuries and incidents, and other things start to decline. And so, there’s a cost-benefit and that thing to it. And then the workers see the value in terms of the way they start to function. So their processes are more efficient. They’re not spending nighttime hands out collecting data or filling out a form or whatever the simple things are because that becomes a meaningless exercise.

They really start to focus and narrow in on the controls and the things that are going to ultimately make their job a lot safer. Those are the values you start to see. I think those are some of the key processes around it. There are a gazillion processes that seem like they function within the system, but there are just a few of them that play together, and you just need to make sure you’ve got those well-defined, and you understand how to create those relationships in the right conversations.

I think the risk register is one that I see is often missing in many organizations. They could have good back-end elements in terms of involvement of the workforce but then not necessarily focusing on the reduction of the biggest risk. Can you tell me a little bit more about how an organization can improve on the risk register side? What are some of the key elements so that you get what’s the right risk I should be investing in and functions you want to see there?

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 us at

The register itself can be a simple tool. Most of the time when we work with clients to develop it, when I did it back in the day, it was just a simple Excel spreadsheet, but it contains the key aspects and the elements of it. Obviously, it starts with the definition of the risk. We always say to define it in terms of the worker. Let them talk. Let them talk about the things that concern them. And ultimately, you’ll figure out how to define that risk. And then, of course, the risk element, there’s a mathematical component to it. And there are typical standard risk matrices and how you start to measure the consequence of the likelihood of those things occurring. But what is important is to make sure that you’re tying actual metrics to that. So, if I said my biggest risk is related to excavation damage on a pipeline, there’s data that tells me or supports whether or not you’re improving or regressing in your performance around that. And you should be able to leverage that data to validate the risk. And ultimately, you have to have some scoring mechanism to calculate your level of risk, so you know, hey, I got to draw a line in the sand, and I could only work.

It’s a prioritization effort, is really what it is. And absent that, that’s what the risk register really starts to do. And ultimately, you start to connect the risk register and the items in there to the further evaluations that you might do through a bow tie analysis or the risk mitigations and the project you’re going to do to improve that. It just starts to tell a story for you, and then it creates the math for you to actually prove to your board or your other stakeholders externally that, hey, we’re actually making progress here.

And how do you handle something that’s an incredibly low likelihood but significant consequence? So just like I started out in aviation, a crash is an incredibly low probability, but the severity is incredibly high, and you don’t necessarily have a ton of leading indicators. Well, I shouldn’t say that. You have a leading indicator on drivers, but you can’t necessarily see if you’re improving.

It’s funny. Far too often, we spend all our time on the lagging side. You wait for the incident to occur before you, and you can’t afford to do that on a high and you can’t afford to wait for an airline crash or something like that.

Or a gas pipeline a burst and explode and take down the neighborhood.

Those are all the things we’re trying to avoid through the context of this. And that’s why I think that’s why having a model doesn’t just pick one attribute. It’s not just about whether somebody gets injured or not. There are other aspects to evaluating a certain amount of risk. It could be an environmental factor. It could be just related to the asset. If I had an asset failure, what would it cost me? It’s a reputational issue. There’s a whole variety of attributes that could be contemplated in your risk register, and you need to figure out the definitions around those. There are standard books and other things to give you a starting point for those definitions, but you make it relevant to your organization and the things that you do. And ultimately, there’s a governance model, and there’s an approach to making decisions around that. So, you present it with the data. Now, I will say the one beauty of a safety management system when you start digging in deeply, and I mentioned the bow tie analysis, the bow tie starts to look at what are those preventive controls to keep that catastrophic event from happening. And ultimately, you start to do your measurement on the leading side, which is within those preventive controls, what are the processes, what are those detection points, what are the things that you’re going to start to identify that might be triggered to that lagging incident occurring, which is what you’re trying to avoid.

So, if you can catch it on the front end on the leading side within the process, you can now go fix it. And spending time within that and trying to understand the connection between the risks that your workers have and the controls in those process points and those measurement points to those things gives them great power in trying to understand, hey, now we got an issue, let’s go solve it once again before that lagging issue happens.

Okay. So, we talked about culture and where you start in the culture maturity journey. How do you implement a safety management system and also make sure at the same time that you’re also improving culture? Because the two should be connected, but they’re not necessarily connected. You could implement a system that doesn’t improve anything culturally, or it could have some blind spots as well. So how do you connect the two, and what have you seen work?

Yeah. So, there are requirements within a typical safety management system standard to evaluate the effectiveness of it. And probably one of the more impactful ways to do that is through feedback. And in many cases, the standard might say, I got a very specific feedback mechanism or approach. You’ve got to find a way to engage. And to me, this is where you start to tie things like your auditing processes or an effectiveness assessment that you might do. But I think the most important piece or one of the more important feedback is a safety culture assessment. Because once again, we talked earlier about, okay, management puts a process in place, and how do the workers feel about it? And if you never ask or you never have the conversation about it. And to me, the safety culture assessment is one way to really get at, we are making headway. Are we making inroads into what we’re trying to accomplish? And it creates an avenue to try to get feedback from that. So, whether you’re doing just a straight assessment. I think, frankly, it’s the post-assessment conversations that probably get you the most value, whether those are small group discussions or individual conversations.

I think having opportunities to engage your workforce in those meaningful things. You should hope to see the results. I saw that at the company I used to work for, we implemented this. We saw improvements not only in our safety culture results, but we saw them in employee engagement results. The two very much go hand in hand with the culture of the company. But those survey results and the follow-up conversations, you get a lot of valuable insight into the way you’re functioning and how they’re engaged and all of the other things that you’re trying to push as part of your system.

I think from the cultural side, one of the pieces I’d say is, a survey is important, but I think where I see is really making sure you’re looking at multiple different elements. You’re checking, you’re watching how the work is performed. You’re focusing on some focus groups to understand what’s behind the themes because the surveys can hide a lot of issues. I can give you a very binary view. I’ll give you an example where people said, yes, I dislike the processes and systems, but it’s not necessarily that. It could be, like you said before, you’re not engaging me in developing the processes and systems.

Great point. I agree. When you ask somebody a survey, are they going to tell you whether or not the safety culture, do I not believe that I work safely? They’re always going to say I work safely. Almost totally. But I completely agree with you. It’s the conversations on the backside of it. You get different levels of feedback and different opinions there that really give you a better insight into the culture of your company.

I think the other element that I think is very connected is trying to get to, and I don’t see a lot of organizations do that yet, but to get to a very local level to start seeing at a safety commitment standpoint, so how the leader is perceived, how they show up and seeing the differences. It is a site. Then working on focus groups, maybe on how we take that actions, how do we take the right actions to address locally, because you can have a common culture, you can have a common system, but leaders have different personalities that show up differently and are perceived differently around commitment and not always aware.

That is so important. It’s funny you mentioned that. I’ve used the story where when my company implemented our safety management system, and people started to get it, and you intuitively knew the good leaders out there, but it was just a notion around it. Then what we saw was the good leaders were the ones that at that very local level were like, I understand the system. I understand how it can benefit me, and I’m going to actually start to execute it. They didn’t wait around for my team or others to push the agenda on them. They just took it upon themselves to go exercise it. Then they engage their workforce in a way. Once again, when you start to look at safety culture results and the feedback, their results are better than their peers. It was that engagement with the right leaders and the people to understand that the system was just something to help them, give them structure to help push the agenda along and to help drive change for them. But that cultural piece, the way those leaders act, really went hand in hand with that. So really important.

And sometimes, people have blind spots. One of the things I’ve seen often is around people saying, Yes, I prioritize safety. And in their mind, they’re saying that because they start the day talking about safety, they’ll have a safety moment. But then they’re going to reinforce, they’re going to give an attaboy to the person who got the job done, irrespective of maybe cutting corners, not consciously, not intentionally, but they give recognition to the wrong behavior. Or the worst I saw was somebody saying, Now, let’s talk about the real stuff as they transition from the safety moment to the other pieces. And those are pieces that then workers interpret saying, well, you tell me safety is important, but it really isn’t.

Yeah, that’s so true. I had somebody who worked for me, and she did an unbelievably great job of recognizing people for the right way. So, we would have workers being engaged in our system. And ultimately, they were the ones that drove out the risk. But we saw the discretionary effort around it. And so, when those things occurred, we were recognizing them in that way for the actions that they were taking for the right things. We were not privy to the production pressures and some of the other things. It was more about whether they were reducing risk, whether their actions were aligned to the kinds of things we were trying to work on and improve upon. And so that recognition went a long way for those folks to start putting pressure maybe on their peers and demonstrating that. And it was pretty powerful in some of those places. Even the frontline employees now, they were the perceived leaders around that within their organization. It was a great way and a very positive way to drive the cultural aspect at that local level.

And so, really, taking away these complementary elements between the safety management system and culture, things you want to drive and evolve in MRL, there may be some cases where you really only need a safety management system. And I think we talked about this before where if you’ve got 80 % turnover, 90 % turnover, including at your leadership ranks, in our likelihood, culture becomes a very hard piece to actually contain. And you need the structure more than ever because you’re just accepting that you have a rotating door, which introduces risk. But in other settings where you’ve got more stability, you probably want to do a little bit of both, and at least you have stability at a leadership level.

Yeah, absolutely. One can certainly support the other. And I do think, depending on… And the turnover is a great example because that should show up as a risk. That’s a huge risk. And that may be the one thing that you have to work on almost entirely in making sure, once again, you got the right structure and you’re onboarding people in the right way. Otherwise, you’re introducing way more risk from a safety perspective than your organization really can handle.

One could argue that if you have 80 % or you have a culture issue, you need to fix it first, or you’re going to see that nobody wants to play in.

Yeah, there is a bit of a chicken and egg with culture or the systems. Frankly, I think you need to just understand your organization and where you need to start with it. One may support the other, certainly, in that relationship there.

Excellent. Jim, if somebody wants to get in touch with you, obviously, the work that you do is predominantly around implementing, assessing, around safety management system. How can they get in touch with you?

Yeah, probably the easiest way is my email at [email protected]. Or check out our website at And there are connections there you can find me. You can find me on LinkedIn as well. Jim Francis, just look me up, and happy to connect and talk to anybody more about this.

Excellent. Well, thank you so much, Jim, for coming and sharing some of your background, your experience around safety management systems, and the value and really to get a better sense as to why and how you should implement one.

Yeah, thanks, Eric. Appreciate the time. Great talking to you.

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, and 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 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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Jim Francis is the Vice President of SMS Consulting at ENTRUST Solutions Group. In his role, Jim supports ENTRUST’s clients and the implementation of their safety management systems and other pipeline safety programs. Prior to joining ENTRUST, Jim spent 30 years serving utility customers in various engineering and operations roles at Vectren and CenterPoint Energy.




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Why Self-Care Is a Safety Issue: The Business Case for Expanding Training with Liz Kirk PhD

Why Self Care Is a Safety Issue The Business Case for Expanding Training



Do you or your team members engage in a computer-intensive role in the workplace? If so, we’re confident that you’ll greatly benefit from the expertise of Dr. Liz Kirk, founder of Beyond Ergo and one of Australia’s leading researchers and trainers in ergonomic and self-care competencies. In the newest episode of The Safety Guru, Liz expresses why self-care is a safety issue by sharing the negative effects taking place as a result of our increasingly sedentary and screen-intensive work style, including a higher risk of musculoskeletal injuries and disorders. Tune in as Liz shares her research into personal protective behaviors, such as postural mindfulness and developing habits of releasing muscle tension, to decrease musculoskeletal aches and pains at work.


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’s success story begins now.

Hi, and welcome to The Safety Guru. Today I’m very excited to have with me, Dr. Liz Kirk. She’s from Beyond Ergo. She won Dean’s Award for her research at the University of Queensland in reducing muscular computer-intensive pain. Beyond Ergo goes beyond ergonomics for a broad range of personal protective behaviors, particularly for computer-intensive roles. So, Liz, very excited to have you with me today. And you’re joining us from Western Australia. Beautiful spot. So, tell me a little bit about your background.

Thanks, Eric. And thanks for letting me join you today and for everybody to hear a little more about this new range of injury risks associated with computer-intensive work. So, my background originally has always been in training of some kind. Before I went back into corporate health, I was doing adventure-based experiential training programs for team building and leadership. And in those great days when we used to send everybody out into the wilderness and sell them and do problem-solving, things like that, which was much fun. But the Beyond Go programs that I deliver now were born out of my own experience of needing to get back into corporate health. And to do that, I joined a large corporation, actually in a contact center. And it was the first time I had to use computers for a really long period of time. And what I thought was going to be a very easy 9 to 5 sit-down job, turned out to be the most stressful job of my life. Very quickly, I developed back pain, shoulder pain, headaches, and sore eyes. And by the end of the day, all I wanted to do was go home, pour a large Scotch, sit in the cupboard, and talk to nobody.

So very quickly, I realized that I was the least likely person to be injured because I knew about this stuff. I knew about healthy exercise, injury prevention, the basics of workplace health and safety, and office ergonomics. And I had the disposable time and income to care for myself. But I still experienced that growing pain, the stress, and the accumulating medical bills, and I still ended up injured. So it was after that experience that I understood that it really doesn’t matter how much you know if you can’t convert that knowledge into practical work skills. And that’s what sent me back to do my PhD in these programs that now form the founding. The founding foundation of the Beyond Ergo programs. So, the things that I’d like to share with your listeners is that the largely unrecognized issue of pain and injury amongst knowledge workers, and how the stunning success of technology has created this great surge in health and injury risks. Why we need to now have a broader focus when we’re planning training, and why that training must go beyond an economic checklist to build the self-care competencies that people need when they’re involved in computer intensive work.

What’s changed in the business context where the dynamics need a much broader view?

Well, as I say, the stunning success of technology means that knowledge workers can now work from almost anywhere. And people still have this perception that computer work is easy. I mean, how could you get injured in an office? But sitting at computers all day is surprisingly mentally and physically demanding. Computers have also become integrated with every part of our lives, leisure, and in work. And that has removed those natural breaks from screens. And it’s reduced the recovery time from those poor postures and the small repetitive movements that contribute to overuse injuries. This, combined with our increasingly sedentary lives, means that, in general, we have a decline in physical conditioning, and that leads us to an increased risk of pain and injury and increased recovery times when we do get injured. In fact, Dr. David Marshall, who was the medical director at the Sports Medicine Children’s Healthcare Atlanta, said that their technology injuries have now surpassed sporting injuries in their clinic. And we know from the research that Gen-Z is now entering the workforce already injured, and primary school children are now showing signs of prehistoric postures, all because of their now current high screen use.

So, it’s a growing and concerning problem, and you can see it filter down through the generations. And I knew from my PhD research that over 86 % of knowledge workers report aches and pains, and over 11 % suffer from chronic pain. And just in Australia, and we’re not very big, just in Australia, chronic pain costs our economy $55 billion a year. And of that, $7 billion was simply lost in productivity. That’s before you’d add any other business expense to cover any other injury or illness in the workplace. So, for Australia, we only have 30 million people. That was a loss of $540 in lost productivity for every person in the Australian workforce. And sadly, that’s not all the bad news because when COVID forced everybody home into flexing work, those reports of doctor visits and allied health services increased significantly. And together with the other social isolation and depression, and loss of productivity that we’re now seeing filtering through in the research when COVID forced everybody home into flexy work. And I think one of the pieces is you’ve got people moving from the work environment, desktop to home using a laptop, probably not the most economical or economically sound work environment, which aggravated the circumstances. Is that a fair statement?

Absolutely, Eric. That’s absolutely right. So clearly, the whole world of work for computer-intensive work has changed drastically over the last 20 years. And now we have to question whether an economic checklist is adequate for staff trying to manage an increasingly complex array of work choices like hot desking, working remotely, sit-stand workstations, multiple screens, and mobile devices. And we’re now getting research on the new health risks associated with this increasingly sedentary behavior, including the increased risk of heart attack, type 2 diabetes, various cancers, and depression. And for businesses that where flexi work has created a situation where managers must still ensure safe work conditions, but they now actually have less control over the work environment and less oversight about how staff likes to work or how they choose to work. So, the jump into laptops was so essential during COVID. Still, it’s added that extra layer of risk of injury because we’ve all heard stories about people sitting on their beds to work, using ironing boards as tables, or getting leg pain because hard deck chairs were never meant to be designed for eight hours of sitting each day. We also know that we need to expand the economic recommendations that we’re sending home for flexi work because they do need to cover laptops.

And as an example, the economic recommendations state that laptops should not be used flat on the work surface for more than two hours a day. But I don’t think I’ve talked to anybody here in Australia, and I don’t know what it’s like there for you, but managers have not realized that. And they haven’t sent the equipment home or given the training to make sure that staff that are on flexi work can set up their workstation properly. And of course, using laptops flat on the work surface forces people into that turtle posture that now looks so natural because we see everybody doing it. But your head is now jutting forward to look more closely at the screen. Your neck is in compression, which leads to fatigue and headaches, poor concentration, increased muscle tension, and can even lead to injury of your vertebrae over time. That slouched posture, sorry, slouched posture, say that twice, actually compresses your abdomen and slows your circulation. And of course, the small keyboard increases your input errors. So ,it’s a really big issue often people are wondering whether that’s really how that’s affecting our flexi workers. And I like to give them an example of a lady that I worked with some years ago.

Her name was Jean, and she worked for a help line, a 1 in 300 help line for seven years, without any injury or health concerns to do with her computer work. But when she had the opportunity to go home to work, she just thought that was going to be great. So, Jean took that economic checklist and purchased the right office chair, a document stand, plugged in her mouse, and sat down to work. But after just six months from working from home, Jean was experiencing significant pain and mounting medical bills. Weekly physio and acupuncture appointments had replaced her yoga classes and her beach walks because her neck, shoulders, and back pain was so extreme. So, in just six months, Jen’s shoulder needed cortisone injections, and surgery was already planned. So that was just in six months of working from home because she hadn’t been given all the support and training that she needed to cope with this new range of skills and information she needed because the checklist couldn’t cover all the issues she faced. It couldn’t demonstrate how to adjust her furniture. It couldn’t check if the equipment was positioned correctly. And there was no one to check Jen’s work posture while she worked.

And that was, I have found, a major concern and a major cause of people building pain and ending up in injury. So, whenever I take a workstation assessment, I always quietly stand behind the person and take some photos while they work, so they can see their work posture. And when I showed Jean her posture, she was absolutely done found it, because she had no idea. She had been constantly leaning on her elbow to work. And we find that a lot. People are unaware. It feels so natural the way they’re sitting. They don’t realize how poor their posture really is. So, after I made the economic adjustments and we built Jean a very positive work behavior program, she could return to her yoga and start her early morning walks. But the real tragedy was that the damage to Jean’s shoulder was considerable, and she still needed surgery. And that’s certainly one of my frustrations, is that I’m not called in until people are already in extreme pain. By then, the damage is often already done, and it couldn’t be reversed. So, it’s one of the reasons we need to broaden this scope of training for knowledge workers, from the reactive wait until somebody’s in pain, to the more preventative style of building these self-care competencies.

Sure. And so we touched before on the importance of having a broader focus on going beyond just ergonomics. Tell me a little bit about those additional components being yond just the economic and desktop set up.

Yeah, sure. And what I’d like to do, too, when I do that, after I do that is show the business costs that are associated with not giving people the new self-care skills that they need. Because, of course, companies allocate significant time and money to their employee assistance programs and the return-to-work programs, all to cover these work-related injuries. But logically, it’s better to promote injury prevention. And, of course, being safety, the first step in any safety prevention program is to follow the hierarchy of controls. And in relation to computer-intensive work, that still means defining and implementing the tiers of elimination, substitution, engineering, administration, controls, and, of course, PPE. But PPE for knowledge workers is different. My research shows that this final tier for injury prevention should be PPBs. These are personal protective behaviors. So, these are the competencies that allow individuals to consistently identify and take early action to eliminate or at least manage the triggers that are personally causing them pain and then prevent that pain and stop it from progressing to an injury. So, these skills will enable staff to take greater personal control over their health and safety in computer-intensive work environments, no matter where they work.

So, the most efficient way to do that, of course, is by building training that extends to build these personal protective behaviors. So, it’s a more holistic range of knowledge that goes beyond the economic checklist to build transferable, actionable self-care health and safety skills. So, in the Beyond Ergo programs, we describe these holistic ranges of skills as the three pillars of personal protective behaviors. And the first, of course, is getting the ergonomics right. But it’s not just about going through a checklist. We also demonstrate how to refine those generic recommendations to match stature. And the example I love to give is that one of the most common mistakes I see is people having their screen set either too high or too low. And the economic recommendations say that the center of your screen should be 17 and a half degrees below eye level, but nobody actually knows what that means, and they don’t know how to judge it, so they don’t even bother to try. And I’d love people to try this as they’re listening to your podcast to check screen height. If you place your arm parallel to the work surface and point to your screen, you should be pointing to the center of your screen because your fingertips are now about 17 and a half degrees below eye level.

So, it’s so easy. And you’re not pointing to the center of your screen, you know you have to adjust your screen height. So, by using this action, you’re actually refining those generic economic recommendations to match your stature. And it doesn’t matter if you’re 6’8 or 4’0, it automatically works no matter where you are. And actions are also easy to remember. You don’t need any special equipment. And of course, you always have your body with you. So, it doesn’t matter where you are, you can adjust your workstation set up to match your structure properly and the tools that you’re using. So that’s the first pit here. The second pillar of personal protective behaviors is building a wider range of positive work behaviors. And that, of course, goes beyond eating a healthy snack and taking the stairs. And these include the obvious, like supporting mini and micro breaks, doing the stretches, and knowing how muscular carotid disorders start. But the biggest benefit I found in the work that I did is by coaching postural mindfulness. And we touched on that with Jean. She didn’t know she was sitting in an awkward posture. So, learning to feel when you’re working in poor postures, and developing habits of consistently releasing muscle tension and resetting posture back to relaxed and neutral is really important.

This behavior has proven to provide the greatest benefits and decrease aches and pains, and of course, those injuries that go along with it. Because if you can’t feel when you’re working an awkward posture, and you don’t recognize that there’s an eight star, then you can’t go ahead and fix it. Because if you can’t feel it, you can’t fix it. So that’s the second pillar is these broad ranges of positive work behaviors. And the third pillar is building the targeted physical conditioning we need to speed recovery and help prevent common aches and pains, especially of the neck, shoulders, and upper back. So, recommending aerobic classes and massage and yoga and going to the gym is, of course, great. But there are very specific dynamic stretches and strengthening exercises that knowledge workers need to habitually do if they’re going to avoid pain and injury. And as an example, the research shows four recommendations for recovering from and preventing neck, upper back, and shoulder pain. And these are, and of course, the first one is ergonomics, getting your ergonomics right. So, you’re setting everything up so you’re not sitting in awkward postures. The second is your stretches.

So designed to release that muscle tension and recover through periods of work. The third is aerobic exercises. And trials of aerobic exercises found it significantly reduced migraine frequency, pain intensity, and duration. But while the most dominant approach we talk about is getting the ergonomics right, the fourth strategy was targeting the strengthening of muscles of the neck and shoulder girdle. And that always worked consistently. So, in the podcast Download, there’s a link to an article that explains those and the four exercises that strengthen the neck and shoulder girdles. That’s probably a lot more valuable than me trying to describe them.

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

And there’s really good visuals to help with those exercises in the show notes.

Yes, absolutely. The article has those as well. And of course, the big question I’m always asked when in relation to doing these extending training and whether it’s really of benefits to extend training is whether there’s a business case for increasing that investment in training, and why that’s important. Because it’s easy to see how individually and accumulatively, the risk for computer intensive work is obviously a concern. But the examples I have that show the cost benefits are really important. Actually, the calculator I use actually comes from OSHA. So, the American Occupational Safety and Health Administration have designed the Safety Pays calculator. And this calculator is designed to calculate the potential damage to a business’s profitability from various work-related injuries. So, to explain why it’s important to extend training and to this wider range of personal protective behaviors, I input into the calculator three common overuse injuries. And the figures will demonstrate the direct and in direct cost of those injuries to a company. So, I chose three. The first one is carpal tunnel syndrome. And the cost of that injury to the company was over $64,000 just for one case of carpal tunnel syndrome.

One case of an inflammation injury, so we’re thinking tendonitis or repetitive strain injury, was nearly $82,000. And one case of a strain, like upper back pain or shoulder pain, was calculated at $70,000. So, most managers I talk to find those figures very surprising. But the safety pay calculator actually goes beyond that because in that calculator, you can enter the percentage profit that you would make on each sale. And if there were any cause for concern, they need to try the calculator because the figures that come out of the amount of sales you have to make to cover the cost of those injuries are absolutely eye-watering. But my concern, of course, is more about thinking about the injured employee because while the cost of the business is high, the immediate financial burden for the injured person is much higher because they cover over 70 % of the associated costs of that injury. And a significant muscle, little disorder can reduce their earning capacity for the next 4 to 5 years. So that’s not only the pain and disability that affects their work and their private life, with stress and injury and pain, but also their earning capacity and their quality of life because it decreases their income now, but also how much they can save for retirement and their financial security in the future.

I love the example you shared earlier around the angle for the monitor because I think whenever you see the diagrams like you said, the 17 and a half degrees is really hard to conceptualize. Here’s a very easy tool for somebody to quickly particularly assess their workstation. I’m wondering if you could also share maybe some tips on the laptop side of the equation because you talked about how people have moved to laptops, and I know a lot of people have set up at home where their laptop connects to monitors and have external keyboards and mice, which then makes it look more like a desktop. But then you’ve also got the person who travels who can’t travel with a monitor as well.

That’s exactly right, Eric. And the whole reason we love laptops is that they’re so portable. So, by having a broader range of skills and doing the physical conditioning means that when you can’t set up your laptop on your little laptop stand or with an external keyboard and all the things that you need if you need to work with it flat, you also know that you’re going to start getting some discomfort, that it is awkward. So, then you have your strength-enhancing exercises, you have your dynamic stretches that release that tension. There is a great exercise that I love to do. And the research showed that this one exercise can reduce upper back and neck pain by 50 % when it’s done regularly. And it’s even more important now that we use laptops so much. It’s called the Roll Reset Relax. And what it does is that, as you know, when you work on any computers, but particularly laptops in this hunch turtle position, we build up a lot of tension in the neck and shoulders. And the only way to release that tension is by doing big movements and consciously relaxing. So, the Roll Reset Relax is designed to do that.

You do big shoulder rotations; you do big rotations forward and then big rotations backward. And then, you take a deep breath and consciously relax your arms into your lap and reset your posture back to a neutral position. So, you get the feel of your body being squared up to your monitor and your laptop keyboard. And you release that tension because those fine motor units switch on, and they can’t switch off again until you do those big movements. So often, when we’re working, they can be switched on for eight hours a day, but we don’t consciously relax them, which is a great cause of pain and discomfort. So, roll, reset, and relax. You do big shoulder rotations, take a deep breath and consciously relax, and reset your posture, leaning back in your chair, squaring yourself up to your monitor and your keyboard, and relaxing back into relaxed and Neutral. And as I say, the research showed us that by making that a habit, doing that throughout the day, anytime that you find yourself leaning to one side, or you’ve lent forward to read from the screen, or you’ve been sitting down for a while, just repeating that can reduce that upper back pain and neck pain by 50 %.

Excellent. So again, how do I organize my workstation, and then the exercise I really liked as well your other elements around a broader range of tools that look into posture and mindfulness, things of that nature. So, tell me a little bit about how companies can help address some of these risks. Obviously, flex work is still present, and the pandemic is mostly past, but people are still working in dispersed environments in many organizations, and even if they come back to the work environment, these risks are still present.

Oh, that’s right. And in fact, I think flexi work is going to be here to stay. It’s certainly one of the conditions that people are looking for, and that will adjust over time. But of course, these managers are really looking now to health, safety, and wellness programs to meet their workplace health and safety obligations, but also to provide that commercial edge of reversing the decline in productivity that a lot of us are seeing and acquiring and retaining new talent. So, decreasing the attrition rates and improving levels of labor costs, because we’re not seeing so much absenteeism and present teens and stress. So this is best done by expanding training and the expectations of the training that knowledge workers need to include this broader range of health and safety self-care competencies. So, as I say, I’ve dubbed it the personal protective behaviors, the PPBs. Individuals need to consistently identify and manage the new complex range of health and injury issues that are associated with computer-intensive work. And for businesses, that means enabling staff to take greater personal responsibility for their health and safety, no matter where they work. And in turn, that will improve their productivity and reduce the chance of work injury claims.

So as I say, remember, Jean there, that after seven years of being a dependable and valuable staff member, in just six months from working from home, she was in so much pain that the company was covering the significant direct and indirect costs of lost productivity, medical bills, return to work programs, overtime payments, and of course, the company had a reputation hit as well because people don’t want to work where they know they’re going to get injured or they’re not getting the support that they need for these. So, in terms of the programs that are out there, obviously, people should really look for this broader range, not just doing the checklist of hiring a seated massage or giving people discounts to go to the gym or go to yoga classes. But if they would like to see more of how the Beyond Ergo programs work, then, of course, there’s links in the program to my website. But there’s also a free webinar that’s coming up on the 19th of July, which is about the practical skills team leaders and managers can use to build resilience and stress management. And it’s all about frontline leaders being able to nurture their teams, before they need the big stress management conversation, that Are You Okay conversation, which can be very intimidating for team leaders and for their teams as well.

And it can feel quite intrusive. And, of course, I’m very happy for people to connect with me on LinkedIn. And I’d love to share ideas and information. I’d love to know how I can help people.

Absolutely. So, your website is It has many resources, including, as we’ll include in the show notes, the stretching exercise we talked about earlier, as well as the OSHA calculator. And if somebody wants to reach you, is that the best way to start the conversation?

Yes. LinkedIn is probably the best way to do it. Yeah, absolutely.

Excellent. Well, Liz, thank you very much for coming and sharing your wisdom about economics and going beyond just a standard checklist economic program. I think it’s something organizations definitely need to think about as we embrace flexible work environments. But even in an office environment, the environment still requires good economic environments and the right reinforcement for success.

Yeah, thank you, Eric, and thank you for letting me share these concerns and ideas about all things new with these computer-intensive work environments.

Absolutely. Thank you for joining us.

Thanks, Eric.

Thank you for listening to the Safety Guru on C-Suite Radio. Leave a legacy, distinguish yourself from the pack, and 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 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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Dr. Liz Kirk (PhD) won the Deans Award at the University of Queensland for her 2013 PhD research focused on defining and reducing levels of musculoskeletal pain and MSD among knowledge workers in the Australian Contact Centre industry. While the original research focused on using clients’ anthropometry to refine ergonomic recommendations to match stature, the Beyond Ergo talks and workshops now go beyond ergonomics to build a broad range of Personal Protective Behaviours (PPBs). These are the new WHS and wellness self-care competencies knowledge workers need to take greater personal responsibility for their health and safety in computer-intensive work environments, no matter where they work.
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Leadership Under Pressure: Creating Conscious Control with Anton Guinea

Leadership under pressure: creating conscious control



In this episode, we welcome Anton Guinea, a seasoned expert in leadership under pressure. With his formative and compelling experiences, Anton has dedicated himself to helping leaders become the best versions of themselves for their teams. Listen in as Anton shares valuable insights on maintaining emotional control and keeping calm under intense workplace pressure. Tune in to learn about Anton’s practical approaches to cultivating a blame-free environment, encouraging psychological and physical safety, and creating conscious control to lead effectively under pressure.


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’s success story begins now.

Hi, and welcome to The Safety Guru. Today, I have a very exciting speaker joining us, Anton Guinea from Australia. He’s a coach, a consultant speaking on leadership under pressure. He’s got some amazing stories that have shaped his thinking in this space. We’ll get to those very soon. He focuses on working with leaders to deliver the best version of themselves. I probably destroyed your sentence in some way, shape, or form. Anton, very happy to have you with me on the show today.

Thanks for having me, Eric.

So, Anton, why don’t we start out with your story? Because it’s fascinating. You had three events that shaped your thinking. Why don’t we start there?

Yeah, cool. Thanks, Eric. First, at the age of 21, I was unlucky enough to get blown up in a switchboard. I was working at a chemical factory in Glastonbury. I’d finished my apprenticeship, so I was qualified as an electrician and couldn’t get work in town at the time. Finally, I did get a very short-term role in a shutdown of the chemical factory. I rushed a job. I was working with a tradesperson who we were working together, and we were working closely to put something or mount something in a switchboard. We were working on switchboards. We’d isolated it, we’d test it for dead. So, we’d done everything right, we thought. The problem was that I was rushing that job, and I used a steel ruler to measure where we were going to put those components in that switchboard. And that was a really, really poor decision. And it was a poor safety decision. And it was a decision that was based on the wrong priority. So, the priority was to, in my mind at that moment, was to get a pat on the back or get a job because I was in a short-term role, to impress.

So, all those other things that shouldn’t be on your mind when you’re doing work in a switchboard that’s potentially fatal, sadly. Even though we’d isolated ourselves, which I’ll tell you that story in a sec. But as I started measuring, the steel ruler got in behind the main switch and either got close enough or contacted live electrical buzz bars, and it blew everything up, including me. So I was exposed to, we now think about 20,000 degrees C of carbonized air caused by that arc flash. And my hands and my face and my neck… So, I had long sleeve cotton clothes on, so I wore work clothes, but still, my face and my hands and my neck and my arms were burnt really badly. So, I had about 15 % of my body was second-degree burnt. Burns pain Eric, is something that I won’t even try to get your listeners to understand. It’s a horrible experience. And I hope for your sake and for theirs that no one close to you, or you have been through Burns pain because it’s just a horrific thing. And they can’t do much for the pain on site. So, I got down to the nurse’s station and she could use water and tried really hard. Got in an ambulance, got to the hospital, where they could use some morphine and take some of that pain away. And then it was into the recovery for the next five weeks. I say that I was doing a five-minute job. I was trying to save a few minutes and I went home about five weeks later. I went to intensive care with the arc flash, which is what it was. You get burned internally as well. There was some concern about my internal organs and the ambulance drivers shared with me, God love them, you can die up to a few days later from these injuries. I said, oh, thanks. Thanks, team. Great information. I was off to intensive care, and we were trying to see what the internal damage was. Fortunately, once I got to intensive care and they started checking that it wasn’t too bad, then it was off to the burn, and in Brisbane, where I got some really good care down there. And part of that healing process was all of that dead skin had to be removed because it was obviously charred, it was cooked from the explosion. And the new skin had to come through from underneath. And that experience of debriding, it’s called, where they would basically remove all of the skin on your hands and your face and do that quite specifically with tweezers and scissors, so they get under the skin where they can and pull it off. And then they cut it off and get a nice little pile of your skin happening in a little silver kidney-shaped medical container. It’s quite a horrific process. It was something that I had a lot of painkillers for. They gave me this thing called a suppository. That was interesting. I still look back on that. It was a really painful experience and just an emotionally painful experience, probably too, just getting a facelift and watching people peel my skin off. Then, of course, there’s the rehab because, with burns, your skin tightens up. It was a pretty horrible four to five weeks recovering Eric. And I’ll just go back to that story I was going to tell you before because I said we’d isolated and tested for dead. We’d isolated the panel that we were working in and tested that. But the whole board, the switchboard itself, was not isolated. And the buzz bars were coming in through the main switch.

So, the line side was isolated, but the live side was still alive. And the steel ruler got in behind the main switch where those buzz bars were because it was so thin, and it was so flexible. And you couldn’t even see the gap in between the main switch. It just got in behind it and all of a sudden caused this massive arc flash. And yes, it really was. horrible. And you don’t see it or you don’t… I don’t remember being in an arc in the fireball because they come and go in 0.5 of a second. So, these things just come out boom and then they’ve gone again. They self-extinguish. They literally bang in and out. And in that 0.5 of a second, you’re just exposed to all of that heat energy and that carbonized air. And the air is actually electrified as well. So, it’s ionized because of the short circuit or the electrical process that’s going on. So, they say you get electric shock at the same time, which is interesting. So, you get electric shock at the same time, you get the arc flash and the arc burn. So that was interesting. I was lucky that where I was holding the ruler, it looked like, and it felt like the electrical current actually didn’t go across my heart for some reason.

Once they did the checks, my heart was okay, and we couldn’t find any exit wounds on my body. Very lucky and grateful that I didn’t lose my life that day. I’m here to tell the story.

You had two other boom events. I remember we talked about it.

I love the word boom event because that’s what the switchboard did, went boom. Then 10 years later, probably, I was actually working in a copper smelter. After that first event, that first boom event, Eric, as you can imagine, it’s really horrible and it’s really hard coming back from that. There’s this thing called post-traumatic stress, right? I really feel like I probably was in that space for a few years. I couldn’t talk about the incident for 10 years. I was down about it. I was down about it. I didn’t want to be an electrician anymore. I did it for a few years on a mine site because it was low voltage, so I thought, oh, that’s safer. But I was never really a safe worker because I was so scared of electricity when I was on the tools then. So, it worked out that I wanted to get off the tools and I wanted to climb the ladder of corporate success as you do and be a leader. So, for some reason, that switchboard was the spark that changed a few things in my life. And one of them was, I’m not going to work as a spark anymore.

I’m going to do something with my life now, which I realized that I hadn’t been. One of those things was study. The other one was doing leadership. I got off the tools as quickly as I can and got into some maintenance planning roles and some leadership roles. And a few years later, I was age 29, so it’s probably eight years later, I’d done a degree and I’d done some other stuff. I was finally at the superintendent manager level in an organization. I’ll never forget that this is 20 years ago. It’s a bit of a legacy of what we call 1900s leaders, or the old-school leaders. And this refinery was very old and some of the leaders in it were a little bit old school. I was a new leader. I was trained sure. I was learning leadership. And what happened was I went to a management team meeting, and I was leaving in a manager role and I was sitting with the team of the senior leadership team. I’d made a really significant mistake on some work that I’d done on a budget. And the mistake was my budget was over by seven times because I was calculating it in yen, not Australian dollars.

Just a slight mistake. Many millions of dollars, right? But I remember sitting in that little management team meeting and sharing that mistake. And the management team went nuts. An abusive, aggressive, abruptly. And it was like, in your face swearing like that, really that 1900’s leadership style. And it was ugly. I still say to this day that it hurt my heart that, what do we pay you for? You’re this and you’re that. It was really hard to deal with in that time because I just didn’t have those skills at the time. And it was one of those moments, and it wasn’t the only time that it happened on that particular site. And it was one of those periods in my life where I went, you know what? Achieving all these goals, sometimes they’re not all their cracked up to be. You get to this point, and you go, Was that worth it? Was it worth all the effort to be abused? And to be, yeah, I’d made some mistakes, but I would have loved to be coached and mentored rather than brutalized. Abused. Absolutely. Brutalized, emotionally. And I actually, it wasn’t long after that I jumped out of employment because I said, you know what?

If that’s the way you’ve got to be a senior leader, that’s not for me. Now remember, this is two decades ago. I made a call, a conscious decision to actually help leaders be better than that. So, I made a decision to actually go out and be the person that did something about old school leaders. And I’ve been on a mission since then. If you’re an old school leader, I’m coming for you, basically. And if you want to be a new school leader, and if you want to be a little bit more emotionally connected and have conscious control and not think it’s okay to go and abuse or be aggressive and be abruptly, come and talk to me and we can work with you. Or if you’ve got a leader like that, I’m here to help you and your team deal with those types of leadership styles. And that’s the best version of yourself. That was beautifully put when you said that at the start of the session. I want to help leaders be those good humans. And that’s leadership, just being a good human. And so that second boom event, Eric, was such a game changer because I was so career focused.

I was so driven to do leadership. And then to see poor leadership, the decisions each other. One of the decisions was, that’s how I’m never going to lead. I will never ever lead a human.

And we often we learn from our worst leaders how not to be probably sometimes better than the best leaders we’ve had, unfortunately.

That’s right. We never remember the ones in the middle. We remember the really great ones who made us feel great. And then we remember the really poor ones who didn’t. And so I say leaders, be memorable for the right reasons. Eric. So that was the second boom event, mate, to work for really crappy leaders that just changed my whole career trajectory. And now I’m self-employed and I’ve been working on leaders keeping their calm ever since then.

In terms of calm, you talk about cool, calm, and collected. The topic you cover is really around leadership under pressure. Every leader has seen pressure at some point in time. Sometimes there’s a major event that pops in. Sometimes there’s a crisis that you’re dealing with. So, tell me a little bit about some of the tools and tactics that those great leaders drive when they’re under pressure.

Love it. Can I lean into that just quickly with the event first? And I’ll tell you. Absolutely. So, two years ago, 25th of May 2021, I was on a… So, I was consulting on a power station site. And literally, the plant went boom. It’s all over the internet. You can go and Google all this information. There was a major turbine on that power station that blew up the turbine shaft separating from this machine. It was a world-scale event. It never happens. And I feel sorry for the plant that it happened in. Fortunately, no fatalities. Fortunately, no injuries. And obviously, two years later, that turbine’s still not on the back into service, I believe now. But it was so scary, Eric, because the noise was horrific. The offices were close to the plant. There was a whole range of other flammable materials around that. The building literally blew up that the turbine was in and we could see it still exploding as we were evacuating the plant. The problem was that because the turbine went down and they lost power to the site, you couldn’t actually do a roll call. You didn’t know who was on.

The spot. Oh, right. Because you had no power.

So, how do you do you do that then? And it was clipboards. It was pen and paper. And on that side, it was a small country town. And you had brothers and sisters and wives because it’s a small community. So, people didn’t know whether their loved ones were hurt. It was a scary, scary, scary, scary time. And at the same time, though, with the leadership under pressure hat on, I was watching those leaders respond to that event. I was watching the general manager. I was watching their senior leadership staff gather the troops, pull everyone together, and make sure we were safe. Eric, they did such a good job. They just nailed it. From then, for me, it’s been… That was the example for me. That was a crisis event. I remember that was a world scale event and well managed. Now, in answer to your question, what did they do? T o me, the first thing was there was this amount of calm that was across the place. I always use the word calm now because I just felt calm. The skill set was for me, being in control of your faculties. Now, what I mean by that is that emotional control drives behavioral control.

There is a skill to emotional control, as we know. And we now know from the Daniel… So, I’ll probably bring a bit of theory into it now, if that’s okay. Because since then, as you know, I’m now doing pretty much PhD research into leadership under pressure because I really want to get inside people’s heads and do the research to validate a lot of the work that I’m doing. So, there’s this conscious control or this emotional control piece where the first thing we need to do to be in emotional control is to be able to describe our emotional state, to be able to put language and words around our emotions. We know from Daniel Goleman’s research in emotional intelligence that even writing it down or talking about it or being able to speak in emotions helps us to control our emotional state and have this conscious control around our emotional state because that drives our behavioral state. Step number one, Eric, is to understand that you are now in amygdala hijack, which means that you’re in a fight or flight response, which means that your pituitary glands have sent a message to your adrenal glands, which is released cortisol, which is stress hormone, and you are now high on cortisol.

And now, it’s very easy for you to get out of control. And your body wants you to. So, it’s sent all of its blood and energy to your outer extremities so that you can fight or flight as you need to, which is obviously a primitive response pattern. Now, to be able to combat an amygdala hijack is about being able to understand that we’re in this emotional state and then regulate that emotional state. Now, the way that we regulate that emotional state is through our language, and it’s through our breath. Now, and this is the short version of probably a two-day program of lead. You had a lead under pressure. The first thing is in our language, talk in emotions, but don’t talk in too powerful of words. We don’t want to talk about when we’re under stress, we’re under pressure. We don’t want to use words that have too much emotional power in them. So, oh, Jesus, we’re going to die, or we’re going to… This is a tragedy, or this is a catastrophe. So, our language will drive then what’s going on inside us, because… And it will drive what’s going on inside us and those people around us.

So, if you use big, catastrophic words or big, powerful words, all of a sudden you heighten other people’s emotional state as well. So, we want to be really aware of our language. And the first thing that goes, Eric, when we’re under stress or under duress is our breath because we start to breathe very shallowly. Right. Now, if I could say to leaders, the one skill if you did nothing else after listening to Eric’s podcast today, learn to breathe. Now, we were born. We all popped out. From a creation and evolution perspective, let’s cover both sides of that so I don’t offend anyone. We pop out and one of the first things that babies do is they g ag. As soon as their lungs hit oxygen, we g ag. We take our first breath and it’s called the g ag reflex. And that’s the only breathing training most of us ever got. And we learn the rest on our own. And leaders under pressure forget the importance of their breath, and they forget the importance, or they forget how much their breath is required to make sensible, smart, controlled, consciously controlled decisions. Y our brain uses 20 % of the oxygen that you inhale. 20 % of the oxygen goes to this 1.3 kilo lump of mass in our head, gray matter. 1.3 kilos, 20 % of the oxygen, 20 % of the calories.


Now, given that the first thing that goes when we’re trying to make these decisions when we’re under stress is our breath, because we’re breathing so shallowly, what we got to do is we’ve got to take a step back and we’ve got to start breathing properly. What’s breathing properly mean to you? Well, there’s a whole range of breathing techniques, but the message is to breathe in a way that you feel relaxed. You can relax yourself with your breathing, which will help your breath, help your speaking and help your language. So, the first thing that goes when we’re under pressure is our ability to speak properly. That’s only because we’re not breathing properly. Sure. Now, by oxygenating our body properly, which means breathing, belly breathing, slow breathing, and holding breathing, all of a sudden our brain is full of oxygen, which it needs, and we are more relaxed. And we know that when we’re relaxed, we make better decisions. And the world could be falling down around us. We know that breathwork changes our brains. And it’s called, I call it aerobic decision making, decision making with oxygen, like doing aerobics. Not anaerobic, which is without oxygen, but aerobic decision making.

Great. Now, the other skill that I’m about to, next Wednesday, I’ll be submitting a paper to a journal, I think, in the States, public service psychology journal. So, I’m going to submit a paper on leadership and all of this stuff. And one of the skill sets is, once we’ve got our breathing right, once we’re in conscious control, there’s this concept called normative competence. Normative competence. Which is tied to decision making, and it’s tied to decision making that is focused on the humans that are involved, the future of this particular boom event. So, it’s really easy to get sucked into the moment, but we’ve always got to have a forward focus. What we know about decision making and crisis events is the more we can have a forward focus, Eric, the more we can be looking to the future. Yes, we’ve got to… Yes, and leaders will be listening to this going, Hold the phone. Or you’ve told me so far as to breathe, and I get that.

And. Language. And language, absolutely. And slow your body language. Slow your body down. Slow down, literally slow down. Sit down if you can, because you want to be as relaxed as possible. Now, the next thing is normative confidence, which is decision making. And yes, you’ve got to deal with what’s going on right now. You’ve got to deal with that. We’ve got to contain the crisis event. But at the end of the day, we’ve also got to be looking forward. We’ve got to be saying, the decisions that I make now will affect us in the future. And what we’ve got to be looking at is the humans involved. Let’s look at the humans involved and let’s unpack the way that our decisions are going to impact them. So, leaders can tend to forget that as much they’re stressed. But what about their teams, Eric? What about everyone around them who’s also extremely stressed? And this is the problem for leaders. They get wrapped up in the organization stuff, or they get wrapped up in the political stuff, or they get wrapped up in how they’re feeling. The easiest way to have conscious control and emotional control is to have a forward focus and think about other humans.

Think about the impact of our decisions on others. How will this decision impact other humans? When we can get to that point, when we’re actually thinking about impacts, outcomes, and we’re thinking forward, we’re not just thinking in the moment, normative competence, decision making with a future impact focus. And then that will help other people stay calm around us as well. Because what we don’t want to do as leaders is we don’t want to incite, we don’t want to inflame a situation. People’s emotional state, right? We want to help them stay calm and collected. Now, what we know is there’s this thing called emotional contention. And what emotional contention is, is our emotions are mirrored by those around us. So the more that we can stay in control, and this is the beautiful part about being in conscious control for leaders, the more leaders can stay in control, the better their teams will, too. Because while leaders are out of control, this emotion is contagious, the energy that goes with this and the energy that comes through in the language.

All goes towards driving other people’s energy state up. So, what we want to do is we want to… And leaders need to be so focused on other humans that they can actually see what’s going on for them. This is part of being in control where you can think fast, and talk slowly. How’s this person going? How’s that person? How’s my leadership team going? How’s my disaster management team going? Leaders need to be that focused on not only the situation but the other people around them. I think sometimes that gets forgotten as well.

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 supervisor safety capabilities, or introduce unique safety leadership training and talent solutions, Propulo has you covered. Visit us at

I think quite a bit there. I think the altruistic looking at others gets you also more grounded in terms of it’s not about me and my emotions. It’s about the broader group. Definitely. Let’s unpack a little bit more. You said something about think fast, talk slow. Tell me more about that idea because I think that’s also an equally important element when it comes to how you respond under pressure.

Think fast, talk slow to me is the summary of the Daniel Goleman model. Daniel Goleman talked about self-awareness, self-regulation, social awareness, and social regulation. So that when you’re looking at someone else, Eric, you can actually be thinking about what they’re experiencing at the moment while you’re talking to them. Now, to me, it is the absolute epitome of multitasking. It’s multitasking.

It’s tough.

Which is tough, right? And we say there’s no such thing as multitasking because we’re task-switching. I say when we’re talking to someone, we’re multitasking because we’re having a conversation with ourselves at the same time that we’re talking to another human. And the thing is, we have triggers. So, there’s stuff that you might say that might trigger my emotional state. When we’re heightened, it’s easy to trigger people, especially when we’re in a boom event. I might say something that triggers your emotional state. And even for those listening, I just watched where Eric’s eyes went then. And so that’s part of thinking fast and talking slow. What do those body language movements mean? When I say something, what does that response mean? And if Eric gets triggered when I’m talking to him, make sure that I’m aware enough of that so that I can change, regulate, or influence your emotional state in the right way, so that I’m not inflammatory, if that makes sense, especially at the moment. Sure. So, I know what I’m doing to either trigger your emotional state or bring it down. So, think fast, talk slow. What’s the other person experiencing when they’re with me?

Is what I’m saying landing? Am I speaking too fast? Am I speaking too slowly? Is my intonation right for this particular person? Are they with me? Are we connected? Are we in rapport? Am I communicating clearly enough? Because when we’re under pressure, the instruction has to be very specific, and it’s got to be clearly communicated. And we got to make sure that message is clearly delivered and clearly understood. So that’s thinking fast, talking slow.

That helps. Absolutely. And let’s touch a little bit on blame. So, in a lot of events, you talked about your second boom event, which was blaming Anton for everything. What’s the element of blame? Because we have a tendency to gravitate towards blame when something bad happened. Tell me a little bit about what should be.

The right response. Yeah, great. Thanks, Eric. The human species, we tend to look for the person that caused it, that did it, that is responsible. Instead of looking at the organizational situation, circumstances that could have led to this boom, from occurring as well. I know even back when my switchboard event occurred, remember the general manager coming up and saying, Look, I was in intensive care in Gladstone, and though I’d started to come around, and it was either that day or the next day, and he came up to see me in intensive care, and he said, I just want to let you know it’s all good. We can’t fault you, or something like that. I know, right?

It’s an interesting comment.

I know. It was something like that. And I thought, oh, so you’re trying to? And I didn’t know what had happened. They’d worked out that there was a little gap around the switchboard. That’s how I found that out because I actually didn’t know that. I didn’t know what had happened. But the thing was, the first response for most people when they’re investigating or when they’re looking for causal factors, we go to humans. Now, it’s natural because… Well, it’s not really. Yeah, it is natural. 96 to 99 % of workplace incidents and injuries are blamed on or caused by human error. Human. Behavior. Even at that level. So, you just read the internet and you read that, all of a sudden you think, you’re conditioned, the humans wrong. Can we get to zero harm? No, because we’re all human and we’re all going to make a mistake. Well, yeah, I get that. And so, there’s this whole we’re human, we’re going to make mistakes, and so we got to blame someone when something happens. The thing about that is that you don’t look far enough back. You don’t look at the organization or you don’t look at everything else.

And when you blame people, what you do is you actually stop them from reporting. You stop them from contributing. So, you don’t have psychological safety in your organization. And psychological safety is a big deal. So, if people don’t feel safe to report, we know that, and you know this, that safety cultures, strong safety cultures are predicated on two things. One of them is reporting culture. How easy is it to report? How willing are people to report? The next one is, how easy is it to communicate about safety? And how willing are people to do that? So especially at the front line, is safety okay to talk about? Or are interactions, and are they an intrusion into our just getting our work done? Sure. When you’re measuring safety culture, you’re measuring those two things. When you blame people, you get people not to report because they’re fearful. Blame culture is just driven fear. They drive psychological safety down, and they drive the wrong message in an organization that if I report this, I’ll get sacked or I’ll get disciplined rather than having a learning experience. Now, I get it. Some of your listeners will be thinking, Yeah, hold on a second.

There are sometimes that people make intentional mistakes. Now, if you make an intentional breach, any investigation flowchart starts with, what was the intent? Was it to break a procedure, or was it just a mistake? What was the intention behind it? If there’s an intentional breach, that’s a different discussion. Most of the time it’s not, though. Most of the time it’s not an intentional breach. We’ve actually got to use a coaching mindset, more leadership rather than a blame mindset. Does that answer that question?

Yeah, absolutely. I think there are two leaders I worked with a while back and both made a shift where instead of finding fault with the individual, started blaming their role in it. Even if they weren’t the final fault, they started recognizing some of the elements of the actions that they did and how it impacted the outcome. What’s incredibly powerful there is that when the senior leaders started speaking that way, other leaders started taking their part of ownership. The element in terms of if you really want to drive safety ownership, it’s incredibly powerful because when you start removing the blame, recognizing the lots of people are part of it, then others are willing to be vulnerable as well.

Great summary. Beautiful summary. Taking that Extreme Ownership, great book to Lave Babin and Joko Will was the other author.

Jocko Will, yes. A lot of conversations around psychological safety. We’ve talked a little bit about removing blame, which is an element, a contributor to our psychological safety. Tell me a little bit more about how that links back to leadership under pressure.

Thank you. Great question. Psych safety, Timothy R. Clarke, four stages, inclusion safety, learner safety, contributor safety, challenge your safety. Are we included? Do we feel included? Is it safe for us to learn in this organization and learn from our mistakes? That’s the blame piece. Is it safe for us to contribute to be the best version of ourselves, to bring our whole selves to work? And is it safe for us to challenge the status quo? Now, poor leadership doesn’t include blames. People don’t feel like they can contribute and don’t ever challenge the status quo. status quo in a poor leadership organization or poor lead, it’s a poorly led team. In a team with great leadership, come in, inclusion. We know that there’s no groupthink. Groupthink came out of the NASA Challenger disaster where the junior engineer wasn’t listened to. And so, this is inclusion in decision making. Defer to expertise in the organization. Who’s the right person, doesn’t matter what level they are, to include them in the decision. If we need that information, bring those people up to the table. Learner, can we learn from our mistakes? Have we got a learning culture in the organization in general terms?

Do we send people away to conferences? Do we give them leadership coaching and mentoring? Do we help people grow and develop? We know it’s a fundamental human need to grow and contribute. And then the contribution safety is about not feeling like… So, in Australia, Eric, we’ve got this thing called a tall poppy syndrome so that if you do a good job, people try to pull you back down. You don’t want to stick your head out of the trench because suddenly, you’ll get shot. I know we’ve got a weird culture like that over here. We’ve got it. And you don’t want to have too big an ego. You don’t want to shine too much at times. This is contributor safety, right? I know it’s weird. There are some people that… Sometimes at trade level or in our… What do you call them? Craft teams, people have got to slow down, to slow down and work at the same level as the rest of the team, so that the project goes longer or so that they… You know what I mean? They don’t shine. And that’s contributor safety. You’ve got to be out. You’ve got to be able to do your best work and not feel like you’re going…

But it’s a version of yourself, right?

And then challenge your safety. Is it okay to challenge the norms? Is it okay to say to your leader, hey, I think there’s a better way to do this? And will your leader listen? So psychological safety is feeling safe to take interpersonal risks. Thanks to Amy Edmondson for that great definition. Interpersonal risk, which means speaking up. In short, psychological safety is, have you got the right people saying the right things because they’re comfortable speaking up and challenging and contribute.

Makes sense. Anton, thank you very much for coming, sharing your story. Leadership, member pressure, an important topic is when you’re in a world that safety is relevant matters, you’re going to be faced with some pressure, hopefully not of your boom events, particularly your first and your third boom events. But it’s good to be prepared to reflect, to have the skills to think about how I describe. So, I recognize the triggers.

Really think about how I regulate my breathing. You talked about that it resonated with me, the language I’m using, not big words. We’re going to die or anything of that nature. You talked a lot about the breathing and then really the forward focus and looking at the people and the humans in front of you. I think those are good takeaways from your message. Anton, thank you so much. If somebody wants to get in touch with you, learn some more about what you do.

How can they do that? The Guinea group is probably the best place to do that on the internet, Eric, or email me, Anton, at I would love to hear from many of your listeners. I would love to talk them through how we could… If they want some support around leading under pressure, psychology safety, or any of the other work that we do with leaders, please reach out. That’d be great to hear from them. Perfect. Thanks for having me too. Really appreciate it. Great questions, great stuff. Thanks again.

Thank you.

Thank you for listening to the Safety Guru on C-Suite Radio. Leave a legacy, distinguish yourself from the pack, and grow your success. Capture the hearts and minds of your teams and 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 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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Anton Guinea is an expert in the field of leadership under pressure, a best-selling author, and a motivational speaker. Anton nearly lost his life in a workplace accident and has turned that experience into something that others can learn from. He suffered through teams that had poor leadership and high conflict, which pushed him to studying a Bachelor of Business in HR and a Bachelor of Science in Psychology and is doing masters level research into the psychology of leadership, teams, and leading under pressure. Anton partners with leaders and businesses who are under pressure to help them create conscious control so that they can create psychologically safe and high-performing teams. Anton’s speaking, training, consulting, and coaching programs are based on psychology, neurology, and biology, and they provide leaders with real and relevant strategies to improve their teamwork and leadership.
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Waking Up to the Dangers of Shortcuts: Powering Up Personal Accountability and Safety Ownership with Theo Venter

Waking Up to the Dangers of Shortcuts: Powering Up Personal Accountability and Safety Ownership



“It’s the buy-in. All the safety systems are there, but they are worth nothing without the buy-in.” Theo Venter, the only known survivor of a 22,000-volt electric shock, joins the podcast this week to share his powerful story and eye-opening message highlighting the inevitable dangers of shortcuts in the workplace. Tune in as Theo describes the psychological aspects that contribute to serious injuries and fatalities and unpacks actionable strategies for mitigating risk and powering up personal accountability and safety ownership in the workplace.


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’s success story begins now.

Hi, and welcome to The Safety Guru. Today I’m very excited to have with me Theo Venter, who is an incredible inspirational speaker, but also one of the only people to have ever survived going through 22,000 volts through the heart and 1,200 amp. Unbelievable. Theo, welcome to the show. Glad you’re here. Why don’t we start with your story?

I am even more glad I’m here with you after hearing that what you just said. Sometimes when people say that it just is a different energy when I listen to it and I go, wow, I’m still standing here. Thanks for having me, Eric. Absolutely. I’ll just jump in if that’s okay. I’ll start a little bit further back. Born and raised, you might pick up a slight little accent in my voice, and I know it’s going to be hard to pick up, but it is from South Africa, the Spring rock country. Born and raised over there and then got opportunity to go to Australia and go and practice my trade, which was working on overhead power lines. I guess after about 10 years of working in the same industry, there was this specialized group that came in and they could work on live electrical power lines. So, you put these specialized big gloves and stuff on, and you put them on, and you can work actually on live power lines. So, I was very interested, went for the course and passed it. And then when I came to Australia, that was what brought me over because it was such a specialized trade. I was only here for six months when I set in my ways. My family came over for the last three months and we were now just settling into Australia. And it was a Monday morning. I woke up in the morning and it was just another day to me. I knew exactly what was going on. What was my whole week, what was it going to be? So, I got into my mood, and I jumped in, and I went to work and got to work. And the manager said to me, hey, Theo, he said to me something very strange that morning. He said, look, you got to go fix up this power pole outside of your normal work scope. And he said, I’m calling you in because you are the guy that gets the job done. He says, this is a really… There was an electrical storm. There was a lightning strike over the weekend. The pole got damaged. And he said, this thing is really badly damaged. So, I turned around Eric and I had this little ego boost, pep my stick.

And I said to, we have a three-man crew, I said to my boys, let’s go change the stuff on the truck and the Ute and get some other safety stuff on. And off we go to the Spell poll. And I remember doing a risk assessment that morning without my other two boys in there at the poll, and tick and flick boxes. You’re just a quick tick and flick and you’ve put a few things down. And I didn’t really, really, I wasn’t invested in that. And when the boys came in, we set up and started working on this pole. And my best mate, very good mate of mine, his name is Niko. He was in front of me. He started working on these live wires. And about half an hour in, he got really frustrated. And he said to me, he said, I can’t get this nut off this little 12-millimeter nut. I don’t know if you guys call it three quarter.


And I said to him, look, you must be tied. Let me have a go at it. And as soon as I stood right in front of this, and I’ve got to describe it. We’re standing 11 meters in the air. There’s a big steel cross arm in front of me. There are three insulators, which carries the three phases. And I remember, I couldn’t see where this nut sits, and I couldn’t feel it because of the gloves. And I knew that I’m the guy that gets the job done.

Right. You had heard that just before.

Because that just boosted my ego with this thing. And you know what it’s like for a young man.

And I guess at that stage, I thought if I could only put my fingers in there and could feel how this nut sits, it will be like a two second thing. I’ll just quickly put my finger in there, feel where it sits, get a socket in, and undo this nut. And I had a quick glance behind me of Niko, my best mate talking to the safety observer downstairs. And he didn’t look at me. And I went and I put my hands between my knees, and I started taking my gloves off. It was such a convenient choice. It was so easy. It was just a convenient choice. And when I put my hands in between my knees to start to take the gloves off, not for a single second did I even consider how many times they told me not to do it.

How many times in a meeting have they told us don’t do it. If it’s unsafe, don’t do it. In that minute, I was so focused on getting this job done that I didn’t think about it. I started pulling my gloves out, and the moment my gloves released out of my hands, I could feel the cold sweat on the wind, chillie wind. That moment, I had this massive gut feel. Have you ever done a bit… It’s just about to do something really stupid and you get this big feeling in your gut that something is going to go wrong? That moment when I got that gut feel, it was such a strong feeling that I paused and I went, oh, that is a real feeling. Then I was standing there for a couple of milliseconds, and I thought, Man, it is so convenient. It’s so easy. It’s right in front of me. I can just get you. Of course. So, you override that gut feeling, and you go in and you took it out. And I put my hands on that nut and everything was fine. I did it. The nut came off in about five seconds.

I was so happy with myself that I was standing back with a bigger smile on my face. And the next minute, the insulator now undone started moving and it was pure instinct. I had my right wrist on the steel cross arm and with the insulator a little bit to my left, I just grabbed it with my left arm, my left hand, and I didn’t know that there was that exposed section of that 22,000-volt line. And that moment I stuck my hand straight into that line, which made me just a little fuse between draining 22,000 volts, 1,200 straight through my heart, straight into the down to Earth.


That moment when that power took hold of me, it was like a truck hitting me at 100 Ks an hour. It just hit me and every muscle in my body, I remember feeling every single millisecond. I knew exactly what was going on, Eric. I was thinking about so many things, but I couldn’t do anything. It was just stuck on there. And I just stuck. And it was about two and a half seconds, which in electrical terms is a long time a lifetime. It’s lifelong. I lost consciousness. My knees gave in. I think my right wrist slipped off that steel cross arm and my lifeless body hit that bottom of that bucket. And that was the end of my life as I knew it. That was my last moments as I knew my life.

So, you went to the hospital. We’re blessed to still have you here. Tell me a little bit about the aftermath, the ripple effects, what transpired. Your family had just arrived three months prior.

Yeah. You see, what electricity in specific does is when you get hooked up, it creates a like a thousand degrees Celsius and it boils your blood inside your body. So, your soft organs, your heart, kidneys, lungs, liver, everything starts to boil up. And because of that, by the time they took me back to hospital, I was lying in that hospital bed, and I remember the last nurse, she was standing around my bed. After they stitched me up and bandaged me up and put all these tubes into my system with antibiotics and painkillers and stuff like that. And just before my wife walked in, she looked at me and she didn’t say much. But she was looking at me. I had eye contact for about 10 seconds, and I just realized that I’m going to die in his bed. I’ll never forget this moment when we’re just looking at each other, not saying a word. And she walked out, and I realized I know I’ve been in this industry; I know that the infection sets in and in a day, maybe, and you will die. And I remember my wife walking just after her. And as we were talking, she’s begging me not to die because we made this agreement that I was going to. And then I could hear my little princess is only five years old. She was outside and she was screaming and begging for her Daddy. And my two boys, I’ve got three kids and they were crying and begging. And I said to the doctors if they could bring my kids in and just give me a last chance because my kids just wanted to hug them and say goodbye. The doctor said I was so bad. I smelled so bad, and I looked so bad that, please don’t let the kids see you like this.

So, I made the decision not to say goodbye to my kids that day, that moment. And that was the hardest thing I’ve done in my life. I went into that night. You just count those seconds down and you know what goes through your mind the most is what made me take that shortcut? What made me choice? Why did I do it? Was it worth it? Was it worth taking that nut off? Was it worth putting my life on the line? When do you get so desensitized? What stage in a workplace, work site does you get so desensitized that you don’t even think about those material risks, the things that can kill you? And it just kept on spinning over and over and over in my mind. It was about five days later when they did tests on me and said, Theo, you’re going to make it. And during those five days, the only thing I could think of is knowing I was going to die was if someone could give me just one day with my family, one perfect day, one perfect day. It’s all I wanted, just one perfect day. And now when I stand in front of audiences, I’m asking them, have you ever thought of your own specific, personal perfect day?

What would it look like? Who were you enough with? Where would you go? Sure. They started surgeries. They removed all the dead tissue and tendons out of my arms that was dead because of gangrene. I went through 17 surgeries in the first just over a month. Every second day I had a surgery. They wanted to amputate my arms; they could save them. And then I was in hospital for quite a few months when I left. But then when I went home, it became worse because I went in there and my friends didn’t recognize me. I was now estranged from my wife. I was away from… The pressures on a relationship was just sky rocketing. I was in a dark room sitting there the whole time with severe pain. I had to depend on everyone to feed me. My hands didn’t work at all to help me wash, to wipe my bum, to do all these things. And I think about a few months in, depression kicked in and severe depression and anxiety. And it wasn’t long after that when my suicide thoughts were very real. That was the darkest ever. I’ve seen life in my life before. It was the darkest times.

I have to ask you, you know doing work around electricity, around high voltage, gloves are what blocks you from direct contact with the ground, becoming… Taking the energy down to the ground. You’re supposed to test your rubber gloves, in most cases every day, to make sure that there’s no fault, no challenge with the rubber gloves. Have you ever done anything like this before?

That is such a great question, Eric. Those gloves that you’re talking about, and it sounds like you know exactly what it was because those gloves are sacred to everyone. You take those gloves and you put them in a very soft pouch, and you do a pin test every day and you make sure that those… Because that’s the only thing that keeps you away from the beast. To answer your question, I want to go back one week before my incident. Just one week.


The Wednesday before my incident, we were standing. There was about eight of us, nine, 10 of us on a site. There was a power pole very similar to the one I was on. And there were two guys working up on this pole in an EWP in a bucket on a live line. And there was about six of us on the ground level. And it was about, I think, two, three hours in, maybe 10 o’clock in the morning when I was standing back from this pole to see how the guys going up there. And the one guy, as I looked up, the one guy didn’t have his gloves on. And I screamed. I screamed. I blew the whistle. I said, whoa, mate, you forgot your gloves. You haven’t got your gloves on. Because that was the cardinal sin. It’s like, you don’t do that. You forgot about it. The guy turned around and he looked at me downstairs and he laughed at me, and he said to me two things which I’ll never forget. He said, Theo, don’t ever tell anyone what you just seen and don’t ever try it yourself. This guy took his gloves off to do some work around the live power line.

Never seen it, never done it. Cardinal sin. No one should be doing this, right? Right. Two days later, I’m sitting in a safety meeting, the manager comes in and he closes, slams the door, closes. We about 100 of us sitting in a room. He starts the meeting, the safety meeting, off by everyone. He says, This doors are closed. This is a safe space. Everyone, please, could you talk to us about safety out there? Can you talk to us about is there anything that we can do better? Is there anything you want to bring up that people don’t do that safe? And the more he said these things, the more there was these 10 pairs of eyes right in the back of me waiting for Theo Venter to get up and say something because he’s the guy that gets the job done. What did you do? You know what I did?


Nothing. Couldn’t do it. Could not get up and say it. Could not. For some reason, I couldn’t do it. When my accident actually happened was that moment when I walked out of that room that day. I couldn’t bring it up. That’s where my incident happened because that was Friday afternoon, two days later, Monday morning, I was on a power pole standing there not knowing what to do with this thing. Then I remembered this guy last week that took his gloves off and he got the job done. And that is it. That was me. That was the incident right there. In other words, short answer to your question is, I’ve never done it, never seen it. First time I’ve done it. You know what? The guy that took the shortcut last week, must probably done it 30, 40 times. He always got away with it. It’s never the convenient choice. It’s never the shortcut that you take. It’s an unforeseen thing that happens while you’re taking a shortcut. It’s an extra thing that comes into play, that thing that no one knows about. You can get away with those shortcuts, but one day something is going to come up while you’re taking that convenient choice.

Which is what happened then. Something slipped, something moved. Unfortunately.

Yeah. 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 supervisor safety capabilities, or introduce unique safety leadership training and talent solutions, Propulo has you covered. Visit us at

So, it gets me to think a little bit about culture. What was the culture like? You talked about you get the job done. So presumably getting the job done is what was celebrated in some way, shape, or form. Others were blatantly cutting corners, at least one other person, on a cardinal rule. If you’re working next to any energized current at that level, you should never touch, not have the right gloves.

What was the culture like?

There was quite a number of things that came into perspective at that stage. There was the fact that because we were so new in Australia, we were still on a bridging visa, which means, you know where this is going, right? So, if you can do your job and you do it well and you can do it for long enough, you stay and you get your permanent residence. I didn’t come here to go back. So, there was a bit of pressure on… And please understand me very well, this is not excuses. These are things that was in place. I own 100 % what I did. 100 % I did. And that will always stay the way. But there was a bit of pressure on getting the job done. And in those days, they said to us in the cultured sense of things is look after your mates. Please go out there and look after your friends next to you, your brothers and sisters right next to you. Make sure everyone is safe. Do you know what I did in that meeting? I was looking after my brother. I was making sure he doesn’t get in trouble.

Yeah, because it’s reconstructing, which I’ve seen too often, what brother’s keeper means to protecting someone as opposed to protecting them from harm.

Yes, thank you. I was protecting my brother’s keeper by not saying anything. We’ve got a broke code out there and you don’t stab your brother in the back and that thing. So that was the culture because we were all in the same boat. We were protecting each other, and we wouldn’t do anything to hurt another guy. So that was, I think, the ground foundations of this culture. What they didn’t tell us at that stage, which after my incident for the last 10 years now, I’ve been searching for the reason why we do these things, regardless of the culture, regardless of whatever, why do we as individuals take these shortcuts? I went into behavioral science, and I went into all kinds of things that came up. Yes, there’s a lot of factors that make sense about all the other sciences, but there was one little thing that really got me in that moment when I just about to take my gloves off. Remember that real feeling in my gut? That really, it was in the back of my mind so long. What was that? I went and studied it. And this is pure biology, and I’d love to share this if that’s okay.

Absolutely. These are the things that just make so much more sense if we can teach our people and our people on our mine sites and our construction sites and these things. This basic concept is that we’ve all got a biology, we’ve all got a new cortex, a frontal cortex brain. It’s called the big brain in the front of your head is the one that calculates, it analyzes the path of least resistance. It speaks language and it understands, and it reads, and it writes, and it does all these things. That’s the part of the brain, if I say, calculates the path of least resistance. In the workplace, the path of least resistance, the easiest way to do, the most convenient way to do something is a shortcut. When we send our people to these work sites in the morning, we give them… They’ve got pre shift meetings and they need to do procedures and there’s swims and there’s all these things. And then they go out in the field, and they calculate all these things. And then they get to a place where they need to use a ladder, or they need to use something else. And this brain is so big and so powerful in front that I have now been working this brain, and I’m now taking the shift instead of the hammer because the hammer is too far and it’s not convenient to go there. And when there’s an incident, what do they do? They come back and they do the risk of the incident investigation, and they come, and they give you more procedures to go and read. So, they make the brain even younger.

There’s a little brain at the back, which they call the limbic brain. Now, this is the most amazing piece of little artwork that we have. And that is the brain that has got emotions and creativity. It deals in all these things. That’s the little part of the brain where safety gets unlocked. That’s where safety sits. When you feel unsafe, it’ll put chemicals into your body and say, watch out, there’s a snake, or whatever it is. That is the part of the brain that sends the signal to your gut. Have you ever heard of these people that needs to make a decision, oh, I don’t know if I need to go to the to use my head or my heart? Those are the two brains. Unfortunately, I don’t want to disappoint most of our listeners, but we don’t have a feeling in our gut. Sorry. That part of the brain sends that signal to your gut because it knows the gut is such a strong overpowering thing. So, when I put my hands between my knees, that little brain sent it in and said, don’t do it, Theo. Don’t do it. But I haven’t trained that brain.

I didn’t have the tool to understand and trust and respect that trust, that gut feel to go and listen to it and stand back and to say to my mate next to me, hey, Niko, does this feel right to you if I do this? I bet you wouldn’t have said no. But because of the frontal cortex is so strong, it will overpower that brain every single time. And if we could give our people out there just that little training every two, three minutes in the morning just to understand and trust that gut feel, that limbic brain, then they’ve got at least a chance of fighting against each other and say, I trust my gut. I will not do it. Last thing I want to say is, do you know how many people I spoke to that I said, have you ever had that feeling just before you get something done that you shouldn’t be doing it? Everyone goes, yes. Then I said, and then you do it anyway. They go, Oh, yes. That’s it. That’s a start anyway. But nearly everybody who’s been on our podcast who shared who’s been injured talks about that gut feel, a reaction just before. Almost unanimously, somebody has this feeling just before, but they still march forward.

That’s the golden nugget, isn’t it? I’ve been giving out little 12-millimeter nuts in every single presentation I have done to every single person. There must be about 250,000 nuts on key rings out there. I call that your gut feel, your why, your reason, your gut feel. At least there’s something they can hold on to sometimes, or they see it on the key ring, and they go, wow, I remember that. I trust my gut. I trust my feelings.

Let’s get to the topic you touched on before, which is getting to a perfect day. When you talk to audiences, you present your story, you get them to think about that perfect day. So, tell me about how you convey that message, because that’s also the decision you want people to reflect on before you take your gloves off, say, Is it really worth it?

Yeah. Eric, there’s six points that I highlight throughout my presentation if we want to get a little bit technical. They are there for a very specific reason, and it doesn’t matter if it’s an electrical industry or ice cream industry or the construction industry or whatever it is. These six points are the things that will take us forward. It’s personal development. Safety is a product of personal development. What we do is we count our mistakes. We count how many incidents and injuries we’ve had last month. And then we go this month, and we say, oh, we screwed up so many times last month, but this month is so much better. Wow. Because we only injured five people. And then next month, oh, we went a little bit worse. Instead of trying to stay away from… The human brain is amazing. Why not think of something good? Why don’t show people what good looks like? Give them something to aspire to. So, what I’ve done to Teams is after my presentation, when they are very much involved in their limbic brain and their feelings and emotions is out there, I will go into a session which I call the mission statement or whatever you want to call it.

It is to ask them as a group, as a team, what is the perfect day for them? And then we’ll write it on the board. They want respect and honesty and openness and all these things. And then I give them a sentence, we create a world in our industry that open and honest and through positive communication and these things. So, I show them what good looks like. I show them their perfect day at work. And then when they get in tomorrow morning and we ask them, is everyone is still aligned to your perfect day? In other words, we picked their value up and aligned it with the company values. Now that value is there. And when you think about something that you want to aspire to, which is good, then it comes naturally that you want to help your friend, your brother’s keeper. Those things just fall into place instead of trying to run away from the bad things and not let bad things happen. If I tell you there’s not a pink elephant behind me, it’s already in your mind. You know what I’m saying? It’s already there. So, if you tell them that that’s what your perfect day looks like, and I’ve done this to so many teams before, the culture which we touched on earlier switches immediately because now we’re looking at something great.

Let’s touch on another topic that you cover as well in your talks around ownership and accountability, which is important theme. You’re talking about your personal ownership in the circumstances, but there’s also the ownership, the accountability of leaders. Tell me a little bit about how you present this theme.

Yes, very important. I tie that into my presentation and my story as what I’ve said earlier is before we left my home country, I made a very stern agreement with my wife and my kids, people I love most in life. And I said to them, I will make sure that this agreement is that we will go over there and live a beautiful life. But I broke my agreement when I took my gloves off. And when I broke that, I had to own it. I remember my dad always said to me, if you can speak the truth in your vulnerability, you are within your power. I could not do anything else but speak the truth to everyone and said I did take my gloves off and I own it and I broke the agreement with the people I love most in life. Now at the end of the presentation, when I say, keep your agreements, that’s one of the six points. When you make an agreement with someone, if it’s a pre shift meeting in the morning or with your life, your kids, personal or work, if you keep that agreement, you become the proudest person in the world because of what you’ve done.

That creates accountability and ownership because you are now accountable for you, and you know why you do it because that’s what you want to keep. You want to keep, and you want to be a proud person in the world. That starts to form an accountability program, which in the morning you go back to, and you go, all right, is everyone still aligned with our perfect day? Can we make an agreement that everyone will go out there and conform to the regulatory authorities? Make sure that everyone is safe out there. And now we aspire to something good, we make the agreement that keeps you accountable for that. And then they will go out and look after each other because we are twisted and turned from going back to something what good looks like. I know it sounds a little harsh and quick right now, but I did write a book about it, me and Ken, so you can go and have a look at the book. It’s much better.

Very important theme. One last question, if I may. You touched on it briefly. You talked about rules, so cause evaluations, we find what happened, we create a new rule. And I agree, rules do need to exist. Rules are important. Safety at the end of the day is about adherence to rules. But you touched on something that’s really important is it’s not just about the rules. Because when you’re alone, and in this particular case, you’re pretty much alone because your friend wasn’t looking at you, so you didn’t really have a peer check. You need to buy in. You knew this was not the right thing to do. That was a cardinal rule that’s ingrained if you’re working next to a 22k V line. What does it take to drive the right choice? Rules are important, but you touched on something that’s really important here.

You just said it. It’s the buying. Our industry out there has now for the last 100 years, less than 100 years, fine-tuned our rules, our procedures, and from government side all the way down, it’s been there, and it will always be there. All the rules, all the systems, all the safety systems are there, but they are worth nothing without the buying. Absolutely nothing. And we need to create buying to these rules to understand and to give the people out there the chance to believe in the systems. Yes, I agree with you. They are important. They need to be there. I 100 % fine. But how do we create the buying? How do we get the guy downstairs, the 18-year-old just getting onto a site, or the guy that’s been there, that’s 40 years old. And I don’t know about your statistics, but the 40- to 45-year-olds in this country is the guys that get injured most because they think they’ve seen it all and then they get complacent and that’s one of these and convenient. So, the buying to these rules is absolutely paramount and we need to find a way how to get our people to buy into it.

I think I’ve broke the code and I know how to do it and I’ve seen, and I’ve proven that it can be done. Once you create the culture that supports the buying and everyone inspires to do something that is out there and that good looks like as a team and some camaraderie and your brother’s keeper, all these things come into play and the whole culture starts to shift. And that’s a beautiful thing to see. I’ve seen it many times before.

There’s somebody who was in the trade who told me once, and I don’t know if it’s true, but he said all the rules when it comes to electricity were written in blood. But if you follow all the rules that exist, there’s no reason to get seriously injured or to die. That basically, we know the universe of what we need to do. It’s just we need to actually consistently do it even when we encounter hookup issues, challenges.

True, true words. 100 % true words.

Yeah, love it. Theo, thank you so much for sharing your story. It’s a very powerful story. I still can’t wrap my head. I’m happy and thrilled that you survived 22 K Vs, 1,200 Amps. It’s surreal. But thank you for being here, for sharing your story. Incredibly powerful message. If somebody wants to get in touch with you, how can they do that?

I am just about to embark on a world tour next year. So, if you want to be part of that world tour, you can find me at So, it’s Theo, my last name is V E N T E You can find me there. I’m on Facebook and Instagram and all those sites and everything else. Also, on LinkedIn at Theo venter, so you can catch me on LinkedIn. Look out for me coming around maybe your area. I will be around the Canadian areas and all the way down. So, looking forward to coming and make a huge impact. If it’s only a presentation, that’s fine. I’ll come and inspire your team to walk away. But I also do a lot of other stuff in between as well. Coachable leadership training and those things.

Excellent. Thank you so much, Theo. Really appreciate you taking the time. I know you’ve got a big day in front of you in the outback, which is going to be considerably colder than summer up here.

Appreciate it. Thanks for having me.

Cheers. 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 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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Theo Venter is the only known survivor of a 22,000 volt electrical shock through the heart and shares his amazing story with audiences across the globe. When he removed his insulated gloves while working on a damaged transmission pole, he made a decision that would impact himself and his family in ways he couldn’t have imagined.

But why would an experienced liney make what hindsight would tell you was such a poor decision? Theo captures the precise moment he puts his insulated gloves between his knees and removed his hands. He shares his thoughts, his feelings and more importantly his motives leading up to the exact moment of impact. Co-Author of “Get Real: Staying Alive For A Living” and “Convenience Kills”, Theo is a seasoned veteran who will assist your Managers and Leaders and every Member of your team, to truly understand the ‘real’ psychology of incidents—with first-hand experience.

Theo will make you discover something about yourself you didn’t know. About your innate human nature. That although taking risks is normal and inherent in every human being, you could potentially be the next fatality at your workplace. That’s why it’s important to talk about it and bring it out in the open. By allowing Theo to share his story, people are impacted in a way that they are reminded of what can go horribly wrong when they take a shortcut.

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