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As the holiday season reminds us of what truly matters, we are honored to feature Helen Fitzroy on The Safety Guru as she shares her moving message that will carry us through the holidays and beyond. Her husband, Steve, experienced a workplace fatality in an underground mining incident in 1991. Her story isn’t just one of personal tragedy but a call to action for all of us. Tune in as Helen advocates for a safer tomorrow with her unwavering commitment to safety, dedicated to ensuring that no other family has to endure what she went through.
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Real leaders leave a legacy. They capture the hearts and minds of their teams. Their origin story puts the safety and well-being of their people first. Great companies ubiquitously have safe yet productive operations. For those companies, safety is an investment, not a cost, for the C-suite. It’s a real topic of daily focus. This is The Safety Guru with your host, Eric Michrowski, a globally recognized ops and safety guru, public speaker, and author. Are you ready to leave a safety legacy? Your legacy success story begins now.
Hi, and welcome to The Safety Guru. Today, I’m very excited to have you with me Helen Fitzroy. She’s a safety advocate, an author, and a writer, as well as a miners’ widow. I’m really happy to have you join us, Helen. You’ve got an incredible story to share regarding the positive contribution you’ve made to safety. But I think maybe let’s start first with Steve’s story.
Thanks very much, Eric, and thanks for having me on the show. Thirty-two years ago, my husband, Steve, went to work underground. He didn’t come home. I was left with three little kids under the age of seven and basically stuck with a new title, Widow, which didn’t impress me very much. Then the whole journey began of how do I traverse this? A couple of years before Steve’s death, one of his really good mates, who was also a very experienced miner who worked at the same mine, refused to go to work on this particular shift because the particular supervisor had asked him to work under unsupported ground, and he refused to. They sent a young, inexperienced 21-year-old in there, and tragically, he was killed. Just five months before Steve’s death, another very good mate of his, who was also an experienced minor working at the same mine, fell down a ladderway underground and was seriously injured. He had compound fractures in both of his legs, along with some external injuries. He had to get elected out to Perth by the flying doctor, had two little kids under the age of three, and so he spent 12 months up in Perth having intensive rehab.
Wow. Leading up to all of that, there were some concerns, and Steve used to often come home and talk to me about his concerns. I suggested, how about we take a couple of weeks off, and we can go up to Perth to see how your mate’s going? We did. We shot off to Perth, had a couple of weeks, and caught up with his mate. He was back at work a week, exactly a week when he was killed. That’s when it all started.
He was raising concerns with you. He saw those trends, and I think this is the part in often cases like that. There are signal signs. How was the organization receiving this feedback? Because they’ve had a fatality, serious injuries, a very short period of time.
It’s probably worth also mentioning that he was considered—and we’re talking we were living in a mining town. It wasn’t a very big mining town. There was a whole… In the gold fields, there are a whole lot of little mining towns that probably had a population of 34,000 people max. He was considered in that particular mining town, probably the most experienced, the best, and the most safety-conscious minor. He consistently would come home and say to me because he would go and voice his concerns to the management, and they would say to him, What’s the matter, Fitzy? Aren’t you earning enough? They basically just deride him. There was no… It was a joke. That was frustrating. My advocacy is really based on if there’d been somebody out there that was going to stand up and assert themselves and tell people a story about this is what can happen. Perhaps you might have had a second thought about actually not going there anymore, going somewhere else. The thing is, in terms of when you asked me about management and what their views were, I was talking to a mine inspector a few years later. He had come out from South Africa, and he’d worked in the adjoining town to where we were, about 40 minutes down the road, another little mining town about the same size.
He said that when he arrived there, and he had extensive experience in South Africa, even though he was an English guy, he said that the company, which was the same company that was managing the mine that Steve worked in, would budget for seven fatalities a year. Seven? Just there, seven. My goodness. He said they generally achieved their target. That’s horrible. I know back then; fatalities were just a normal part of business doing business. It’s cheaper, really, to kill somebody at work than it is to permanently disable them because you know what you’re dealing with. It’s cut and dried. Whereas a permanent disability it could be, well, how long is this going to go on for what other… There’s that uncertainty about what the cost may end up being. Yeah, that was the culture then.
One of the things you advocate about safety is to remember the people we come home for. Tell me a little bit more about some of the messages you share.
Well, since Steve’s death in Australia, there’s been 506 more fatalities. 506 fatalities in mining. That’s 471 kids who’ve lost their dad, 100 widows. Now, that doesn’t take into account the parents, the siblings, the mates. It also doesn’t take into account those who’ve lost their lives through a work-related illness or disease. I think when I’ve looked at the stats for Canada, you’re not far behind. I think I tallied, and it may not be totally correct because I don’t have all the stats, but I think it was about 478 in the same time frame in Canada. That’s disgusting. After Steve’s death, it was probably around about ten years later when I first started traveling out to sites, talking to people. I was inundated with all of these phone calls and messages. On average data, I was getting about six a week, people asking questions. How long will that report take? How do I find this out? From families and workers. I started to make contact with agencies to say, well, what do you offer? How can you help? I can see the data and the pamphlets you’ve written and things, but they’re all doubling up, or the information is wrong.
I met with a lot of the regulatory bodies and agencies to try and encourage them to establish a support network for families following a situation like this. They didn’t think it was necessary, so I did it myself in the end, and I left a not-for-profit with the backing of a fairly big mining company here, BHP, with their support. But my conditions were that it had to be totally independent of any particular company, political party, or union. It couldn’t have any vested interests. That was established in 2010, and it’s still going strong. Yeah, it’s still going strong. I’m not as involved as I once was anymore. They’re doing fine without me. Yeah, it’s good to know that there’s now somewhere people can go to seek assistance. It might be financial, it might be just emotional, it might be a whole range of things, practical assistance to help them through that process because there was nothing when Steve was killed.
Absolutely nothing. The company didn’t step up either on that.
No, they didn’t. That wasn’t unusual back then. I know that even my husband was a member of the local union. They were disinformed as well. Everybody’s performance was inadequate. I think things have come a long way since then, though, and I think they’re a lot more tuned in now that people expect more. Yeah, we had to bundle our way through. I had to find my way through by myself, really.
In an environment where they were budgeting seven fatalities, it was.
A process. It was something that I accepted. That’s horrible.
Then to put up with the legal, five-year legal battle, where there was just—and I’m not just blaming the company, I’m talking about the insurers and the lawyers and just constantly delaying and ridiculous ploys that they would use to try and deter. Go away. Just go away, will you? I was determined not to do that. I was determined to stick to it. I felt I owed Steve that to get to the bottom of it, and eventually, I did. But it was a long battle, and that still happens today. I’m still in touch with many families who are still going through that process. It’s a struggle.
You share the message with the people that you speak to, but you also have a message for leaders.
Yeah, I do.
Tell me a little bit about your message for leaders in this case.
Well, I understand I appreciate, as a leader, that there’s a lot of significant data that crosses their desk on a daily basis, whether it’s budget issues, whether it’s related to production targets, whether it’s related to deadlines and staffing. I accept the significance and importance of all that information. But the point that I’d like to make is that in acknowledging the importance of all of that for a viable business, that has to happen. But behind every single decision that they’re making, whatever it may be, there’s generally a human being attached that may or may not be impacted in a negative way by that information. I would implore them all to consider carefully every decision that they make to ensure that there aren’t going to be any unforeseen circumstances. it won’t be them, but somebody else might be impacted negatively by the decision that they make.
What does that translate? Ultimately, I agree it’s understanding that there’s a person behind the paper, the decision. The further away you are from the decision-making, from the sight, from the work, the easier it is to separate yourself and your actions. In an event, it becomes very easy to disassociate yourself because you don’t want to have to carry the responsibility. You push that burden to somebody else.
Absolutely. You’ve nailed it because that’s exactly what happens. If you’re sitting in an ivory chair in the middle of the CPD somewhere and you’re making decisions and you’re looking at that promotion that may come next month, if you produce the goods, of course, the pressure is going to be on there for you to perform and to do things that perhaps it might be impressive at a board level, but at the front line, at the coal face, there could be somebody who’s going to be impacted by that decision that you haven’t considered. I suppose it’s just about being a little bit more aware of how that decision that you make while you’re sitting in the comfort of your cushy office might impact somebody down the track. It may not always be that easy to determine, particularly when you’re looking at production targets and things like that, where workers are often rewarded if they reach particular targets. They’re given bonuses and things. What happens? If you’re going to encourage a bonus mentality, you’re going to encourage people to take risks. You’re going to encourage them to do maybe things that they otherwise wouldn’t. Those sorts of cultural norms, I think, can create issues as well.
Absolutely. When you mentioned this, I had a guest on the podcast a few months back, and he talked about one: the complexity and safety is when you save a penny on every dollar, it probably won’t have a financial… It will have a financial consequence but probably won’t have a safety impact.
But, that second penny, probably not. Then there’s a temptation of just, Well, what about the third, the fourth, the fifth penny? But at some point, something breaks, and you never really know which penny it was, but It’s really understanding the chain of causality. Also, the element he brought up was that the closer you are, and you have proximity to the site to the people that are working, the more you’re making better decisions, the more you’re disconnected, staying in an Ivy tower, no pictures of the team members that are doing the work, never been there, it becomes a transactional balance sheet decision.
Yeah. I think also with that comes an added… It can be quite problematic for contractors. You can have the client and engage contractors to come in and do a lot of the work for them. Most of the time, when they do that, it is the coal-faced, front-line, hard stuff that they’re doing. They have to ensure that they meet their budget constraints. They also have to make sure because they want the tender. They want the next tender as well. The pressure is always on them, probably more so than the client’s employees, to perform and produce the goods because otherwise, there’ll be no tender.
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We talked about the paper. Every paper matters. You touched on before that items were raised. There were signs. Organizations need to be looking for those signs or symptoms and not say, squeaky wheel, but trying to understand. Sometimes, you may have somebody who is a squeaky wheel who complains about everything. Oh, yeah, they’re at the – But how do I really see those? But there are a lot of others that are not complaining, and that surface an issue. Or even the person who complains, there will sometimes be some real legitimate pieces. How can people help triage through all of this to take action? Because this was clearly a case where there were enough signs and symptoms to say actions were needed.
Well, I think it comes back to good communication and leadership. Good communication and leadership means trust and respect. In the hundreds of sites I’ve been to over the years, I could virtually walk into a muster room where they’re doing their training or be in there and watch the crews walk in and predict who the good leaders are just by the body language of the crew as they walk in. That says a lot to me. It’s played out numerous times where you can just tell by the way the guys are communicating with one another, the way they’re walking, the way they’re… You can read the play. I think if we have good, supportive, respectful leaders who can communicate with every crew member, no matter what their little idiosyncrasies are, then you’re going to have the morale is going to be good. If morale is good, you’re going to be productive and safe. To me, it all comes down to selecting carefully the leaders that you choose. Look, leadership starts at the top. They say, Fish stinks from the head down. If you haven’t got a supportive leadership team at the top, you’re never going to get it at the.
Ground level. But even if you have a supportive leadership team at the top, it doesn’t always translate to the ground level because it has to be embedded in the selection process. It has got to be that if I find that you’re not showing up this way, I do something about it, and I act on it fast because we have that dialog on a regular basis in terms of who is a good safety leader, that I act on it.
Yeah, and you’re dead right. I’ve been to numerous sites that have been run by the same company, and the culture is different for everyone. It’s not just the top team. It comes down to who’s running the show here and what attitude they have towards safety, and to our workers, and the morale of our team. What do they rate as significant to our guys on site? It was really mind-boggling to me that I could go to five different sites, all run by the same company, yet the safety culture was different at every one of them.
I think it’s an important point you bring up because I often advocate that, yes, you may have one culture, but there can be a lot of subcultures that exist. Not wrapping your head around these subcultures can be really a blind spot. Because you may be 90% good, but you may have a bad side. I remember I had a couple of years back, somebody on this podcast who worked for an organization he acknowledged had a very positive safety culture. But he raised an issue. In his small location, which was a very small, remote rural area, it was a utility. When he raised a concern, which later proved to be a serious injury that happened, he was told both by the union leader and the local management, are you a man or a mouse? In other words, go do the thing, don’t complain, and literally, shortly thereafter, get seriously injured. The organization as a whole was good, but obviously, there were pockets of leadership in the union and management that shouldn’t have been there. I think where you’re bringing up is really this element of you got to know, and you got to act on those differences.
That’s hard. It’s one of those things that you’re probably getting inevitable that you’re going to get those pockets everywhere. There’s some that just slip through the hoop, and they’re out there, and they’re macho men who… I’ve seen them. I know they’re out there. You’d just like to think there’s someone a little bit higher than them. It’s going to pull them into gear every now and again. But it’s a sad reality.
I know when we first connected, you touched on a theme that is very near and dear to me, which is the difference between safety as a core value versus safety as a priority. There is a clear difference. Some speak of it as a priority. Some talk about it as a value. Tell me a little bit about what that means and the importance of that.
Well, it started to evolve way back when I first started traveling out to the site, and it didn’t seem to matter, particularly, I think, in the first couple of years. I went to every jurisdiction in Australia. It didn’t seem to matter where I went. In that first couple of years, somebody, usually within the management team or supervisor, would come up to me in conversation and say something along the lines of, we make safety our number one priority here. Now, with all due respect, and this is just my personal opinion, that’s just bullshit. Priorities always get shifted. If you make something a priority, you’ve given it a shelf life in my eyes. It can only be a priority until something more important comes along. That’s the nature of the world we now live in. That’s why it has to be a value. It has to be embedded, endemic, and intrinsic to every single thing that you do. You can’t just pick it off and on when you’ve got time, or when someone’s watching, or when you’ve got the resources. You take it home with you. It’s all the things in your life that you value. I think we need to encourage from the top down because we want to ensure that we have a genuine, consistent commitment from every single leader in the organization to ensure every single person on that site goes home safely.
Actions speak louder than words.
But I think it links back to what you shared before is if people are raising concerns, raising issues, if it’s a value and it’s really understood like that, then people wouldn’t close their eyes to it, neglect it, it’d be really core to understand it.
That’s right. That’s right. The quote that I came up with after that little encounter, after numerous encounters, was if safety were a core value in my workplace, there’d be no need to prioritize it. You can hear people say over and over and over again. I still hear it when I go out to the sights. Look, safety is our number one priority here. Well, look, I know you probably mean well, but just rethink that, will you? Because you have to be realistic, and you’ve got to do it a different way. It can’t be priorities inevitably get shifted, and so I’d prefer that they rephrase that.
But I think the consequences are much more than rephrasing. It’s also how people show up. Because I’ve seen it in organizations where it’s the number one priority, and then they have the strategic imperatives for the next five years, and safety is not on the chart, and then somebody raises their hands, say, shouldn’t safety be there? They’re like, Oh, right. Because it’s not a dialog at the C-suite, it’s not a value. It’s not something that people are evaluated on. It’s not reinforced day in and day out, and so it gets forgotten.
You’re right. One of the really interesting things that I’ve discovered over the years is I’ve noticed on the media online that when there’s a fatality, the company might come out. They’ll report that there’s been an incident, and tragically, somebody’s life has been taken, and we’re supporting the family, and we’re doing this. We’re supporting our colleagues, and whatever, then the last sentence will usually be the daily share price. Now to me, I have real issues with that being in the same article. Now, whether that’s the fault of the journalist who’s throwing it together or whatever, it seems to be a consistent pattern that I find quite offensive that you’re talking about the welfare of somebody who’s gone through a tragic experience or the loss of life, and then at the bottom, you’ve got the share price. The two don’t go together, in my view, and never will. Right.
The last topic I’d like to touch on is boom versus bust. Mining is probably more extreme than a lot of other industries. What’s the impact of boom versus bust in mining and safety?
Well, I guess back in the mid-2000s here in Australia, and I don’t know whether this was a global thing, but definitely in Australia, there was a boom. Every company is scrambling for more employees. They want to get that stuff out of the ground as quickly as possible. It got to the stage where they were employing people. One supervisor that I spoke to out on the side in the goldfield said to me, Basically, all you need to get a job in the mines now is you need to be standing vertically and breathing. That was how it was. He said that he had had a busload of young guys that he picked up from the airport, and one of them, he said, What’s your job? What are you coming out here to do? He said, oh, I’m going to drive a truck. This is an underground mine. Have you ever driven a truck? Have you ever been underground? He said, How the hell do I manage and supervise these young guys? That was the circumstance in the boom, and I saw it firsthand. Then, around 2015, there was a downturn. Actually, throughout that mid-2,000 boom period, in five years, we had 101 fatalities in the industry.
That indicates to me if you look at a graph, you can see the spike. Then back, moving on a decade, 2015, there was a downturn and people getting laid off. Other employees were expected to wear two and do the same job. The pressure was on in terms of we still need to get this stuff out of the ground, but we’re going to have to do it more economically without as many people. Then you start getting people taking shortcuts, people are their morale was low. The same old pattern comes back again, increasing incidents and increasing fatalities as well. It’d be just really nice if they could find an even keel instead of… But I don’t think that’s how the industry works.
It’s hard because there are definitely peaks and valleys, and mining is probably one of those top peaks and valleys industries. Definitely, yeah. The element, though, I have definitely seen in mining where in valleys where the economy is not strong, sites get shut down, and locations get shut down. I’ve seen it where the narrative started changing that safety is not physical safety but it’s putting food on my family’s table. That becomes very dangerous because they associate the mines that weren’t as successful and that were shut down were maybe safer minds but less productive minds. Then they start rewiring that safety actually gets in the way of my personal safety, which is putting food on my family’s table. That becomes very dangerous. But I’ve also seen other organizations that were… Kola was an example where there was an end date, either a mine site or a generation site. Things continued very well because the leader was really focusing until the last day; we will be safe. Part of it is also the choice of knowing that even if we won’t be here forever, how do I lead in that context?
Yeah, that’s right. That comes back to leadership and the culture that they established and set, and that everybody feels comfortable to have buy-in. Because if you don’t get buy-in from the employees that are there on-site, you can Sprout what you like. But if they don’t feel that they can trust or believe what you’re saying, that’s where actions speak louder than words. If you’re demonstrating that that’s your commitment, then you will get by. I think too often, the guys on site roll their eyes, and here we go again. That tells you a lot about the culture that’s established there. I think what you were demonstrating by your example is what every company should aspire to.
There are ways to hire maybe in advance of a boom—you can’t perfectly time it—but you’re not desperate at the last minute to take anybody. There are ways to recruit higher-quality talent. There are ways to invest in better training if you know there are going to be gaps because of who you’re able to get. There are mitigations to a lot of these elements, but it’s just being aware of it and recognizing it because, in both cases, it can have very negative effects.
Yeah, for sure. The other issue, too, is that if you’re putting… I refer back to the boom here in the mid-2000s, where you could walk off the street and get a job. A lot of these were young kids, really, late teens, early 20s who, Yeah, I want to get in there. I want to get some good, serious money. I want to. But if something happens to them, there’s no return other than for the families. Mom and Dad at home. They can’t sue the company. You can have a common law claim, but there’s no payment made to families or whatever unless you’re a dependent. For young, single guys who don’t have any dependents, which most of them don’t, there’s no comeback. There’s no comeback. It’s advantageous to employ young, single guys or girls because there’s no litigation forthcoming other than from the regulator, who might decide that your practices weren’t any good. But as far as the loved ones, nothing. There have been numerous examples of families that I’ve spoken to. One instance was a family from Brooklyn Hill, and the dad worked 30 years in the mines underground, and his son was killed in WA.
The company were fined $50,000. Now, this is a big Australian company that everybody globally has heard of. They were disgusted and really totally offended that their son’s life was worth $50,000. Now, they didn’t get that money. That just went into the coffers for the state regulator. But it’s an insult to think that with all of these issues that were found to be so inadequate, where he was working, that they were fined $50,000. There are numerous similar stories to that. Every life is valuable.
Absolutely. Ellen, thank you so much for joining me on the show today. Thank you for your advocacy for safety, but also for the families of those that lose a loved one. If somebody wants to get in touch with you, what’s the best way to do that?
Well, they can email me. I have a website too, so either email me or go to my website and send me a message going to be great. Excellent. Thank you so much, Helen.
Thank you. Cheers. Take care. Bye.
Thank you. Bye.
Thank you for listening to The Safety Guru on C-suite radio. Leave a legacy. Distinguish yourself from the path. Grow your success. Capture the hearts and minds of your teams. Elevate your safety. Like every successful athlete, top leaders continuously invest in their safety leadership with an expert coach to boost safety performance. Begin your journey at execsafetycoach.com. Come back in two weeks for the next episode with your host, Eric Michrowski. This podcast is powered by Propulo Consulting.
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ABOUT THE GUEST
Helen Fitzroy’s passion for workplace safety commenced following the death of her husband, Steve, in an underground mining accident in Norseman, WA, in 1991. The accident left Helena a widow in her early thirties with three young children to raise. At the time of Steve’s death, mining fatalities were largely ‘normalized’ by companies and government regulators. The deaths were considered an inherent risk of the industry, with virtually no support offered to families to enable them to move forward with their lives.
One of Helen’s coping strategies was writing. She wrote to her husband, Steve, but also to herself and her children leading to the publishing of her first book some years later, “Just a Number.”
“Just a Number” outlines her family’s journey in the five years following Steve’s death, as they traversed the quagmire of emotional, legal, and bureaucratic processes that constitute life for a bereaved family following a workplace death.
Since writing “Just a Number,” Helen has been traveling extensively across Australia as well as overseas campaigning for improved safety and better support for bereaved families. She also delivers safety-focused presentations to companies across all sectors, highlighting the importance of both parties’ commitment to safety at work.
Helen’s commitment and passion culminated in the establishment of Miners’ Promise in 2010. Miners’ Promise is a not-for-profit organization established to provide emotional and practical support to members and their families following a crisis event such as a death, illness, or serious accident.
Helen served as a Director on the Miners’ Promise Board for several years, including a number of years as Chairperson. A qualified grief counselor, Helen continues close association with the organization providing family support advisory services to members.
Helen is a recipient of a WA Local Hero of the Year Award, a category of the Australian of the Year awards. She continues to speak prolifically to corporations across all industry sectors and provides ongoing grief counseling to families coping with the loss of a loved one.
For more information: www.helenfitzroy.com.au
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