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Inspiring Safety Leadership and Ownership with Brad Gardner



It’s been over 10 years since Brad Gardner lost his right arm in a workplace accident—an accident that didn’t have to happen. Brad and his wife, Dolores, have dedicated their lives to making workplaces safer in order to prevent tragedies like their own from happening to others. Listen to a truly inspirational story on the importance of safety leadership and ownership from Brad.

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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 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. I am Eric Michrowski your host. I’m very excited to have with me Brad Gardner. Brad has dedicated his life to making sure that workplaces are as safe as it can be. This is following a 2003 industrial accident he was part of. But today I want him to share a little bit about some of his lessons about safety. So maybe let’s kick it off. Brad, if you could share a little bit about your background and what got you into this space. OK, I’d love to. Like I said, I’m Brad Gardner. I’m from Idaho is where I’m from, but. I was really young when I got married, I married my high school sweetheart. I needed a job. I didn’t have any money. So, I ended up taking in a little potato processing plant and I hated the job. It was just horrible. I didn’t like anything about it. So, one day I just got fed up. I said, that’s enough. And I joined the Air Force going to the Air Force. But I wanted to do was get into engineering. But they took one look at me and said, no, you’re not an engineer. You’re an air traffic controller. So that’s how I ended up doing. I was an air traffic controller in the Air Force for a total of twenty-two years. Left my first 20 years. I retired in. May of know it wasn’t August of twenty-one, and then when 9/11 hit, I was called back into active duty and had to serve another two years. So, I ended up spending twenty-two years as an air traffic controller. I was heavily involved in 9/11. I was comptroller in New York on 9/11, so I guess I really got stressed out. I mean, I was just burnt out and couldn’t do anything anymore for a while. So, I retired, moved back to Idaho and said, I’m not going to do anything but fish and relax. I found out this too much. It was great for fishing. So, I ended up going back to work. And of all things that most people can’t believe is I ended up going back to work at that same exact potato processing plant that I dated twenty-two years earlier. But, you know, at the time, it was a great job. It was very. I have to think of what you’re able to sit back, relax. Work, I loved it, it was just I really did love the job, it was just manual labor, but it was fantastic. I worked at about six months. And then. That’s when my life changed. Six months later, that’s when everything changed all at once. And on that day in 2000. Three, I went to work that morning, and it was a normal everyday morning, right? And that’s when I had my accident. So, tell me a little bit about your accident and if anybody who wants to know more, you’ve got a website where you talk a little bit more about it. You’ve got some resources. You’ve talked and presented many different places. Website is Brads helping hand dot com. But I’d love to hear a little bit about what happened, but obviously for the purpose of understanding how do we prevent these things from ever happening again. Right. What happened to start today was right off the bat, first thing in the shit that morning, my foreman came in and told me that had a guy call in sick. So, they were guys short and they had to clean some equipment. I told my supervisor, then I saw him and I said, you know, I’ve never done it before, but, you know, show me what to do, tell me what to do. I can do it. I can. And so, I went to a new job that morning and I had to create a big order. This augers about five feet across and about twenty-five foot long, and it was about the third or fourth quarter that I cleaned that morning, building up to that big. And as I was playing in it, I got distracted, I looked away and what I was doing at the time and next thing I knew, my hand was in the yogurt. Oh, my goodness. On the inside the machine. I was in the machine about eight seconds. Oh, my goodness. There was nobody buying me. I was by myself. And I knew as it was pulling the end of the auger through my mind was the only way I was going to live. I had to rip off my arm. Oh, my. And that’s what I did. Changed my life. I have no doubt in. So that’s a that changes everything, and I know when you present to audiences, sometimes you even present with your wife and you talk about kind of the impact on yourself, family and how change. But what were you thinking before that day? How did you frame yourself in safety? What was your perspective? You didn’t really like you had done a lot of different things in your career. What was your perspective on safety before that day? You know, my idea was. I’m good, I’m fast, I can think things through, right? And I didn’t have to worry about shaking because I wasn’t one of those dumb guys. Made a stupid mistake, right? That was my friend. It’s like, oh, give me a job, I can handle it. I’m good. You know, I’m fast. I could multitask like crazy and do some things at one time. That’s what I did as an air traffic controller. Of course, it is a job that does really handle a lot of information. Well, the same time, it’s probably that job. Right? And that job is nothing but safety. I mean, when it boils down to an air traffic controller is nothing but a safety guy. Yes. So, I didn’t. I always thought that second nature to me, I can handle that I don’t have to worry. And that’s really what I thought is I don’t get to worry about that. I mean, I could put my hand in your 50 times and pull it out and it’s not going to do anything. I love that story. I need that one little mistake. And that cop never. So, you know, I mean, it was just a matter of. You know, it’s going to happen to another guy. Other people make mistakes. I don’t. Right. That was my philosophy. I mean, it really was I didn’t realize it at the time. That’s where I was. That’s really what I was doing. And you know, I’ve heard this so many times, it won’t happen to me, the guy where this happened to, he’s not as good as me or something to that effect or I’m lucky that person wasn’t lucky. Or, of course, I’ve done this many times. It’s not going to happen to me. And that’s the sad part, is it can happen to anybody. It takes a split. Many people will say that was really stupid, it was, but I’m not a stupid guy. By no means, but I did it, you know, and I did something stupid, I thought I could get away with it and I could. So, what are some of the lessons? And I think I appreciate that you’ve taken that as a learning and trying to teach others to make a difference in the world. That is phenomenal. What are some of the lessons that you’ve learned and that you share with leaders in terms of making a difference in the workplace? What I did is after my accident, I went back into safety for the same company and worked in safety, and that’s what I started learning safety and start talking to people. I did some research on my accident. You found out, you know, it wasn’t just me. They were mistakes that were made by everybody all the way from the very top owner of the company. What did you do when you come out and talk to the people, it was always talking about production? We got to get to production up. We’ve got to get these things done quicker. He talked about safety. Did the notion like the bottom line, his production? But I would learn, you know, and that’s what I found out. That was a mistake that was made. And I boiled down to I wasn’t properly trained. They’d given me a job I hadn’t done before. There was a whole bunch of mistakes, including near misses, having stand near misses on a machine that never got reported. So, I started looking at it like it’s just not my fault. It’s all these people could have stopped it. I don’t blame them. And. I might have done the same thing. I don’t know, but it’s. I wish everything right now. Somebody would have stepped up and said something. Get involved, you see it, something that looks dangerous. Say something if you’re told to do something and you’re not sure how to do it. Stop them say, hey, what do you mean, what am I supposed to do here? I talk a lot about. Different things where people have made mistakes. Well, a lot of people will blame the foreman that I have a job I hadn’t done. For him, it was my brother. Well. And then he had to take care of me. He had to be the attorney that he had to take me down. He had to go get my arm out of the machine. Oh, my goodness, you won’t see any of that. Of course, I just made a simple mistake, too, but when you add up all these simple mistakes. It’s a huge consequence. And if it would have been me, it would have been somebody else later on. Right. If tell people to say something, get involved, do not let things go by, if you see something, say something. If you feel unsafe, say something. If you see somebody else doing something. It’s not safe or you don’t think looks right. Say something to try to get him in trouble, but you want to make sure that they’re safe. You don’t want to see it happen to somebody else any more than you don’t want to have to be yourself. I can tell you, I experienced. The suffering that I went through is nothing compared to what other people went through. That same day, you know, my coworker’s night, and then you break it down to your family and your wife. My wife actually, when I normally speak, reach out of her diary. Tell us what she saw that day. Tears me up every time I see it. Oh, it hurts so bad. It you know, luckily, I have a wife with I don’t know why this is every bit when I talk, I use dominoes. When I come out and speak at the plants, I use Domino’s as an example. You know, I could take Domino’s and put them up on a table and put names on the Domino’s all the way from the owner of the company to my supervisors, to my brother, to my trainers, to my coworkers and my second to the last. Domino has my name on it. Call it what it took to save my home is one person in that whole line. Including me. They would have stepped up and said something, I would still have my arm today. It is a simple but such a powerful message, say something, it goes down that everybody owns safety. It’s the workers, the leaders as the foreman. Everybody’s got a part to say and has an opportunity. And really that that sense of keep your eyes open. But I love the simplicity of something. Get involved, do something about it. Right. And that’s what I do. I talk to people now all over the world. I’ve spoken to China, Africa, Europe, almost every state in the United States, Mexico. All the same, people are the same everywhere. And when I go out and talk to them, all I want to do is get them to loosen up, get them to think about safety, and that’s what I do. And Medicaid is not. That’s all I do not say, and I loved every minute, which is phenomenal because you’re doing something you’re sharing, imparting some ideas. Can you share maybe some of the key lessons that you have for other workers like you, people that are listening, that are doing work where there could be a risk, could be a hazard. What are some of the things that obviously you talked about? Say something. Are there any other pearls of wisdom that you have that you share with them? If you don’t feel comfortable, stop, right, just think about it. I’ve talked to thousands of men and every one of them say to them up until they stop because they didn’t feel safe. He said, that’s what I want to hear. People are afraid to do it because they think they’re going to get in trouble, they think they’re going to question for it, if that’s the way that job is, you don’t want to work it anyway, right? No, just watch out for each other. You know, that’s a big you know, so it kills me near misses. People don’t want to say they screwed up and they made a mistake. But just step out the tent. Hey, guys, I did this because, you know, if you did it, somebody else, too, right? Work together, everybody has to work together, you can have zero action. Everybody works together, everyone. Be afraid to step up, say something like I said, everybody, the one thing that I want you to get out when they listen to me, just remember the dominoes, you know, and don’t watch them fall. Yes. It’s that simple. And I think when you talk about don’t be afraid to speak up to essentially stop work, I think leaders have a huge part in this because you have to create an environment where people feel safe to stop work, that they don’t feel there’s a ramification that you want to encourage those things as well, because I think that’s a simple action a leader could do to really drive a difference around stopping the work, pausing if you think there’s a hazard. Yeah, and tell your workers. If you have to tell them every day, remember, guys, safety’s number one. And they have been beat up by their actions. Yeah, and that’s too often miss, right, I say safety is number one, but I give you more on productivity. Go faster, right. Right. You can’t do that. You’ve got to. He said, you know, you’ve got to present data, you got to live that right. You’ve got to stop, stop work. Don’t do it. And when they do it, you don’t get them. You don’t get mad at them. You’ll never happen again. I had a guy come up one day, said, I won’t report in here because if I do, it goes on my record. And when it comes time for promotion, it’s points against me. Right now, I want to secure that company and told him that that’s bull crap because they didn’t know he had got out and got that information out. They had a system to do it anonymously online. They had. And the CEO of the company said, if I ever had a foreman come in here and fire somebody because they were a safety thing, you said that guy isn’t going to work for you anymore. But too often, too often, that doesn’t happen, right? I was actually just talking earlier today to somebody who is describing a CEO and a company that whenever somebody would report something is an issue, a topic, rather than say, I want to learn, they would descend and we get angry. And how could this happen? And so, people are learning was I don’t want that experience. So, I’m not going to say something. Right. And that’s what they need to be able to come out and do that every day. Yeah, absolutely. For you, you have to have their trust and the way to get their trust is you’ve got to back up what you say. I completely agree. Any other thoughts you’d like to share? I think your power, your story is so powerful. I love your example of the dominoes in terms of really showing how anybody could have stopped this. Any other pearls of wisdom you care to just share from your experiences. You’ve done so much to try to help organizations, leaders, team members to start thinking about how safety is so critical and something that everybody’s going to. You know. Everybody’s going to have to do their own thing. I don’t think there is a right way to do it; sometimes depends on the different personalities and stuff like that. The. Again, I just I keep going back to that communication, you’ve got to have those communication lines open all the time, regardless of who it is, you can’t be afraid to come up and talk. I’ve never talked to a CEO who said they would. You know, reward somebody for stuff like that, but people don’t know that, right? They just keep communications lines open all the time. And that’s what’s going to stop it. It really is. Communicate whether it’s on either end, whether you’re the listener, the talker, either one. That’s what you have to do. I mean. I just love watching when I get up and speak to people and I’ve got crowds of four or five hundred people out there and I can look down on somebody and they’re looking at me and they got tears running down her cheeks. And I know exactly what you’re going through. You know, I’ve done this. Right. I don’t want to hurt my wife. I don’t want to hurt my kids and that’s what I’m going to do if I continue doing what I’m doing. And that’s really important, I think I always say that to the people, you’ve got to make safety something that you own because you need to start thinking about why is it you keep yourself safe, like it’s really an investment in yourself into the experiences that we’re the people that you want to be around? And that’s the part where I do it for myself whenever I do anything. I’m always trying to think back to why is that so important? What experiences do I want to have, what’s important to me, and make sure that that’s what I’m focused on, what I am about to do something? Yeah, and, you know, I do it all the time, my wife now is it’s just amazing. I guess we literally stuck on the freeway. Where there’s a construction team working and my wife went over and said, what are you doing? You have no more protection or you do not have the potential. And she said, I’m going to call, OK, but you don’t get it done right now. So, what happens when she does that? They do it, but they do it. You know, one day she’s seen a guy working in a trench and all you could see was the top of his head. My wife, when I said, get out of that trench, there’s no showing here. There’s nothing to get out of there. Right. OK, I don’t have to. Oh, don’t leave me alone. I’m fine. I should go get out now or I’m going to start making some phone calls. And within a half-hour, they had Suring done on every bit of the line that they were working on. You know, my wife and I, we saved somebody’s life. Yeah, but that’s such a powerful message is you’re not going to be a bystander, you’re willing to stop, you’re going to say something which is exactly your message. Everybody has a part to say and everybody should be trying to get involved and say something and help others to keep safe. Love it. Well, I know we’re talking here just about a few minutes. My normal presentation with my wife last up to an hour and a half long. We got lots of stories to tell. And we went through a very generous it’s really cool. It’s really low. And that’s phenomenal. And then so if anybody is interested in hearing more, getting more details about the dominos and the presentation and thinks of this, the story can help the organization really shift. Thinking about the importance of safety. Your website, again, is Brads helping hand dot com. Brad, I really appreciate you coming on the safety guru sharing your story. It’s a very tough and difficult story to hear, but a message that’s so important for so many people to listen to. So, thank you and thank you for having me. Excellent. Thanks, Brad. Take care. 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’s—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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Brad and his wife, Dolores, are world-renowned safety motivational speakers who share their story in order to prevent tragedies like their own from happening to others. Their delivery is versatile enough to move audiences from laugher, to tears, and finally to solemn reflection. This talented team has inspired hundreds of thousands of industrial workers from all levels of management to look at the importance of safety in a new light and energy—and they can help your team too.

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