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Making Safety Personal: Connecting with the Front-Line with Chris Yerikian



This week we are in conversation with Chris Yerikian who shares some experiences in making safety more personal to connect with front line team members on a more emotional level to increase safety involvement and participation. From front line leaders and team members sharing their personal ‘why’ for staying safe to turning into habits and reinforcing the theme on an ongoing basis to deliver safety outcomes, Chris shares his successes.


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 The 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. My name is Eric Michrowski, your host. And today, I’m very excited to have with me Chris Yerikian. He’s from Southern California. We’ve been in health and safety for well over five years, speaks at a conference, always be speaking at a conference very soon on the topic he’s going to presenting as well today to us. So, Chris, welcome to the show. You’ve had a background in health and safety, and before that, you were in the movie industry now mostly in the food distribution space. So, I’d love to hear a little bit about how you got from movies to safety and how you got your passion for the safety space. Eric, super happy to be here. Thank you. So, I worked in the movie theater industry. I actually started doing that in high school and kind of moved up the ladder a little bit within the independent theater space and Sokal. Yeah. And I started doing that managing. And then I was actually majoring in philosophy pre-law. And I wanted to become a lawyer. But I met somebody I met someone who actually was an industrial hygienist. And I was going to the same university he had gone to. And he showed me the program he had taken, told me the kind of work he does, the different companies he’s work for, and just the intricacy of the industry. And I looked more into it, and I was like, you know what this is? This is great. I didn’t even know this industry or this type of profession existed. So, I changed majors, and yep, took a little longer to graduate, but it ended up working out, and that’s how I ended up in safety. And that’s amazing. And we’ve talked about before, one of the realizations that you had is really the importance of focusing on motivation for safety. Tell me a little bit more about kind of where we’re that kind of realization came and some of your thoughts around it. So, I did notice early on when I got into the industry that it was and rightfully so, it was heavily focused on a scientific approach and metrics and trying to follow regulation to the T. And that works great for a lot of life safety. But it’s not that great when it comes to stuff like behavior and more subjective injuries that take place in the workplace. And I had one incident where I was following up with an employee who had a relatively severe back injury, but nothing too major. And when I was speaking with him, he told me that he couldn’t pick up his newborn baby as a result of an injury because it hurt too much. And I got to thinking. That is a powerful motivator, but most people don’t really have that realization before something happens, right. So, I got to thinking how effective would it be to have them tap into that emotion and into a motivator at that level to alter their behavior, to prevent injuries and develop habits that prevent injuries beforehand? Right. Absolutely. Because at the end of the day, a precursor to the behavior that you’re going to exhibit that’s going to keep you safe or unsafe is going to be your attitudes. You believe your mindset around safety and safety, something that it’s a rule that otherwise I’ll get into trouble, or is it something that keeps me away from harm or is it something that’s investment in the future? And to the things that I want to experience with the people that matter to me and so forth. So, you really focusing on that kind of precursor is going to have a significant impact? Couldn’t agree more. And so, tell me a little bit more in terms of how you’ve leveraged this. Right. So that was a great story, a great example. Kind of tapped into something this person could do. Tell me a little bit about what were you able how are you able to leverage that? So initially, what I started to do is get face time with a lot of employees within the workplace, just anything it starts out simple, making sure to talk to them, how their weekend is going, how their family. And then you develop a rapport and you’re like you’re like you mentioned, just following the rules, even with that approach isn’t going to cut it. So, they have to really tap into their why. And one tool in that space is the way I work. Safe border display. So, I. Implemented this tool, and for those that don’t know the way I work, safe display is you essentially are getting employees to think about why it is that they decide to work safe at work. Because at a fundamental level, if you think about why people go to work, it’s essentially to make a living, to have the means to do the things you love with the people and you love to do them with. So why WorkSafe really tries to incorporate that personal element into the workplace so they would bring photos or videos of whatever their ways. For example, for me, I love to do Spartan races, OK? And if I end up getting injured at work, that’s going to prevent me from doing that thing that I love to do outside of work. So, I better stay in one piece. For most people, it’s going to be their family is their motivation. Right? So, they’ll bring photos of their family, their kids, their friends. Some people love to travel, and if they’re injured or hurt as a result of their work, then they can’t travel. They can’t go to Disney World and Disneyland, and they can’t do their recreational activities. So that was really the premise behind it. Interesting. And can you share maybe a little bit about some of the stories and some of the successes around the way I worked, because definitely you view this quite a bit. I think it’s very powerful use as well, even in terms of video messaging campaign to really reinforce those themes of why am I doing this, really trying to shift it from it’s a rule to it’s an investment to really what matters to me. Tell me a little bit about some of the stories, some of the successes you’ve had within the organization around this. So initially, I was a little nervous, that man, what if they don’t want to participate and people don’t want to share their photos and be put on display, but I was shocked how eager everyone was to participate at the beginning. I think, for the most part, people like attention to a certain degree. So, or even recognition. Right. Seeing their picture and seeing their families pictures up, it’s an inspirational thing to look at. So that was the first piece. The engagement and then wanting to participate was huge. And at a relatively quick time, I started noticing the activities, started to build up the real activities that yield results at work. Right. All of a sudden, we had more hazard reporting going on. People were mentioning issues and pointing out things that could potentially be problems at work that they were they weren’t before. We noticed that when we were doing observations on certain work methods in the workplace and to see if they were following proper behaviors, that we saw a huge uptick in them wanting to do it the right way and not just because their manager or supervisor was there watching them do it, for example. Interesting. And did you have to draw the linkages between, say, why WorkSafe and some of the behaviors we want to see, like the observations, like in terms of the safety participation, in terms of team members volunteering hazards and trying to find ways to improve the workplace safety? Or do that happen naturally? While we when we first implemented, we didn’t really know what the reaction was going to be or what kind of results we were going to get, so ultimately, it did happen naturally. And then, as time went on, we did try to link, and it depends what industry you’re in. Right. One sort of behavior in one industry is not relevant in another. So, we did really try and focus on that. But it was really there. The effect it really had was just their motivation and the emotional connection they had with personal life being affected by whatever activities they did at work. And that motivation is what ultimately helped them drive the behavior instead of kind of forcing them to have a repetition-based building of a habit. It was the personal choice they made to want to build this habit, which is way more powerful in my opinion. And we did some to a decline. Yeah, we saw a decline in OSHA recordable incident rate over the course of 19 months. We cut it by half. That’s phenomenal. And how did you keep reinforcing those boards? Because what I’ve seen in some organizations is they go and they lost something they created and then it doesn’t get turned into a habit where we revisit everything and eventually you start forgetting about that link. So how have you brought those boards? So, they become part of daily life within the organization. So, we put them up on a display where it’s mostly visual or it’s mostly visible and so everybody would see it. It was we put it on a digital display so it would roll on a slide show. And what we did is once a quarter, every three months, we would go back to all those folks that had posted a picture or a video, and we asked them if they had anything new, if they want to refresh it. And then we would also go to different departments and do one specific to them as well. And a lot of folks they’re really excited to swap up their photos and show something new. It’s kind of like having an Instagram at work, and everybody is excited to show you how to show their photos and what new activities they’ve been doing. So, we also gave out rewards for anybody who participated above and beyond. You know, they would get a company hat or a sweater or something like that, which was just a little something extra to drive participation. That’s excellent. And other organizations I’ve seen where it becomes a Yagmur type field like you mentioned, the Instagram type approach, but where people are constantly kind of sending refreshers of almost activity activities is what I did this this weekend with my family. And that’s why I stay safe. So, it becomes almost a daily ritual or even embedded into Stanishev meetings. In terms of a reminder refresher, let’s talk about a couple of the people, the wise I say safe and in daily refreshers or in one case, one organization. I know even they are creating movies of the evolution of their life as they saw this the other day where somebody had done a storyboard essentially starting from when they first got married to then they had kids and how it evolved and now they have grandkids. Essentially the evolution as they stayed within the organization of their why they say safe. And they were super proud about it, which I thought was phenomenal. Wow, that’s awesome. Yeah, that sounds amazing. I probably might start doing that myself. Here we go. Because you got a 30-year employee where they started with 20, 30 years ago is actually cool because it was really showing how their Wii is becoming more important as there, they’ve gained more seniority within the organization. They’ve got a lot more ways for safety, which is a really cool story they even had in this particular movie they had had. And this is a not a movie theater is somebody who just decided this is what I’m going to do in my spare time. He even had, I think it was his daughter, granddaughter sing a theme song that kind of linked the whole thing throughout, which is like to me it’s above and beyond. Like there’s a theme song that’s been created and sung by one of the personal, really important people in their lives that they got tucked in. So that’s like a phenomenal way to go all the way. And I think, yeah, that’s awesome. They get it. That’s great. They absolutely get it. Obviously, that was a try. Number one, that was probably after a few times were different people doing that. It became almost a competition. So, tell me a little bit about how you were able to get buy-in from leaders and also front workers, because that’s that sometimes in some organizations that can be a shift to start saying, OK, we’re going from a real base of enforcement approach to starting to think about more the Y, the Q, the elements of what really matters. How are you being able to convince leaders may be first and then how you got frontline team members is selling the frontline team members. That was a pretty easy participation piece, but I love to hear your thoughts and put all that. So, actually I approached the leaders with the exact same wire work, say first. So, the leaders in the organization actually were the first ones to participate. And we could again; I wasn’t sure if the frontline workers were going to want to participate. And I thought having leaders do it first would be motivation enough. And the same thing, the leaders, they did not object to it at all. They were all in from the get-go. They brought their photos. And when you’re having those conversations, it’s the same kind of conversations you have with the leaders as you would with the front-line associates. Right. And you say is just like, you know, leaders feel that they are more attuned to being safe at work than a front-line associate might be just because they’re in a leadership role and they want to be a role model. But they think of it, again from the perspective of work that they have to set the example. But having that approach, that this is still tied to our personal lives, there’s an emotional connection here. And we come to work, and we do what we do to have the means to enjoy life outside of here. And safety is a foundational component of that. So, bringing that to the leaders really makes sense to them. And then it’ll funnel down to the front-line associates because with any program you do or the leadership; the leadership should definitely be participating in the program first before you even present it to front-line associates. Yeah, I think it certainly reinforces it matters. I think we’re where I’ve certainly seen maybe even leaders go above and beyond and have had conversations with them is really even getting them to start thinking about their wife for safety. So just why I stay safe, but why safety actually matters to me. And I know I’ve had a lot of success. He was just having conversations with leaders around it, helping them craft their story, their narrative, and what does it really matter to them? And because I’ve never seen a great safety leader that didn’t have a very strong conviction, a certain strong why it has to be something that’s personal. And I’ve had some amazing stories around the years and I’d say shared with teams. Right. Because then you’re saying I want you to do more. So, this is why I stay safe. But why safety really matters to them is even the next evolution. So, then you’re saying, I want you as well to do this. And I’ve heard stories around servant leadership, around people who were saying my stories about their dad and how their dad was a servant leader and then how they inspire them. And they were like really full of emotion, like almost a Hollywood story. But it was a real story to people that had suffered their loss in a work environment. And they never promised on my shift were on my watch. And it just ties into this is why I stay safe. This is why you stay safe. And this is why I’m asking you to make that extra effort for it, because it also matters to me. Exactly, yup, and, you know, leaders that they can get caught up in the KPIs of the company, right? Their numbers, whether it’s sales or operational efficiency, they will always see safety as kind of an impediment to achieving those KPI numbers. But if you take that, let’s call it the EU approach. If you use your IQ and engage leaders in that way, just like you mentioned, the KPIs, as a result, they’ll just follow it. Just it happens as a result. Exactly. I couldn’t agree more. And I think it just has to be consistent as people see the leaders show up in that particular way. Team members are flexing actually safety something for me; I’m not doing it for somebody else. I’m doing it for myself and for the things that matter to me. I think the only weird one I’ve ever had is I had one person when I say, what do you say, safe? And they came up with a picture of a refrigerator. I’m like, I’m not sure you want to tell that to your wife. You care for more than your wife. I have somebody. Coxon Sorry about that. Yeah, somebody. I had brought me a photo of footage they had taken with their drone. And I was like, hey, that’s if that’s your motivation. If you want to be able to fly or drones, it works for me. If it does, it’s whatever is your passion and you love that. That’s really what really matters. He ended up telling me afterwards that the reason why the refrigerator was his picture is because and I don’t know if this was a cop out answer afterwards is because the refrigerator was why he was working to feed his family and yadda. So that was the symbolic element of it. I’m like, OK, I think it’s probably better if you had a picture of your wife and your kids versus a refrigerator, but I’ll leave that to you to decide if he was; he was trying to be artsy with it, I guess. I guess they were perfect. Well, really appreciate you sharing your story, your examples, any other kind of closing thoughts you embraced. It sounds like get some pretty phenomenal successes by tapping into there. Why any other kind of thoughts or somebody who is thinking about doing something like this, making safety more personal within their teams? Yeah, I mean, it kind of goes without saying, you know, this is no substitute for doing the boots on the ground work, right. And you still have to have comprehensive training, good investigation processes, a good orientation, corrective actions. So, you do all that. But what this helps is with the engagement piece and getting leaders and front-line associates to participate in that process, because, you know, we can sometimes feel like we’re on an island, especially if you’re part of a smaller organization. So having buy in from everybody and using this approach to get that engagement will really help drive those boots on the ground initiative that really yields those daily results that we are looking for. Great. Well, Chris, thank you very much for joining me today for presenting this concept to on the show, phenomenal idea. Thank you for sharing this and conferences to spark ideas and other organizations. I definitely hope other organizations start thinking about personalizing safety to the workers, the team members, because that’s really what’s going to drive the motivations around safety. Yep, for sure. Thank you so much, Eric. Thanks for having me. This was super fun, and I really appreciate you actually doing this podcast and bringing more awareness and education to the field. 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 team—fuel your future. Come back in two weeks for the next episode or listen to our sister show with the Ops guru, Eric Michrowski.

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Chris has been in the EHS field since 2016 and received his undergrad from Cal State Northridge in Environmental and Occupational Health. Prior to EHS, he managed movie theaters for an independent chain in Southern California. After transitioning to EHS, he worked in the aerospace and food distribution industry. He is currently working to gain ground on using emotions and EQ to establish an engagement-based approach to behavior-based safety.