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Coming Home Safely: Advocating Safety First, Last, and Always with Dr. Lana Cormie

Coming Home Safely: Advocating Safety First, Last, and Always

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“Safety is the most important part of your job.” Tune in as Dr. Lana Cormie shares her heartfelt and moving story of navigating life after losing her husband in a workplace incident in 2018. She passionately advocates for improving safety and enhancing an intentional culture of safety in the workplace through ongoing training on the job and prioritizing the reporting of hazards, concerns, and near misses. Lana reminds us of the importance of keeping safety at the forefront and empowering team members to become safety advocates in the workplace, ensuring everyone goes home safely at the end of every workday.

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

Hi, and welcome to the Safety Guru. Today, I’m very excited to have with me Dr Lana Cormie, who’s joining us from Australia and who’s a safety speaker. Lana, welcome to the show. Very excited to have you with me today.

Thanks for having me along.

Absolutely. Tell me a little bit about your story.

I guess if we start from before, I feel like my life is split into two halves these days, the before and after. So, prior to 2018, I would say that I had a pretty great life with my family. I was married to Charlie, my husband, and we had two young children who at that time were one and three. And we were living on 40 acres in country Victoria, the south of Australia. And we, I guess, had bought our forever home. And it was very run down. We were working to improve it, both the house and the acreage. And I guess we had moments where we thought to ourselves, we’re pretty lucky, how great is this? We’ve got two healthy children. We’ve got this amazing place which we’d love to spend our life living in. And we were really looking forward to our future. Of course, we didn’t know that things were going to change. We had, at that time, I should say I was working as a veterinarian, working in animal welfare. Absolutely loved my job and my career. And my husband Charlie, he’d had a background working as a stockman on, I think you call them ranches in the northern part of America.

And the He was very talented stockman and horseman, but he’d later gone on to become a qualified carpenter and in fact, a registered builder. But at this time of our lives, he was working in civil construction, mainly because it gave us a regular income. So, it felt like, I guess, a safe option financially while our children were so little, and I was working part time looking after our baby. But of course, we didn’t realize it wasn’t a safe at all. And on the 21st of March 2018, Charlie went to work, and he never came home.

I’m sorry to hear that.

So, on that day, I was at work. The children were at daycare, and we had a lot of work on. So, we were busy doing surgery on animals. And I became aware through the press that there had been an incident and that the highway near to where I worked had been closed. So, we had a short conversation, which went something along the lines of, oh, I hope no one’s been badly hurt, must be a bad car accident. And then we carried on with our work. So, then A few hours later, I went off to lunch because I’d forgotten my lunch that day, and then came back in the driveway at work. And I looked up and there was this helicopter hovering in the sky. And I guess that helicopter signifies the end of life as I knew it. And it was not long after that we discovered through social media that there had been an incident on a work site nearby, that one man was dead and another was injured and fighting for his life, and they were still trying to rescue him. Now Charlie, we found out not long later was the man who had died.

So, my nurse and I drove around to the roadblock to speak to the police officers because I hadn’t been able to get hold of Charlie on the phone. Sure. And I couldn’t get any information through the company that he worked for. So, we went around to where they had blocked the highway, and the police officer informed me that it was my husband who had been killed. The other fellow, his family had also not been notified and had done a similar thing at the at the same time. His name was Jack. He was buried up to his neck with just his head and one arm free. And unfortunately, he never got the opportunity to speak to his family because He was flown to Melbourne, went through multiple surgeries and died in hospital the following day.

It’s horrible.

Yeah, it was horrible. Yeah, look, it has been terrible. I suppose I It’s probably obvious to say perhaps that the worst part was having to tell our children and having to drive to daycare and pick them up and be in what felt, I guess, a little bit like I was in a movie or some nightmarish out-of-body experience where there was some other lady whose husband had died and she was now having to go and pick up her children who now had a dead father. It was really a situation where I was in so much shock that I picked up these children with my mom who had come to help me and took them home and really didn’t know what to do next. So, it wasn’t until later that evening that the police turned up at our house, which was presumably our notification, which you can imagine was far too late. And we, I guess started to, I don’t know if it really sunk in by that point, really, what had happened. And it wasn’t until early the next morning when my children woke up that I had to tell them that their dad had died and that he was never coming home. And that was the worst thing I’ve ever had to do.

No doubt. Tell me a little bit more about what transpired in the work site because you thought it was a safer environment. What was happening in that work site?

I’m a little bit limited with how much detail I can provide here because whilst there has already been a court case and a prosecution, the case is still sitting with the coroner. However, what I can say is it was a deep trenching job, so they were digging trenches to lay sewer to round about the four meters in-depth. And of course, that work requires a lot of safety practices to be followed. There’s a lot of rules and regulations which need to be adhered to. For sure. And on this day, two men died. So, I think that probably tells you about where that was at.

So, the precautions that you normally would need to have because there’s a high risk in an environment like this, that the sides collapse seemingly weren’t present. When you speak about the incident, because you regularly speak about safety and talk about the importance of safety. What are some of the themes that emerge from your experience?

I think a big one is really about near misses. It took a long time for us to understand much detail about really what had happened to Charlie and Jack. In fact, only recently, the coroner found out some information which to her indicated that they were not in the trench at the time of the collapse. So, you can understand how distressing it all these years was not to really understand what had Sure. But certainly, it became clear a lot earlier on that there were some near misses that, I guess, were an opportunity, an opportunity that in this case didn’t result in safety systems being improved. So that’s something that I often talk about when I speak about this to companies, which is really that a near miss is a gift. And if you see that miss and you take the opportunity to improve your safety systems, you have a look at your systems of work, see what’s working, what isn’t, and rectify that. It’s not overstating it to say that that could be the difference between life and death in your workplace.

A hundred %. It’s a huge lever to tap into that so many organizations miss. Issues don’t get reported, they don’t get addressed. And organizations don’t drive the right follow through, which is a huge component. So really a gift when you’ve got those learnings.

Yeah, that’s right. I guess if you’re at the point of having a near miss, you’re a huge component. So, it’s really a gift when you’ve got those learnings. Yeah, that’s right. I guess if you’re at the point of having a near miss, you’re really close to having a catastrophic event. And I think reporting is just so key and not just of near misses, but obviously of hazards and concerns in the workplace every day, all day. It needs to be kept front of mind. And I guess that’s another reason why I’ve taken the opportunity to speak about my experience to workers, to employers, to managers, all of them, because keeping this front of mind is absolutely the key, because we get so tied up with all the pressures on us. We’ve got KPIs to follow. We’ve got production targets to meet. We have financial issues. There might be things happening at home. There’s so much going on in our mind, that often safety falls down the level of priorities, I suppose. And it can’t be that way. It must be number one every day. And it must be the first thing that we do before we think about anything else to do with our work.

So, I always say that safety is the most important part of your job. And that is to make sure you get home at the end of the day. It doesn’t matter how great you are at your job, how much money you’re making, how great your team is, any of Those factors if you’re not alive and if you’re not home at the end of the day. So, it has to be number one. But it’s easy for it to sometimes not be at the forefront of our minds.

It’s a huge It’s a huge challenge for it to keep always being at the forefront every given moment. It’s very easy to get sidetracked by something else or think, this might not happen to me. This whole element of keeping front row center. I remember I worked with somebody who says, if you put a card in front of your head and that’s remembering about safety, it’s so easy for it to slip to the back of your mind as you’re doing the work because you’re in a zone, you’re delivering. How do you bring that card to the front of your mind to always remember that this is the most critical thing right now for every decision I’m making?

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Yeah, it’s absolutely a challenge that us as individuals, but also as organizations need to tackle. Part of that, I guess, is on management to be absolutely vigilant, zero tolerance for unsafe practices, really encouraging people to report and to be thinking about things all the time. It’s also about training. I mean, we don’t know what we don’t know. So not just the initial training, but ongoing training. I didn’t know much about safety, even though I was working in my own workplace. I wasn’t really up to speed with the Occupational Health and Safety I didn’t really understand what that should look like in practice in the workplace. And I think that’s a common experience. I certainly believe that if Charlie and Jack would have had more knowledge or even if I’d had more knowledge, I would have also picked up that something wasn’t right. But certainly, if the workers don’t have the knowledge, they can’t protect themselves. They also aren’t well placed to keep bringing concerns to the employer, which, of course, is so key because managers can’t be everywhere. They do rely on their teams to say, I’ve got a concern, or I’ve seen something. Having our workers really well trained to recognize hazards That’s all part of the picture.

But the other thing I think that’s really this is part of the reason why I speak and go and discuss these issues and do presentations is that I think sometimes rules and processes and numbers, they don’t stick that well in our mind. And so, it can be really hard work to keep maintaining that. And it is hard work. It’s a central but what I’ve discovered is that stories, we’re good at remembering stories.

Yes.

And not only does hearing a personal story of tragedy in the workplace help to wake us up a bit, that this could happen to me, this could happen in my workplace, this happens to normal people like Lana, like Charlie, like their family. There’s that. It’s the fact that we can identify that it’s not some random person on the news. It’s a real person. But it’s also, and this is what I hope happens, is that if we have a story that links the rules with our emotions and our sense of self, then we’re more likely to carry that story with us in our memory. And not only is that a sense that I have, it’s also something that’s been proven, that stories are something we remember. Absolutely. So, I hope that in the work that I do now, I can be part of that picture, a small part of improving the safety in the workplaces which I speak to.

Sure. I know when we first connected, one of the themes you talked about was how recognizing hazards is not really part of how our brain functions. So, tell me more about that.

I’ve spent six years now and I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about these things and certainly speaking to some really interesting people, some of those working in universities and doing studies on such matters. And I always wondered, how could they not see it? How could they not see that they were in danger? But of course, they didn’t. And they didn’t do anything that they felt was dangerous or, in fact, that most of us would think was unsafe. Unfortunately, the systems weren’t in place to prevent something from happening. But what I’m trying to say is that we’ve evolved into this modern world where we now build skyscrapers. We go to work, we dig trenches, we do all sorts of activities. But really, our brains are still cave people. And I’ve had some interesting discussions with some researchers on this that we’re not well-designed to recognize hazards. We’re not well designed to understand danger, particularly if we’re exposed to it on a regular basis. So, if we see something and we think it’s dangerous, Initially, then over time we become desensitized. And as a cave person, we would understand that, okay, initially I was a bit worried about that barrier on that bush.

Now we’ve tried it. It hasn’t made anyone sick. Now it’s a good source of nutrition. We’re not concerned about that anymore. And we had to have that understanding that an exposure that didn’t result in in anything of concern was then something safe to interact with. And of course, as humans living in our life, we can’t run around thinking that we’re in danger all the time or we just wouldn’t function at all. We’d be hyper stressed. We would be. But if we’re in the workplace, of course, this works against us a bit because there are hazards. Sometimes we work in very high-risk environments, and we need to have our mind turned on to recognize those hazards all the time because they could be life threatening. That doesn’t matter whether we see them every day and nothing’s happened yet. It still could progress to an injury or a fatality. And that’s not what we want. So, it’s not really our fault as humans that we’re not great at this. That’s why we need training. That’s why we need to have ongoing processes in place that keep it front of mind, that ensure we’re reporting and that we’re rectifying things as we go along.

I think that’s a really important piece because our brain will naturally start accepting that certain risks are okay. It’s how do we bring a front row center always reflecting the same as people who are working in high-risk professions will often have the retention on the highest risk task. If you’re working next to an electrical conduit and it’s energized, you may be very cautious of the work you’re doing there. But then suddenly driving doesn’t seem dangerous. Or other functions that you may be doing that are not as high risk may also not appear as dangerous, but there’s still danger associated with it. There’s a lot of little tricks where we can get into a lull sense of security around the hazards in front of us. That’s really even the peer reinforcement. But something like trenches, you mentioned, before I got into the safety space, it’s not something I kept thinking about, oh, this is a big risk. Because when you grow up, it’s not something you’re thinking of, front row center. That’s the education when you come on a job site. When you talked about near misses, to me, a big component is also how do you reframe that this is a positive?

Because you talked about the gift, but if you don’t feel psychologically safe to bring it up if people minimize it. I had somebody was sharing a podcast that he had highlighted a risk, and he had been told, are you a man or are you a mouse? That’s going to precondition you to never highlight risks or never highlight near misses.

Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right. It’s not something that comes naturally to us, is it? To feel, to put up our hand and raise an issue all the time, particularly if that’s going to slow the job down or certainly if it’s going to have some negative response. And I think that is Absolutely key. And that’s where the culture of a company and their response to reporting is absolutely integral, particularly to get that culture started. You need to be actually pushing people all the time. Report, report, report. And certainly not even having the remotest level of negativity when that happens and in fact, actively encouraging it.

Encouraging the new misreporting, but also encouraging somebody stopping work if they see something unsafe, because that decision to say, I’m going to stop work is also a very tough one. People will often say, you’re allowed to stop work. But having stopped work early on in my career, knowing the financial consequence of stopping work, which was not a small number, it was a five with lots of zeros after, You start really rethinking, especially when the next day you discover that what you thought was the right reason to stop work actually wasn’t a dangerous case. It becomes very… You really think two times, three times, 10 times before pull the plug. And that needs to be reframed.

Yeah, I completely agree. I honestly, I don’t think that a lot of work, and this comes back to training, a lot of workers actually realize that they can stop work for a safety issue and that that’s protected in the law, that right to do so. But also, as you were saying that something else came to mind, which is that I had a conversation not long ago with actually an OHS manager. And after listening to my talk and hearing my story, he came up to me and he said that he had had times quite recently where he was exactly as you say, really unsure about stopping a job because of a safety concern that he had. And he was the manager. But of course, he’s got pressures above and below. And he was really unsure about that. And one of the outcomes of listening to my story for him was that he felt that made him feel more confident in making that decision. That in his mind it made him feel the pressure to do the right, the safe thing is greater than the pressure, the external pressures of the job, the work, the money.

What might my manager say? What if it doesn’t end up being unsafe in the end? All those things, I guess, reduced in his mind because the story was something that he felt lifted up his safety concern and made him feel justified in doing his job and doing it well.

I think, hopefully, stories like this reinforce it but it’s also the response of leaders. I know when I made that decision, then the next day, it was discovered with new facts that it was the wrong call to make. But based on everything I knew when I made the decision, it felt like the only right thing to Like you said, you’re lucky if it’s a legislator requirement. In some cases, it’s not. It’s a company requirement. But what really made the difference is the COO flew down the next day, even if I’d made the wrong decision to say I had made the right decision and to give me a pat on the back. That reinforces as a signal saying that’s more valuable to me versus making the right call. It was the right choice to make sure people were safe.

Yeah, absolutely. That’s the response that you’d like to see from your upper management.

A culture we’d love to roll out through all workplaces, I think. But it’s also a reflection what do you do as a senior leader when something like this happens? I’ve seen in some organizations, in this case, he literally flew down and not reinforce it. But I’ve seen in other organizations where they celebrate publicly those instances and really reinforce that this is a desired value. Because it’s one thing to say it’s legally allowed, it’s a different thing to actually feel you can actually pull the plug.

Yeah. I I think that comes back to our psychology discussion that as humans, with our brains that we have, we need to be constantly encouraged in a certain direction. And it doesn’t take much to end up sitting not saying anything. It can be scary, even in a good company, to have to stand up and say, I don’t feel safe, or I don’t think this is a safe practice or indeed to stop work. It’s quite a scary prospect for most people. But I think it comes back right to the beginning. Before you get anywhere near an incident or a near miss or a serious concern, that day to day conversation around hazards, about risks, about the right way to do things and educating your workforce. It’s a big task, but like I say, It’s the main one, because if we can’t do that bit right, there’s no point doing the rest.

Correct. So, Lana, thank you very much for sharing your story with audiences across Australia and around the world. If somebody wants to get in touch with you to have you share your story with them, again, like you said, the power of storytelling is huge. In this element of we remember those stories and they’re memorable, and they can be the little catalyst to elevate a decision to where we want it to be, how can somebody get in touch with you?

Yeah, sure. So, as you said, I do face to face talks in the Southern part of Australia, but also do online talks both nationally and internationally. So, if anyone was interested in having this as part of their work to improve safety in their workplace, I can be contacted through CNBSafe and their website, cnbsafe.com.au.

Excellent. Well, thank you very much, Lana, for joining me today and for sharing a story with our audience.

Thank you so much for having me.

Thank you for listening to The Safety Guru on C-suite Radio. Leave a legacy. Distinguish yourself from the past. 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

Dr. Lana Cormie and her two children are navigating life without a husband and father as a result of a workplace incident. Lana was at work when her staff saw the rescue helicopter hovering over a nearby construction site. She didn’t think much about it until she called her husband Charlie on her lunch break and he didn’t answer. The helicopter was there for her husband and a workmate who were fatally injured in a workplace incident.

She had been a happy mum, wife and vet who, like most people, was blissfully unaware of what happens when a loved one doesn’t come home. Her life changed dramatically from that day forward.

Lana has become a passionate advocate for safer workplaces, campaigning for better policies and improved legislation for workplace safety. Lana now shares her life experiences in an effort to help improve safety and educate employees and employers on the importance of a safe workplace.

Lana believes by sharing her lived experience she can influence safety cultures and that the most important part of work is to go home at the end of the day.

For more information: https://cnbsafe.com.au/lana-cormie/

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