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Championing Safety in Everyday Decisions with Brandon Schroeder

Championing Safety in Everyday Decisions



One moment can change your life. Join us as Brandon Schroeder, a motivational safety speaker for over a decade, shares his candid and inspirational story of overcoming physical and mental barriers that resulted from a serious workplace injury in 2011. Brandon’s uplifting message encourages everyone to avoid shortcuts on the job and to work together as a team to champion safety in everyday decisions. Tune in now to hear Brandon’s powerful journey!


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, Brandon Schroeder. He’s a safety motivational speaker with a very powerful story. Brandon, welcome to the show.

Hey, thanks for having me. I always get excited when I get to talk about this and get my story out there because I think it can help the masses. And I appreciate this opportunity to speak with you.

Excellent. Well, let’s start with your story because I think it’s a very powerful story from moments growing up on a farm, understanding risks to get into the trades, and then we’ll get into the turnaround you did in safety, but let’s get to that later.

Yeah, absolutely. When I was a little kid, I grew up on a farm surrounded by agriculture. My dad had corn, soybeans, and cattle. So, I was around a lot of large machinery from a very young age. I was driving tractors and skid loaders, helping my dad and my grandfather on the farm. One thing that I always noticed is my dad. He liked to take shortcuts. He liked to get things done as quickly as possible. And my grandpa would always be like, let’s slow down a minute. And it always seemed like my grandpa’s projects always got done quicker, even though they didn’t. I had a little bit of both sides of that in me. And I’m not going to lie, I wasn’t always perfect. No one is. But I had a lot of influence. My dad was a very hardworking person, and growing up, I always wanted to be like him. But I saw from a very young age that the neighbor kid caught his arm in a PTO shaft, and I saw the damage that it did to his body.


So, I knew that if I didn’t take safety seriously and think about what I was doing out there daily, there would be consequences. So, I was very careful growing up on the farm. After high school, my dad said to me, what do you think you want to do? All my friends are going to college. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew I wasn’t going to go sit in a classroom for another four years. So, I started looking at all the different trades out there, and I came across the electricians and thinking, you know, I can work inside, I can work outside. There’s good pay, there’s good benefits. I really didn’t know what I was signing up for, but I went down to our local apprenticeship and training office, and I applied in Des Moines, Rock Island, and Cedar Rapids. Those were the three big areas around me that had apprenticeships.


And the first thing I went to be Des Moines. That was the biggest metropolitan area in Iowa anyway. And I could tell very quickly that I was out of my league. I was an 18-year-old kid who had only worked on the farm and at a grocery store. And I was going in there competing with people that had quite a bit of electrical experience and life experience that I just didn’t have. And that really hurt my confidence going to that first interview. Well, I knew I didn’t get in when I left, but I knew what to expect for the second interview. So, the second one was in Cedar Rapids, and I nailed that one because it was exactly the same as the first one, I knew. I kind of practiced my answers, and I got better at interviewing. I got into the electrical apprenticeship right out of high school. And when I got that letter, I thought, I’ve made it. All I have to do is get through the next four years of five years of training, and I’m going to have a great life. Right? And I show up at the office that first day, and, I mean, I was the first person in the parking lot.

And I’m all excited to go to work. And I get in there, and the first thing they have me do is fill out my pre-employment paperwork. And then they hand me a pair of safety glasses, some gloves, a hard hat, a lockout tag out thing. Sure. And we go through a book about two inches thick, and over policies, rules, safety procedures. This is a long time ago. This is back in 97. And once we went through that, it took about 15 minutes. They gave me an address, and all I had was the PPE that they had handed me. And they gave me an address. And I go out to the job site, and I don’t really know what to expect, but I notice right away when I get out there, one of the first things that I noticed was people did not have these heavy-duty work boots on that I had. And my dad worked in construction. He farmed when we went out on the farm, we always had heavy duty work boots on. And my grandpa, every time, he always went out into the tractor, he always had a pair of gloves with him.

And I have these gloves, these safety glasses, and this hard hat on. And I remember I go to the first break, and nobody has this stuff on. And I asked one of the guys, I said, don’t we have to wear a hard hat and safety glasses? And he said a lot of people don’t.


Yeah. This was a long time ago. People thought safety glasses fog up, they’re uncomfortable, and a lot of people didn’t wear them. A lot of the journeymen that I worked with, they were very resistant. I’ll wear those if I’m drilling or if I think I’m going to get something in my eye, I’ll put the safety glasses on, but I’m not wearing them all the time. And they’d give us these lanyards, so at least you could take the safety glasses on or take them off, but you’d have them hanging around your neck. But I noticed a lot of people standing on top of ladders. If the ladder wasn’t quite tall enough, they’d go to the very top. I’d noticed people getting into energized equipment, and as an apprentice, I couldn’t do any of that. I couldn’t get into energized equipment. Sure. Fifth year apprentice. Well, after I went through my five years of apprenticeship, I was all gung ho. I wanted to run jobs. I wanted to show the company what I had. And they started giving me more and more responsibility. Pretty soon, I’m doing service truck by myself and then running small jobs, and they gave me a large commercial site to run.

And I remember I was pretty nervous, but I was excited about the task, and safety was not a priority to me. I used to go to safety meetings and think, I hope they have good coffee and donuts, because that’s about all I’m going to get out of this. I didn’t really think safety applied to me. I thought it applied to the new guy. Anytime we had a safety meeting, it was always some toolbox talk or some box that we needed to check. It was never anything meaningful that was really going to impact safety. That was going to make me think that pertains to me or that could happen to me. For instance, I remember in the summertime one time we had a safety talk about cold weather and frostbite.

I’m thinking, good timing.

Yeah, it’s 90 degrees out here, and we’re going to talk about frostbite today, or we’d have another one about traffic signals. Well, we’re nowhere near traffic signals. And I would get frustrated with these toolbox talks because people would just open up these toolbox talk books and they’d read whatever the next week was. It wasn’t like we were going to. That’s relevant. We’re not going to try to move the bar. I think one of the best tools that any company can do is to report near misses and use those for safety meetings. To me, that’s a built-in safety meeting. Every week. You can talk about near misses, or I can go on a site, and within 15 minutes, I can find something to talk about, Hazard, something that’s relevant. But we didn’t really do that. So, I got into just thinking safety was a box check or something we had to do to make the office happy, or you better have your paperwork filled out. It wasn’t really anything that I thought was going to happen to me, or it didn’t really pertain to me because I was a professional. I knew what I was doing.

At the time of my accident, I had 15 years of experience, and I hadn’t had too many close calls. I thought I was good at my job. 03:00 I’m done at 3:30, and I get a call from the general contractor, and he says, I need this cord relocated. And I go out, and I look, and this cord runs through some aluminum framework in the front of the building. So, the only way, or the easiest way for me to relocate this cord was to unhook the cord from the panel, pull it through the aluminum framework, back out through the doorway, and hook it back up. And some people, when they see my presentation and I talk about that part, say, why didn’t you unhook it from the other end? That would have been so much safer. Well, if I would unhook the cord from the other end, hook to a transformer running through the building, steel through all this framework, 200, 300ft of cord that I got to pull back through the building and unhook it, and it would have taken ten times as long. So, I have this cord that’s running through this aluminum framework, hooked up to this electrical panel, and it’s less than 50ft from the building.

It’s a clear, wide-open shot. All they want me to do is unhook this cord, pull it through the aluminum framework, and hook it back up. They want me to do this at 03:00 because it’s going to kill all the power to the building. I go out there, and I look, and most electrical panels have a main breaker. This panel didn’t have that. This panel was fed directly from the utility side of this transformer. So, the only way that I can shut this power off is to call the power company and have them send it.

Right, which is not at 03:00 p.m. Not.

At 03:00 when you’re done at 330. I know that I likely won’t even get anyone on the phone who knows where this piece of equipment is, let alone get a line throughout here to help me. So, I think I will have to do this energized. And from the time I got in in 1997 until around 2008, I did this type of work all of the time with no PPE art. It wasn’t until around 2008 that I started hearing about electrical safety in the workplace. NFPA. Yes, we went over electrical safety and apprenticeship, but I thought that the electrician’s main hazard was electrocution. And I had seen equipment blow up, sure, but really didn’t equate. I knew what an arc flash was, but I didn’t know anybody that it happened to. I hadn’t heard a lot about it. I didn’t really know what I was putting myself at risk that day. And this is back in 2011, but they gave us these arc flash suits. And I realize that not everyone on this that’s going to listen to this knows what an arc flash suit is. But an arc flash consists of a belle calva, which is just a cotton ski mask.

We have an arc-rated face shield hooked to a hard hat. We wore 1000 volts rated gloves with leather protectors over them, arc rated coveralls, hearing protection, safety glasses, heavy duty leather shoes. All this is in a kit in the back of my van. So, I’m thinking I need to go get my arc flash suit. I open up the back door of the van and the suits not there. So needless to say, I’ve done these tasks many times. I thought I could do it one more time. Long story short, within a few minutes I’m flying to the University of Iowa burn unit by helicopter, hanging on for my life, not knowing if I’m going to die. I had a brand new baby. I just don’t know what’s going to happen to me. I’m very scared. My hand is half blown off and I get into the University of Iowa, and they wheel me in through this doorway and I’ll never forget my wife coming in there. And just when my eyes locked on her eyes, I knew this was serious. She didn’t say anything. She just ran down the hallway crying. It bothers me today.

I had to live there, and I couldn’t do anything about it. I couldn’t console my wife. I couldn’t tell her. I couldn’t be the strong person I always tried to be for my family. I was in the hospital for about three weeks, and then I went to a rehab unit where I was doing physical rehabilitation, working on my hand, but I couldn’t make a fist. I had to have multiple surgeries on my hand. I had to have skin grafts taken off of my legs and put on my hand. My face was blown off and not gone to the point where I needed it. It wasn’t going to the point where I needed plastic surgery. But when I looked in the mirror, no way did I think this was going to heal. I got very depressed. I wanted to commit suicide. I did not want my wife to be married to this monster. I didn’t want this monster to be the dad to my daughter. I wasn’t thinking clearly, but I thought the world would be much better without me. I didn’t want everyone to feel sorry for me. And I just wanted to get out of there and get this over with.

I wanted to leave every day. I just said, can I go home? And all that talk did was lead to more medication. I got through that very difficult time in my life just because of my wife’s strength. And not everyone has a family and a wife like I do. I won the wife lottery. There’s no way I could have gotten through this without her. When I got home, then the problems got bad for me again because I got addicted to morphine, trying to get off of that stuff. I have a whole new appreciation for people that are addicted to any type of drugs. I had some personal experiences that my biological dad, he was a drug addict. I’ve only met him like five times in my life. And when I found out or I thought that I was addicted to the morphine, once I recognized it, I just quit cold turkey. Because I remember when I was twelve years old, seeing him stand out by the side of the road like a bum. And I thought, this isn’t going to be thanks. I’m not getting addicted to anything, right? There’s another thing that helped me get through this, and that’s something that not everyone has.

But I didn’t care what happened to me physically or mentally. I was done taking the medication, and I stopped. Then I get through all this, and I have to go back to work. And I’m thinking I’m going to get fired for sure. When you have an accident like this, there are a lot of consequences for the company you work for. We have a serious OSHA violation on our record. Companies do yearly safety audits. Our experience modification rate was above one on our trip. And you have to fill out all these applications for all these customers and all these bidding processes. And it really wasn’t the cost of the accident that really affected the company. It was the customer’s perception. Once you fill this out for bid forms, and I say this during the presentation, companies like working with other safe companies. They don’t want to take a risk. They’re not going to roll the dice. If the company you work for doesn’t have a good safety record, many companies will find someone else who does. And I had to go to a lot of meetings, a lot of explaining, a lot of remediation on how we were going to fix this, right?

Ultimately, the company decided, and I think it was more of a charity case because I couldn’t work with my hands, but they decided to make me the safety director. And I’m thinking, how are my coworkers going to look at me, look at the decision that I made? I’m going to go out there, and I’m going to push safety. After what I did, this didn’t make sense to me, but I had no other way to pay my bills. I didn’t have any other options. And they’re asking me to do it, and my paycheck is going to keep coming. So, I decided to do the best I could.

It’s probably a good call because you have a way of advocating that nobody else can, right? Because you’ve personally experienced it. It’s real to you.

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And I think that the company’s attitude is: who better to talk about safety than the guy who had to take the hard road and learn the hard way? But I can tell you half of the, you know, I didn’t work for a large company. A lot of the companies that I speak for are Fortune 500 companies. I worked for a company that had maybe, on average, 80 employees. At our peak, we might get to 110. And half of the people in the company looked at me like, I can’t believe this guy has a job. And the other half of the company looked at me like he was pretty good at his job. If this happened to me, this could happen to him, or if this happened to him, this could happen to me. So, I really couldn’t control the people who thought I should be fired or didn’t think that I should be in that position. I can’t control what they think of me. But I had a job, and I was very focused on that job. How I was going to make up for my accident was to deliver the company a big fat zero incidents for a calendar year.

And to say I was obsessed with this goal. And I’m a very goal-oriented person. If I don’t have a vision, if I don’t have a roadmap, I already know I’m not going to be successful. And one of the best quotes I’ve ever seen is an idiot with a plan can beat a genius without a plan. And I put together a plan, and I got to pick the members of my safety committee. I went out, and I picked six people who were highly influential in the company that I knew people would listen to. And we started having safety meetings. And we said, look, we didn’t have a good year last year. The year I got hurt, we had twelve OSHA recordables. That’s worse than bad for a company with 100 employees at their peak.

Yeah, it’s bad.

That’s bad. We have to improve. So, the first thing we did was put hard hats, safety glasses, and gloves in place. We’re not asking people to wear them anymore. That’s a condition of employment. If you want to work at our company, you will wear these things. And if you don’t want to work at our company, you can work for our competitor. That’s fine, but we are going to change the way that we do things now. And I had the buy-in from the company’s president, and the safety committee helped me. And one of the first things I did was I didn’t know anything about safety. So, I started going to as many safety conferences as I could, and I would identify companies that were much larger than the one that I worked for, who had very good safety records, and I would talk with them, take notes. What are your policies? What are your procedures? How do you guys walk through the job sites on your safety audits? What works, and what doesn’t? I got invaluable information from each one of the safety conferences that I went through. I was networking like crazy, and I was very much out of my element as an electrician who works alone.

Going to these safety conferences, meeting these experts, and talking to them was out of my comfort zone, but it was something that I had to learn to do if I was going to be good at my job.


So, I went and met with them. One thing that stuck with me was that you have to create a lookout for one another’s safety culture, and if you can’t do that, everything else doesn’t matter. And I believe that. And I tell people that if we made every employee in an organization a safety manager or a safety advocate, we’d have no accidents. But the reality is we have to go out there, and we have to be productive. But safety has to be a tool. And something that we use daily can’t just be something that we use when the safety manager comes around or there’s a walk-through. It has to be a tool that you use on a daily basis. And if the people most influential at the company aren’t willing to use those tools, you won’t be able to spread that.


So, one of the first things that we did was I started doing walkthroughs, safety audits, and I would go out, and I would tell people, you’re going to get one warning to wear your safety glasses, gloves, and hard hat. And after that, I just give your name company, and whatever happens, happens. It’s out of my hands. But you’re going to get one warning, and that’s it. This is a condition of employment. The rest of the items we can work on that could be a training issue. That could be. You didn’t know, but everybody here knows going forward, we’re wearing our PPE. I went and did a safety audit, and I had a guy who wouldn’t wear safety glasses, and he’s like, I don’t need them. I’m like, well, this is one warning. And he kind of blew me off, like, okay. And I found a few other safety things that I talked to him about, and he was kind of on my radar. When you do a safety audit and someone gives you attitude and you find things they’re not receptive to what you say, you kind of want to go visit that person again, you should.

It’s not somebody you’re going to say, okay, they’re all right. They know what they’re doing. We don’t have any problems over there. You know that. That’s something that’s going to take more of your attention. So, he got more of my attention. In the next safety audit, we found another problem. In the next safety audit, we found another problem. And these weren’t things that he didn’t know better. I would say only 25% of my audience do electrical work, but my experience as a safety manager was in electrical.


I went into this project, and he’s got all the covers off the panel, live exposed parts, and a metal fish tape in the panel, pulling wire. I mean, he knew better than what he was doing. And this was the third time. And I just told him, I said, I don’t know what will happen here, but you need some more training. We’ve talked about this. We’ve talked about this, and I don’t think that you are an asset to our organization with your current mindset, and I’m not able to change your mindset. So, I think you need to go talk to management to see what we’re going to do moving forward. I was pushing for an OSHA 30 course, additional training, something because this guy had a lot of experience. I didn’t want to lose him in the organization because safety is something that you always have to improve and evolve on. Nobody knows it all day one. And we had a culture of not-so-good safety culture. So, I wasn’t expecting to turn this company around in a year. I knew it would take time, and our employees are our greatest asset.

So, I didn’t want this guy gone, but I went, and I told the owner what happened, and he said, you know what? I’m tired of this. Your accident should have been a big awakening, people that they need to change, and every once in a while, we need to have a sacrificial lamb. And I said, what do you mean? And he said, unless you tell me something I don’t already know right now, we’re going to fire him. And I got very emotional because I blew my face off. I blew myself up. I was in the hospital for a month. I broke every safety rule in the book and cost the company hundreds of thousands of dollars in insurance premiums. And I’m still coming in, and I’m getting a paycheck. And you’re going to fire this guy? I did what I could, and they fired him. And it affected me. Like, I didn’t sleep for three days. I called the guy. I tried to meet with him for lunch when he was gone. The last thing a fired employee will do is meet with the guy he thinks got him fired.


And I don’t know. It still affects me that he lost his job, and I couldn’t continue to coach him and try to make him better because that was what I was there to do. But I can tell you, after that happened, it sent a message to the rest of the company that these guys aren’t messing around. Safety is going to be practiced in our company. We made mistakes last year, but going forward, things are changing, and you’re either going to get on board with these changes or you’re not. And if you’re not going to get on board, we don’t have a place for you here. Right.

It sends a message.

It did. And I would rather have that message sent through me. I don’t know why it wasn’t, but his firing me will probably affect me for the rest of my life because I should have been the person who lost their job, but I wasn’t. After the first year, we went from twelve OSHA portables down to three down to one, and eventually, we could get that zero.

That’s tremendous.

It was. But I can tell you that I thought about this from the time I got up until I went to bed every day. And when I looked at the work orders, I looked at the jobs. I came from the field, so I knew what stage these projects were in. I knew what they were doing. I knew the employees, because I only worked with a company that had 100 employees. I knew their safety habits. I knew who would take the time to do things correctly and safely, and I knew who would take shortcuts. And I tried to get myself through those shortcuts before they even happened. Don’t even put the. And that’s something that I think that I preached a lot at all of our owners’ meetings: let’s take these safety decisions out of the field employees’ hands. Let’s plan safety into the job before expecting the field employees to perform work safely. Let’s plan and engineer safety in before they even have a chance to touch it. For instance, when we’re looking at bids, and we’re looking at jobs, we know we’re going to need a shutdown.

Let’s plan that shutdown for them. If we know we have an overhead hazard. Let’s plan two weeks ahead of time that we’re going to rope this area off, and no one’s going to be able to go through here because we know we have this work to do. And that’s where I think shortcuts happen. Somebody thinks I have to get this done to meet this deadline. I have a short time to do it, and safety kind of goes by the wayside. But with proper planning and the employees with the four, every construction project that I’ve been on has a two-week look ahead. Four weeks look ahead. We’re always planning. We’re always trying to hit goals and schedules. Let’s plug safety in there, too.


And I think it can be done when people work together as a team. One of the big things that I’m seeing now is people are, if you’re not safe, let’s say you set your hard hat down for a second, they’re going to walk you off-site, no warnings. Or you make a mistake on a ladder, no warnings. We’re going to walk you off-site. And that’s not something that I can advocate for. I think everybody makes mistakes. The thing that I advocate for is if I see somebody standing on top of a ladder, yes, I’ll admit that’s a poor decision if they’re on the very top of the ladder. I have a bigger problem with the people who are standing on the ground and aren’t saying, let me get you a taller ladder.

The brother’s keeper you were talking about, right? Is somebody else watching you do it?  

Yeah. Let me find a better way to do this. And to me, that’s how you solve your problems. You don’t know what’s going through that person’s mind now. You don’t know what they’re dealing with. Maybe their mind isn’t where it should be that day, but when you walk right on by somebody doing something unsafe, that’s worse than committing the act itself. And there’s no better part or feeling than knowing that your part of a team and someone’s looking out for you. And when someone comes up to you and they say, hey, stop what you’re doing, that’s not safe. I’m going to help you find a better way to do that. That instantly sends a message that this person is looking out for me. I’m part of their team, and they’re going to help me improve. But one thing that I see a lot on LinkedIn that I don’t agree with is somebody will take a picture of somebody who’s doing something foolish and they’ll post it on LinkedIn. That sends a message that safety is just looking for idiots, and we’re all idiots sometimes, but correct. When people walk, you want to limit that.

As you get older, I think you learn from your mistakes and realize you’re not bulletproof. Bad things do happen. But I think being on a team where people look out for one another is the key to safety. And that’s what I try to convey in my presentation: you have to look out for one another. And being part of a team, you have one weak link. The chain breaks if there is a failure. Let’s not point the finger. Let’s figure out where the team went wrong.

I heard a few things from you. One of them was around the safety committees you started it with in terms of getting grassroots engagement and involvement. You also looked at some hard and fast rules that were communicated and were clear. I think planning is a really important one, which is just, let’s plan this through. Like, if I think about what you talked about, your accident, it seemed like it was a last-minute thing. Let’s try to squeeze it in the last 30 minutes of the day. And so right there, there isn’t that advanced plan. Say, okay, what’s the best way to do this? If you call the utility and it was planned work, they’d probably be able to cut it out, but not if you’re calling a three, expecting it to happen at 305.


Then, the last one was really this looking out for each other, the brother’s keeper concept, and really getting people instilled, which I think is a very powerful element, as long as you’ve got multiple people working together.


If you’re a lone worker, your kind of stuck looking out for yourself unless you get a second that’s there, that’s looking out for you.

I agree with that, but it does take discipline when you’re working by yourself. You know how many people know that, to me, nuclear power plants are the safest place in the world. And I know people in my neighborhood that work at a nuclear power plant, and I watch them put up Christmas lights, and I’m like, I know you wouldn’t do that at work. And there’s more than one time when I went and got my extension ladder out of my garage and said, here you go. I think, you know, there’s a safer way to do, you know, most of the time, people appreciate that, and that’s what I try to do: just go out there and do my part and look out for one.

So, Brandon, thank you for sharing your story. I think it’s a very powerful story. References back to safety on the farm and how that was there, but also how you got into trade and the environment was different. And then, it was a very powerful story regarding the incident, but mostly in terms of what you did to pivot safety within the organization. And was it three years that you drove this?

Yeah, I did the job for three years. I wanted to make some more changes in the company. And when I try to do something, I want to be the best. I’m not saying I can be the best, but my vision is always to improve and always take steps forward. And the company did not. They were good with where it was at. They didn’t want to make a lot of changes. They didn’t want to keep evolving. And that’s a big mistake that I think some companies make. They say, well, we didn’t have any accidents last year.

We’re good.

We’re good. And that’s to me like a CEO saying, looking at their numbers and saying, our sales goals were great last year. Let’s try to do the exact same number that we did last year. This next year.

It doesn’t normally happen that way.

No. You always want to do better in business. You always want to try to increase efficiencies and drive revenues up. That’s the whole reason a business exists. And safety is the same thing. You have to try to improve and do better each and every year. You can always do better, no matter how good you are at it.

Agree. So, Brandon, you share your story with multiple different audiences. If somebody wants to get in touch with you, how can they do that?

My website is That’s the best way to get in touch with me. You can read a little bit about my story. I do have some YouTube videos out there that I’ve shot where my wife talks about, and they show some of my family. And that video has been very popular. It is in my presentation as well. But is the best place to reach me if you want to contact me about future speaking engagements.

Sounds good. Thank you, Brandon. I appreciate you taking the time to share your story with many audiences across the country. I think, hopefully, it helps change people’s mindset about how to show up for safety.

All right, well, thank you for having me. This was a big honor. I know this is a popular podcast, and I very much appreciate being part of it.

Thank you, Brandon.

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 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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In 2012, Brandon Schroeder‘s path as a speaker unfolded following a workplace incident in 2011. Having served as a journeyman electrician since 2002, he had envisioned a future in the electrical trade. Brandon was known for his proficiency, diligent follow-through, and on-me task compleon. However, the pivotal moment of his accident led him to see an alternave journey awaing him.

In 2012, he was approached to address a company about the circumstances of his accident. Despite initial reservaons, Brandon agreed. Inially, he thought this would be a one-me endeavor, but he soon discovered that requests for his story would persist. More than a decade later, he connues to share his narrave, influencing safety perspecves. Brandon has delivered presentaons for numerous companies, ranging from global giants to local co-ops. His objecve remains singular—to reach that one individual who needs to hear his story.

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Creating a Safe Environment to Ask Questions and Raise Concerns for a Safer Tomorrow with Paul Mahoney

Creating a Safe Environment to Ask Questions and Raise Concerns for a Safer Tomorrow



We welcome our special guest, Paul Mahoney, to The Safety Guru to share his moving story and his passion for inspiring safer workplaces for all. In 2000, Paul was working in the paper industry in the UK when he suffered a severe injury in the workplace. This critical incident impacted his personal life and set his mission to help others. Listen in as Paul shares valuable insights for fostering a safety culture by creating a safe environment to ask questions and raise concerns. Tune in for inspiration and practical advice on making a positive impact for a safer tomorrow.


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 Paul Mahoney, who’s a motivational, inspiring speaker from the UK on Safety. He has a very powerful story that he’ll be sharing with us today. Paul, welcome to the show.

Thank you, Eric. Hopefully, all your listeners will find this inspiring.

Excellent. Let’s start with your story because you started in the paper industry. Tell me a little bit about the industry and what happened.

Yeah, I joined the industry after leaving college. It would have been 1991 as an 18-year-old. Quite proud because my dad was a papermaker. So yeah, it’s in the blood as such. I started off in conversion. So that was cutting A4 paper in what they call folio paper. So, folio paper is almost your poster-sized paper.


And then over in about ’96, I had the opportunity to join what they called the RCF plant. So FCR plant was really a de-inking plant, and it was a glorified stop prep. So, we took about 180,000 ton of wastepaper in the UK. Predominantly, it was office waste, and we de-inked it and put it back over to the paper machine. Plus, also, we had the ability to make bails The back Port of the Tun bails, and this would go to third parties, primarily to our two sister mills, one in Sitting Balm, which was four miles away from our site, and another in France. It was quite progressive at the time. There weren’t any other sites like it in the graphic paper, but for graphic paper and quality paper, we were straight ahead of everybody else. The 25 of us on the five shifts, quite proud. We were known as the elites in the industry, jokingly, like you are. Yeah. Then in 1999, it was decided we couldn’t keep up with the paper machine when they went 100% recycled because we were about 50 miles from London, and London being the center of the universe and being the world’s end as such.

As I say, we couldn’t keep up with the demand of recycled quality paper. It was decided we could use some of our bales that we use for the sister mills and put it back in the system to keep the paper machine running. Before the machine was installed, you’d probably get about 8-12 hours through before the tower was dropped. But by putting this new system in, we could double the run. It made perfect sense, Mark, from a commercial point of view.


It was installed, and we had issues with it because when the bales were returned, it would go into a macerator It’s all churned up and it would go into a horizontal screw conveyor, and then it would then be taken up by a vertical screw conveyor and then into a repulp. The repulp is basically a giant big food blender.

Okay, sure.

It’s mixed down to a slurry. We found out we used to have problems around the crossover point where the horizontal met the vertical. We had no procedures other than you locked off upstairs in the HV room. You would get a radio call down, and initially, everything was airline. Couldn’t tell you when, but I remember there being a comment around it made too much mess because using the airline on the pulp, it was like confetti.


So, one day, an arm bar appeared about 6 foot high, and that was used to dig out along with the airline. And The beauty of iron bars are they don’t tend to bend like arms and hands. So, there was a start of mission creep where we would use all three methods to dig out. No issues as such. I can’t remember because it’s 20 odd years ago, but I expect there was probably some murmurs around the teams, but you just get on with it. You’re tasked to do a job, so you do it. So fast forward to the 25th of November. It’s a Saturday morning. I’m on a 12-hour shift, so seven in the morning till seven at night. It was the second shift of four because we’d finish at seven o’clock, and then the Sunday, Monday, we would be twelve-hour nights. We did four on, four off. Then seven weeks on, you would get 18 days off, if I remember rightly. So I get to the locker room. I have me handover with me opposite number. It was on the night shift. Told everything shut down. We’re building up the towers ready for the call from the paper machine.

And literally, that was it. So, you’re waiting around. You’re setting yourself up for the day ahead. Because we covered 13 acres amongst the five of us, as I say, lots of walkie-talkie chat. You then get the radio call. Can you set up? So, it’s a matter of changing the valves over, making sure there’s some bales on the feed line, and you’re just waiting for that call. Yeah, repulp was up. We got the right consistency. Away you go. Sure. So go ahead. And there’s three bales left on the infeed conveyor at the top. And these must have been left over a fortnight beforehand because we only run this machine periodically because of the production runs, because it takes a hell of a long time to get a build up for a 100% run. So, first bale drops in, and within a minute, two minutes, you hear the motors scream, so you know you’ve got a problem. Luckily for me, before I reached my radio, one of my colleagues was with me walking through the basement. So, he radios up to somebody and says, look, can you lock her off? She’s blocked. Other colleague goes to the HV room, it’s upstairs, he locks off, he radios down to us to say, Yeah, everything’s good, and away you go.

So, hatches are open, and you start digging out. So, you clear everything up. Obviously, there’s stuff on the floor, but it’s there ready to go. So, you button the hatches up and radio upstairs, and the person in the HV room starts her up. And within 30 seconds, she screams again. So, it’s almost the two of us are now looking each other like, Oh, exactly. It’s going to be a bit of a mare.


So, we repeat the process. And on average, a dig out would take probably about 40 minutes.


So, we’re halfway through the second dig out, and my colleague turns round to us and says, I’ve got an idea, Paul, just to speed us along, because he’s conscious of time and he’s got other jobs to do. If we leave the hatches open, but we run the screw backwards. That way we clear everything out because obviously, feeling the bales, they’re dry, they’re not breaking, they’re not sticking. Okay, fair enough. You do what you do to get a problem sorted quicker than not. So, communication is made. Can you make the screw run backwards. So, you see the pulp spill out until you can actually see the screw and it’s all empty. So, you say to your colleague, can you shut down? Because he’s leading it. And we just have a final check over and we go again. For whatever reason, his radio failed. I got it. So, you can still see the screw turn and you let him know you can see the screw turn and everything. My Raju’s failed, Paul. I’m going to go to the hut and get a new one. So, I said, look, don’t worry about it. We’ll swap Raju’s. I’ve got to go back to the hut anyway after we’ve cleared it out.

And I’ll ride the Raju, at least then you can get on with what else you’ve got to do. So, he repeats the request, shutdown. Paul is going to check the crossover point, and then we’ll go again because we didn’t on a third one. So, you see the screw stop, and because it’s a noisy environment, you do the thumbs up, thumbs down, and all that. So, we both give each other the thumbs It comes up to say it stopped, it looks clear. I’m just going to check, and then we go again. We’ve agreed the plan of attack. I bend down the stick my left arm in because I’m left-handed. I’ve lost visual with him now because being left-handed, you work in a different way. I’m given a final sweep, and before I know it, 1,400 revs a minute, I feel my arm break. So, you think yourself, Oh, great. That’s all I need. And you pull your arm out, expecting to see your arm at a different angle. And all I can see is floor. And this is all microseconds. And you’re registering like, that’s not what I’m supposed to be seeing. So, a lot of industrial language is used.

Collie, he runs down the basement, calling for help. I’m like, well, I’ve got to follow. So natural instinct was, grab my arm because I was the first day to grab my arm or the stump, push it against me chest as tight as I can, and follow him down the basement.


Would have been probably a minute, two minutes. My other colleague, Darren, comes down the basement because he’s heard all the commotion over the radio because he was doing some chemical work. And he pushes me over on the floor and he said, bloody hell, Paul, what you’ve done? He’s expecting me to say, oh, I’ve broken my arm. And the next thing that he’s great with is a stump. So, give me his jaw. He gets on his knees, wraps me stump up He’s jacking his jacket in his IVs, and gets his fist and literally shoves it up the arm pit. So, he’s stemming the blood. And that is the start of an hour of, let’s put it this way, quite intense chats about life, the good, the bad, and the ugly. I remember the paramedics coming along, and obviously, they have to do what they need to do. And what I don’t realize is while they’re working on me, and obviously keeping Darren comfortable because like you’re trained as a first-aider, keep talking to the patient. There’s me thinking, Darren is a patient as well. They called over to the engineer on the paper machine and said, look, we’ve got a bit of an issue.

Could you come over? And they rewound the screw by hand, or manually, sorry, until my arm dropped out, gave him the biggest fright going. There was a little bit of commotion because like you do, you’re in shock. They wrap it up and put it on ice. They managed to get the ice from the local supermarket. The next thing I know, we are taken to the car park because we’re waiting for the air ambulance. So, air ambulance arrives. They say to Darren, Thank you very much. You’ve done all you can. It’s now down to us because Darren wanted to come in the helicopter with me. We get flown to East Brin stead. It’s close to Gatwick Airport. They actually even shut down Gatwick to speed us through to the thing. Takes about 12 minutes, what I understand. We land around about 10:00 in the morning. The door opens. My arm now is in a black sac. It’s given to somebody. I do believe it was a senior sister. I’m taken to the assessment room where literally they cut your clothes off and they want to know the ins and outs of everything. I remember Mr. Davidson. I always remember Mr.

Davidson because he’s got a tag on his belt and he says, Mr. ‘S ‘Davison. ‘ And he says to me, good morning. Would you like your arm back? ‘ No. Knowing this screw moves at 1400 revs, I’m just thinking, ‘Mink’s me. ‘ And he said, no, do you want your arm back? ‘ And I just turned around and said, look, just do whatever you have to. At this point, I’ve been on my back for about three hours. I’m very tired and all I want to do is go to sleep, but you keep going. He said, okay, fair enough. And away he goes, because literally, I’ve given him the yes. I’m preparing myself in a way of if it’s put back on, brilliant. If it’s not, it’s not. And because I’m conscious, I now get somebody else with a clip ball going, could you consent to your operation, please? No. Look, appreciate Paul, you can’t do it, but it’s a legal Stop him. All I could say was, I can’t sign it because I’m left down. He’s like, what is he? You can see the, what am I going to do? He said, oh, just do an X.

I thought, no, I’m not going to do the next. I actually signed my name, and he was like, Are you sure you’re not right-handed? And with that, they will me down to the theater, start at 11:00 in the morning. Then three, four o’clock the following morning, the operation is complete and touch wood. I’ve become the first person and the only person we know of in the UK ever to have their arm reattached above the elbow. So not a great way to find that. Andy will hold 15 minutes of time. I spent a month in hospital. I was out just before Christmas, so I was able to have Christmas with daughter and wife at the time. And then that’s the start of, really, the recovery, doing all the physio and all that. I mean, for the first nine months, I couldn’t feel my arm. It was just there. Luckily, the nerves grow back because they grow about a millimeter a day, if you’re lucky.

Oh, wow.

You can imagine it’s quite a lot of work to grow. Then I went back to work, not on shift, just to get me back into the swing. Then I used to write all the safe operating procedures. I was the carrot and the stick for a few years. It was like, you got to follow these, because if not, you’ll end up like Paul and this, that, and the other. So, yeah, it’s an interesting Saturday morning, shall we say.

I’m not sure interesting is the word I would choose, but yes.

Well, the English language is a lovely…

So, this is something that happened often, the start/stop that you had to clear the circumstances. What are some of the warning signs that readers could have had and acted on?

We had a shift log, and it was in an A4 notebook, and every shift, we would recall what was going on. Now, some shifts were better than others. I must admit, I can remember some shifts going, Yeah, everything’s okay. There’s very little in the book, and you get outside and there’s pomp and sludge everywhere. You’re like, well, something’s obviously gone on. But another time, you’d read the book, or you’d feel the book in yourself. It was like war and peace. You’d make every note of valves being open, motor shut, this, that, and the other. But for that particular bit of kit, it was recorded every time we had a blockage. When the Health and Safety Executive over here in the UK read, they took six month’s worth of logbooks, while I understand. They read about the culture and the standards and all this and the interaction between the shifts, but they’re also reading about this bit of kit. They worked out there was about 33 blockages over a six-month period. Working out, we think that over the year that that machine was run, there must have been about easily 60 blockages that was recorded, because obviously, you don’t always record every blockage if it’s one after the other.

The warnings signs were there, and managers took the shift logs away to read, to pick up what we were doing. It was there in front of them.

Could leaders have inquired or realized it was something and proactively taken some steps to address it?

I think they did because I understand they went to see the manufacturers because it was two bits of kit that was bolted onto the repulped. What I understand was they were told it was the wrong set up and you’re going to have to get on with it. That mentality then rolled down to us.

To just deal with it.

Yeah. It was quite interesting. I remember because I’d worked in the conversion, we used to dump our wastepaper on a conveyor that went up to the reop on the PM side. I remember having a conversation with one of our chief engineers and said, why aren’t we copying the paper machine? And it was literally, look, it’s been built, you’re going to get on with it. So, it was already in their mindsets somewhere along the line.

To just accept and deal with it. Yeah.

It’s not just an organizational issue there. It was an industrial issue as well from the paper industry. We were very much production, getting it out, getting it out, getting it out, almost, mindset, which I’m glad to say We’ve got a little bit mature now on that side of things. This episode of the Safety Guru podcast is brought to you by Propulo Consulting, the leading safety and safety culture advisory firm. Whether you are looking to assess your safety culture, develop strategies to level up your safety performance, introduce human performance capabilities, re-energize your BBS program, enhance supervisory safety capabilities, or introduce unique safety leadership training and talent solutions, Propulo has you covered. Visit us at

From a peer standpoint, what was the accepted practice at the time? You said, get it out, get it out.

Yeah. I mean, that was leg to us on the thing. I think because there was just the five of us on shift, It was very much work as a team from our point of view, because we was E-Shift, and I always joke E stands for excellent, and we’ll let you work out what A, B, C, and D was called. It was very much, let’s be the best, let’s set the standards. From an individual point of view, you don’t want to be seen as the idiot, the weakest link of the group.

The troublemaker. Exactly.

Let’s just get on with it. Obviously, the team doesn’t want to be seen as the worst shift. Obviously, I’ve already said to you in the conversation, we jokingly said we was the elites because nobody can match us.

But elites for getting things out the door. Not from a safety standpoint.

Yeah. We’re almost How can I put it? Setting ourselves up for a fall because we’re setting high standards for ourselves.

Yeah, but high standards from a production standpoint.

Yeah, and quality.

Which drove the culture.

And quality, which tends to be the underpin for most organizations’ companies, because that’s what they’re there for, is to get stuff either built or out the door. How can I put it? You deal with what you faced at the time. If you see a problem, you’re almost, how can I put it, a 3D massive puzzle at times. We don’t like emitting defeat, do we, as a human being at all?

You mentioned, I thought it was interesting when we first spoke, one of the things I jotted down is you’re more likely as a team, I think you call it a band of brothers, to raise concern if it was a contractor, but less amongst peers.

Yeah. Let’s put it this way. I’ve worked with the guys four years. You will find your role. Yeah, I think there’s a lot of teams that work together. As I say, because we work 12-hour shifts, we knew each other probably better than our own partners in a way.

You’re spending half the day, four days a week.

Yeah. When you’re only spending probably four, five hours with family and eight hours of sleep, you feel that bond with each other. Why would you want to upset the apple cart and pull people up where actually the contractor is on site?

They’re not your mates?

No. I hate to say an easy target, but you can go, Yeah, no PPE or no log. You haven’t done that properly, this, that, and the other, and walk away going, Yeah, that told him, where, as I say, you- You wouldn’t do that to appear. No. You are that band of brother’s mentality in certain parts. But it is, I think, realizing just having that one second conversation is the difference between someone going home or not. It’s nothing rude or anything. It’s just, look, just take that step back and just having that five minutes just to recollect their thoughts. Because as I say, sometimes when you are up against it, you just go deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole.  

The other element is, how do you foster an environment to raise concerns? What you described essentially there is, we don’t raise concerns with each other. We’re comfortable raising it with a contractor, but how do How do you rewire a crew, a team to start thinking about, we need to raise concerns with each other?

I think it starts in the canteen, to be honest, it’s using that time just to reassess, using it as that toolbox talk and just having that honest conversation with each other. I remember one time, and this was early in the day of joining the payment industry, somebody holding up their right-hand with their index finger missing and going, you’re not a papermaker until you lose one of these.

You’re missing a finger.

And like you do, okay. But now that would be, Come on, really? Is that how you think about it? As I say, we have grown up and you see it now, the youngsters are more aware because they’re brought up with health and safety now, especially in the Western world, from where I think when I was 18 in ’91. But there are still some elements, and I think it’s about isolating them elements that don’t want to join in because they’ve done it that way all the time. But as I say, for me, it’s using them, canteen moments, them celebratory moments, and even social events, if possible. Just to raise the awareness and get things raised. As I say, it’s not about telling people off. It’s just raising awareness with people because people like people like themselves, if that makes sense. It does. They rather listen to their mate saying, ‘Oh, I noticed this, ‘ than somebody in a shirt and tie potentially coming down and going, you did that wrong. We caught you on CCTV. ‘ But it’s about honesty more than anything you think else.

I remember when we connected first, one of the things you touched on is, and I thought that was quite interesting in terms of we talk about raising concerns, but we’re not encouraged to question in society from early school days. Tell me a little bit more about that piece, because I think it’s an interesting point. We’re saying questioning attitude, raise concerns. But that goes through upbringing, that goes to first day on the and so forth.

Yeah. I’m going to go through it probably in the next year or so. Granddaughter’s free, so she’s starting to ask questions. I already know mom and dad will metacognitively beat it out of her like, ‘Oh, just go and see your grandfather, go and see your name. ‘ It does start from an early age; we pooh-pooh questions asked. Then we go to school and the person at the front of the class, the teacher, knows best this is how you’re going to do it. How can I put it? You’re taught how to answer questions on a question paper. You’re not encouraged to ask lots of questions. Obviously, college, university is slightly differently because you do the debate and then you go to work and you’re given a set of risk assessments, method statements. This isn’t every organization, but I’ve seen it where they print it all off and just go, Sign that for us.

From a compliance standpoint, right?

Yeah, because they’re not… I’m not got time. We’ve got to get it out the door. So, you get onto the shop floor or on the building site or wherever, and you just get on with it. You might ask the odd question when you’re training, but it’s more this is how you do it, and you go, okay, but what happens if that happens? And you’ll find out when it goes wrong. So, as I say, from a very young age, it’s metaphysically beaten out of us not to ask questions, not to upset the apple cart status quo, because this is how we’ve always done things. And it’s breaking that taboo. We are getting better, I think. We are learning a little bit better because I must admit, the young are now, because they got all social media and Wikipedia and God knows what else, the internet, they’re a little bit more savvy, so they will go finding stuff.


But it’s still out there not to ask any questions. Just follow whoever’s training you.

But I think that element also reemphasises the importance for leaders to really create that questioning attitude within their environment, because if you look at it from a mindset that we’ve been preconditioned to follow, preconditioned to listen, not challenge, then it’s a duty as you come into the organization to really change that, to create an environment of how we do it here, to encourage people to speak up, encourage people to question, to ask some additional questions around it, and understand the why and the how behind things.

Yeah, and for me, from a leader point of view, it’s actually getting out and talking to your people rather than being guided round, as I would call it, the disciple route, where you get the top person and then you get a couple more unslings, and they’re basically just guided round the organization. I’ve known a couple of directors to actually go, I’m going to put me uniform on, and I’m going out on me own. I think that then starts to break down the barriers where they feel that they can ask questions and vice versa. Because I think sometimes leaders don’t want to upset the apple car either because they just want to be guided around. Sure. Yeah, it’s a bit of a pincer movement, as in both sides talking to each other. I think there’s sometimes that barrier where either side feel that they can’t talk to each other. But yeah, as I say, I think these are coming together where leaders need to get out on their own and talk to the guys and girls in their organization. Because at the end of the day, the boys and girls in an organization, especially the operatives, they’re the experts.

They know what’s going on probably more than somebody in the boardroom and up a manager as such, don’t get me wrong, they’re also experts in their field. But the actual day-to-day, it leads- Those doing the work know best.

One of the things they often mention or talk about is the importance of listening to us, right? So going out to listen to people, to hear what’s working, hear what’s not working, not to tell people, not to do most of the talking, but to do mostly the listening while you’re there. Yeah.

And obviously that’s quite hard because if they hear the top person’s walking around, right, I’m going to dump all my troubles on their shoulders. But yeah, listening is really important. I think it’s a… How can I put it? Depending on where you come from, it’s a bit of a skill. It Because us, Bricks, we just love to chat and chat and chat and chat. We feel that space at times rather than just taking that natural pause.

To listen, to understand. In this particular case, to understand the warning signs where this is happening regularly and what techniques, but also maybe this frustration building because of the number of times you’re clearing the gems.

Yeah. I did some work for printers, and I remember the plant manager saying to me, he said, it doesn’t matter what we do, we’re still having issues I said, look, you’ve just done a 15-minute safety talk. Whatever. It’s brilliant. I said, but what are the guys and girls faced with. They leave the room, they go down the corridor, they open the door to the factory, and what are they hit with? They’re hit with machine either side doing… Then they’re hit with the dashboard at the bottom of their machine telling them how fast they’ve gone, what the record is, this, that, and the other. Then they’re hit with more production, more quality, more maintenance, and then a little bit of safety. You can spend that time really drumming down on the, yes, we get it, we get it. But as soon as they hit that shop floor, they just hit with production. So, everything that they’ve- That’s the learning, right?

That’s what I end up doing is what I keep hearing. And if 5% of my message or what I hear is safety, It doesn’t feel like something that’s important here. Yeah.

As soon as they explained it like, Yeah, I get it. It was just like, Right, do you need to stop everything, put the other two machines on a break while you deliver your safety? So at least then there’s time to absorb what you’ve said.

The other part that screams to me is, why was there no lockout-tagout when you’re so close to this type of equipment? I’m hoping they’ve since implemented a proper lockout-takeout. Right.

As soon as the accident happened, obviously, HSE come in and et cetera. What I understand is they put a Cascade interlocking key system in. If they needed to get in, they took the keys out. The hatches had Maglocks put on them because before it was just wedges.


There was a load of mandatory notices is on there as well. It’s like, make sure you isolate this, that, and the other. Which let’s put it this way, when I went back to work, it took me a few months and literally it was like, this is what happened when the horse bolts. I remember tapping the machine and just saying, Right, we call this a score draw, will we? Because I’ve got my arm back and you’re still running thing. But it was a real serious learning. I think from an organizational point of view, you buy the kit from technically the experts, because these people are the experts who manufacture. You think all the safety devices, and everything is built in.

It’s built into the equipment, right?

Where obviously it wasn’t. I can’t honestly say whether the manufacturers, when they built it, actually looked at what we intended to do. But yeah, no, as I said, they put local isolation points in. I do believe in 2008, it got decommissioned and taken out because they didn’t need to do the process anymore because of a takeover.

Got you. Yeah.

As I say, it needed the near miss because I was the near miss because I’ve been asked before, oh, there must have been near missy before you. We needed my incident to actually say, oh, we’ve missed something.

But were there near misses before that just didn’t get reported?

What I understand is there was none, but I did interview the shift before who run it, and they had two guys at three o’clock in the morning, either side, with up to their arm pits digging out. Technically, yes, unsafe act, unsafe condition. Sure. But was it seen as a new risk or a risk.


Because technically, it was part of the job.

I think this is the piece, as it became so much part of the job that it didn’t seem like undue risk. Again, if somebody else was walking, listening, maybe would realize, hopefully, that something’s missing from a lockout-tagout standpoint and the process needed to be tweaked.

Yeah. I’ve said to a lot of people that actually anybody from the organization that they walk past, because there must have been a few people who’ve walked past and gone, Hang on a minute.

This doesn’t seem right.

But you’re so conditioned just to walk on. I wouldn’t say walk on by, but just get on with your job. No question was ever asked.

But even having a second pair of eyes, somebody who’s not conditioned to seeing this as normal, might be all that it would take to catch something before.

Yeah, definitely. As I say, I’ve done some work with other organizations on the mystery shop, the fresh eyes approach of just, Hang on a minute. Why are we doing it?

Why are you doing this Yeah.

That’s had some good success. People stop and then start to talk and go, we’re having this issue, et cetera.

Before the incident happens, right?

Yeah, which comes back to that conversation and communication, listening, et cetera.

Excellent. Paul, you speak regularly to different audiences. Tell me a little bit about how somebody can get in touch with you, if they’d like you to come and share your story and help motivate around safety.

Yeah, on LinkedIn, just look for Paul Mahoney. You’ll see my grinning little face on there. Or they can contact me via my website, which is Always happy to help inspire, get a conversation generating, which is the more important thing, because once that conversation is generated, the barriers break down between peers and leaders. It gives them a fresh idea of what’s going on potentially in their organization or on their site.

So, Paul, thank you so much for joining us today, and thank you for sharing your story. I’m really happy that you’re the first success story in the UK of somebody with a reattached arm. That’s at least a phenomenal, good news out of all of this.

Lovely. No, thank you, Eric. Thank you for the invite. And hopefully, we’ve inspired some change and some conversations between people. Yes.

Thank you, Paul.

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 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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Back in 2000, Paul Mahoney was one of 600 who suffered a major injury in the Paper Industry and one of 27,000 in the whole of the UK. He is the first (to our knowledge) who had his left arm severed above the elbow and, in a 16-hour operation, had it reattached successfully. Paul shares his story with companies and uses his experiences to guide them to a safer culture by building an important bridge between staff, safety professionals, and leaders. Paul has written two books, one about his accident and the other about LEGO Serious Play and how to use the methodology to build a better culture. He has had several safety articles published as well. 

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From Aviation to Healthcare: How System Factors Drive Safety Decisions with Norman MacLeod

From Aviation to Healthcare How System Factors Drive Safety Decisions



Don’t miss our latest episode on The Safety Guru! Join us as Norman MacLeod, a seasoned expert in organizational human factors, shares decades of experience and a wealth of knowledge with us. Drawing from his extensive background in both aviation and healthcare, Norman shares the critical system factors influencing safety decisions within organizations through riveting research findings and real-life examples. Gain invaluable insights and practical solutions to navigate system impacts in your organization. Tune in now!


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 Norman McLeod, who has deep expertise in Aviation Safety and a really good understanding of the impact of system and system factors on safety. Norman, welcome to the show.

Thank you very much, Eric.

Norman, let’s get started a little bit about your background because you’ve got a lot of years and a lot of experience in aviation safety.

Okay. Where to start? When you’re my age, there’s a lot to talk about. So, my degree is in Botany and zoology. So, I’ve always had an interest in systems from a biological perspective. When I was in the Air Force, I was involved with training young officers and leadership training. And then I moved into being a training specialist on the Charlie 130 transport aircraft. That led me to observe a lot of crews flying, and I was amazed at the differences between how crews function. That got me interested in this idea of, well, crew resource management, although we didn’t call it that back then. Sure. But it’s this whole thing about how people work together, but more broadly, how the system functions. How does the behavior of the crew, in this case, how does the bigger picture influence it? What are we trying to achieve by sticking people in an airplane and sending them to war? How do bigger decisions about, say, tactics and strategy elsewhere shape how the crew functions? Now, I know that probably sounds a little bit crazy, but it was this fascination, how you couldn’t really look at things in isolation.

You had to see the bigger picture to understand why things happened. So that’s what really got me going. And then when I left the Air Force, I moved into civil aviation. And again, I found it was how an airline works was probably more interesting than necessarily how individuals work. And it seemed that relationship between what are the business goals. What’s the airline trying to achieve? And how does that filter through to the operation and shape how individual pilots do their job? Pilots is where I’ve spent a lot of my work, but I’ve seen cabin crew as well. And then in the last few years, I’ve tried to get a foothold in health care. And there, unless you take the bigger picture, you really can understand the way a health care system works. So that’s a rough trajectory that gets me to where I am today.

It’s Phenomenal. So, your themes on systems are very complex. Many organizations are challenged to understand the linkage between different events, like what you talked about, and how the context in which I’m operating impacts my decision-making. One thing that really struck me when we first connected is that when you talked about the purpose of the business, you talked about this financial purpose. Tell me a little bit more about that theme.

Okay. Well, at the end of the day, an entity exists in a commercial sense to generate a return on investment. Sure. Even if you look at something like emergency helicopters or police helicopters, you’ve got similar constraints there in that although you’re not generating a return on the investment, you’ve got to generate capability within budget. So therefore, everything is driven by money at the end of the day, either in a constraint sense or in an output sense. And how a business configures itself to make money and then shapes things like, in an airline’s case, what routes do you fly? What aircraft do you operate? What’s the age of your aircraft? What technical support do you give to your crews? Where do you recruit your crew from? How many crews per aircraft? What’s the turnover rate? So, there are so many factors that are driven by those financial decisions, and half the time, managers are not necessarily aware of the relationship between their decisions. They think they’re just doing the best job for their shareholders. I don’t think they see the relationship between those decisions and what happens out on the line and how that affects safety because that’s the bit that I’m interested in.

How is it likely to either put people in a position they’re not prepared for or put people in a position that they are possibly not fully motivated to deal with? Okay, I’m going to be careful what I say here. Nonetheless, that relationship between business decisions percolates through into things like morale, motivation, and skills level. I’m doing work in health care at the moment. You have a high turnover rate. So, the problem you’ve got is staffing. Now, you’ve got to recruit them. You’ve got to train them. You’ve got to retain them. But if you have a high churn rate and also your gapping posts, you’re actually putting the load on the remaining healthcare workers. I was talking to someone recently. They’ve had a big recruitment drive. They’ve got a lot of new stuff. That sounds like a good idea. No, it just adds to the oversight because you’re constantly doing your own work and making sure the new people are doing their job properly as well. So that’s what I mean by the relationship between management decisions and safety out on the line.

And your point linking it to financial purposes is very good. And I think the other element is it translates indirectly What you talked about just there is the financial link to, say, the HR practices around the recruiting, which are also driven by the financials. We’re not saying we shouldn’t be financially driven. We’re not saying we shouldn’t be trying to provide a profit. But how do we also educate the rest of the organization about those decisions that I’m making that can ultimately impact safety? Is that a fair comment?

Yeah. It’s naive to ignore the need for financial viability. The airline wouldn’t exist if it weren’t making money. It’s as simple as that. But an example I gave when we first spoke is a carrier I worked with in Southern Europe. It is a very seasonal operation. So, they recruit seasonal cabin crew that just do the summer period. And I was able to track through their numbers, the baseline permanent crew, the arrival of the new hires, the time it took to train the new hires and get them out on the line, which lagged behind the increase in summer traffic. So, at the front end of the season, you have that tension between the speed of getting the new hires out into productive flying and the demand because you’re selling seats to holidaymakers. And the way that was manifested was two things. The first is at the front end of the season, you got this spate of slides being set off accidentally because you’ve got new hire staff who are not fully capable with the vessel in the world. You’ve got high operational demand. This was reflected at the start of every summer season, with all of these slides being deployed accidentally.

Now, it settled down as they gained their experience. But then the next thing you saw at the back end of the season, as the traffic started to decline and the summer hires started to go back to other jobs, your long-term sickness went up, and it was strange how it was lagging everything else. What it suggests is your permanent crew was working so hard that you had this bout of long-term sickness absence, usually stress-related, which you then carry through the winter. And that’s what led me to believe that it must be the permanent staff that is affected by the stress of getting through the summer because your summer casuals have left the company. Your high sickness rate is due to the permanent staff recovering during the winter period. So that’s what I mean by the relationship between the business model, which is seasonal, based on holidaymakers who want to go to the south of Europe, and then how that’s reflected in your recruitment policies, your training policies, and how you see the effect in adverse events and true sickness.

And for those who don’t come to aviation, a slide deployment is not a good thing. It could kill somebody very easily because of the impact and the force of the deployment of a shoot or slide and the pace at which it does it. Plus, it causes operational issues and costs. It’s a huge slowdown on aviation.

Exactly. The aircraft is taken offline. The slides have to be replaced. I have spoken to someone who was in the forward galley when a slide went off inside the airplane. Inside? Yeah. If you don’t go out of the way, it can hurt.

Oh, boy. Phenomenal example. You also had an example from an Asian carrier related to fatigue and scheduling. I’d love it if you could touch on that one as well.

Okay. Now, fatigue is a big burning issue in lots of safety-sensitive areas. It’s something that I’m looking at in health care at the moment. But I look specifically at a career as a pilot in an Asian carrier. I’m grateful to the pilots for tolerating me and answering all my questions. However, there are two types of fatigue. You can see, you can call it acute fatigue, which is in simple terms, and a real psychologist will shoot me for this. Just call it tiredness. You can usually recover from acute fatigue by having a couple of good night’s sleep. And that’s the fatigue that is measured in fatigue risk management systems that are commonplace in aviation. They’re trying to introduce them into health care in the UK. And that’s fine. But it only looks at one aspect of fatigue. The other aspect of fatigue is just basically the psychological effect of the daily grind. You can call that chronic fatigue, and that’s like having a rucksack on your back. And a good night’s sleep is not going to have anything to do with that. It’s your morale and motivation. It’s your work-life balance. And I was able to, on the one hand, look at the acute fatigue.

I tracked how fatigue built during the working day as such. I was able to look at relationships between that and error rates. So, this operator, they were 24/7. I looked at night cargo. And what I found was that if you were a local pilot operating night cargo, you were flying off your body clock. So, you were flying at the time of day when you should have been asleep. If you then compared those with the crew that operated long haul, so they were now flying during the night in the local area, but their body clock was still on home base. So, it was daytime for them. If you look at the relationship, the people who were flying daytime body clock, but local night, their error rates were less than half those that were forcing themselves to stay awake and fly through what we call that window of circadian load, that period between, say, I don’t know, 2:00 and 4:00 in the morning. When your body is just screaming out to go to sleep. So, that was one aspect of it. But when you then look at the chronic fatigue side, the psychological side of things,

Now, you’ve got to think of, first of all, what’s the baseline? And there haven’t been, and that’s the problem when you look at fatigue in particular. We don’t really know what normal looks like. So, the few studies that have looked at this idea of chronic fatigue in the normal population suggest that 30 to 40 % of the average person in the street, if they were tested, would be showing signs of chronic fatigue. You look at health care, you’re looking at 65 to 70 %. You look at aviation, and I know of four studies that have used the same benchmark. So, you can do the comparison. And for pilots, you’re looking at about 80 %. So, 80 % of the workforce is showing signs of chronic fatigue. Okay, the question is, so what? You’ve then got to look at what are the other effects that flow from that? And here’s where you see things like excessive daytime sleepiness. That’s a standard measure that’s used. It’s the propensity to fall asleep. So, you sit down in an armchair, and before you know it, you’ve dozed off. If you have excessive daytime sleepiness, it correlates with mental health.

About 20% of airline pilots are above the threshold of daytime sleepiness, which suggests they’re at risk of mental health effects. But then I also looked at work-life balance. And again, if you scored high on chronic fatigue, your work-life balance was adversely affected. And I looked at a global measure of mental and physical health now that this thing has been used all around the world, and it’s well established. And again, high chronic fatigue correlates with poor mental health. So, That aspect of fatigue is not addressed in any way by the regulatory framework. It just deals with the sleep side of it. So you’ve got two problems here in aviation and in health care. We try to measure one bit to control it. We ignore the other bit because it’s too difficult. And now, we come back to where we started this conversation. So there’s a big trend at the moment for well-being, peer support, and things like that. And a lot of airlines do give their support to peer support groups within their airlines. I’m going to be a bit radical that’s actually the airline avoiding its responsibility. It’s tokenism.

The people involved are genuinely doing the best job they can. But this is a piece of band-aid. So we’re trying to fix the problem by letting people have access to a support network. What we’re not doing is fixing the problem at source. So, it’s an easy way out. Now, how do you fix the problem at source? Well, that’s the challenge because there is no one size fits all. There’s the age effect, there’s the type of flying, and there are so many variables. It’s difficult. Each individual airline has to recognize the problem and work out a solution that works for them. But never underestimate human nature. So, in the UK, With the introduction of the European Working Time Directive, working hours in health care were capped. A common model is doctors and nurses working three 12-hour shifts a week. And that means they reach their total. A 12-hour shift is frankly crazy, from a safety perspective, in a domain like health care. But if you do customer satisfaction surveys, what you’ll find is a lot of nurses, and I just happened to have looked at a study of nurse attitudes—a lot of nurses like doing three 12-hour shifts. 

Because it gives them four days a week, they can do overtime.

But that keeps you away from your rest.

Something that is trying to limit your effort for beneficial reasons creates a situation where people can do something that they want to do because they want more money. It’s working against itself. And then this is always the problem in all of this: you’ve always got to remember that there is human nature at work. So, there is the perfect world, and there’s the real messy world of human beings. And even when you’re trying to do things in the best interest of human beings, meetings will have other motivations.

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Regarding your aviation example, there was another one you shared with me, which was another Asian carrier as well around fatigue and linked to scheduling. And this had to do with flying over China, airspace being restricted, and how fuel loads would also be impacted.

Yeah, this is where it does start to get messy. There are two aspects there. We’ve also got to remember we’re talking geopolitics to a degree. Chinese airspace, for example, Because the military controls it, and they have a huge tendency to suddenly shut down blocks of airspace because they’re having an exercise of some sort. You might not even know about it until you’re able. Now, that’s going to have an effect on your routing, which means that for all long-haul carriers operating through that airspace, fuel management is an issue and does require crews to properly understand how to manage the fuel on their aircraft. You will find crews arriving at the destination after 12 hours of flying, seriously having to manage the fuel remaining. Then, of course, you’ve got weather effects that could mess up your best plan when you arrive at the destination. That’s one side of it. But then you’ve got another aspect.

On the one hand, you’ve got the effects of fatigue on performance. You’re asking people to manage complex situations that are unpredictable whilst tired. You will see decision-making that is probably not because people think the simplest thing to do is to get the aircraft on the ground.

And in so doing, they sometimes take risks that you wouldn’t expect from a properly rested crew. But the other thing you’ve got is We get back to the business side of it. Aircraft are dispatched with enough fuel to get to the destination with a contingency. And there are computer programs that manage this and build in seasonal variability and the routes flying, et cetera. But you’ll always have pilots who want to take a bit more. I worked for a European airline once, and it was affectionately known as Auntie Betty’s Tun. So, at dispatch, you’d get your planned fuel, and then you’d add a ton for Auntie Betty. All the pilots call it that. Which, of course, you burn fuel to carry fuel, so that’s inefficient. But what I was finding was that as pilots get older, they like a quiet life. So, if I looked at the pilots who carried more than planned fuel, it was typically the older pilots because they wanted a quiet life. They didn’t want to be in a position where they were suddenly presented with a challenge. I would speak to first officers about this, and they’d say, look, I fly with these guys.

Some of them are naked. They don’t want to do anything that will add to that burden. This is where you see that relationship between what’s in the best interest of the airline, what the attitude to the job, and the effects of fatigue all come together in a lack of efficiency. So that’s something that came out of some of the work that I did.

And these are all phenomenal examples because very few organizations are able to track the relationship between these decisions that are part of the system. How do you go about in an organization surfacing these themes, and how do you drive solutions around some of these system impacts?

Right. If I had the answer to that. The first issue, of course, is knowing the scale of the problem. And I return to that cadre of pilots who kindly answered my questionnaire. The number of times people would say to me, well done for trying, but no one will listen. And I said, Yeah, but Management can’t know what it now knows. So, if they don’t understand the scale of the problem, then they’re in a position just to ignore it. So, the first thing you’ve got to do is to reveal the problem. But the real challenge in something like aviation is that it is fundamentally safe without a shadow of a doubt. And pilots, the practitioners, the people who work in those systems, work to keep themselves safe. So, to a degree, the risk that’s inherent in what we’re talking about here is masked because people are pragmatic They work hard. They sort things out in real time. What they don’t necessarily do is share the risks they’re exposed to. So, for example, my study of fatigue. I had more than one pilot would come up to me in class and give me an example of when they fell asleep at the controls of the airplane.

Sure. And I said, did you report that? And they laughed at me and said, you’ve got to be killing. There is no way I would own up to that. And this is where reporting systems don’t really capture the whole problem. I hate to say it, but it’s an area where we need to start thinking about other technological solutions. I mean, trains, for example, have the technology to detect when a train driver might be dosing off.

Sure. Some cars nowadays even have that ability built in.

Yeah. So, although it will be fiercely resisted on airplanes, maybe the time has come to start looking at wearable technology. There are all sorts of things we could start to use now because, at the end of the day, we want to protect the crew as well as the passengers. So, nobody’s more important on that airplane. Everyone’s got to come home safely at the end of the day. But the thing is, first of all, you’ve got to establish the scale of the problem. You’ve got to explore the implications of it. For example, we were talking about how to reduce fatigue. Well, work less. And the answer you get every time is that that would involve spending more money. Well, actually, it doesn’t. So, I was looking at some studies of nurses in another country. They were reducing the working week from five days to four days. What they found was that productivity went up, and sickness absence was reduced. So, the net cost was the same at the end of the day. You ended up with a happier workforce who were there more often than they used to be. So, part of the problem is just resistance to doing something differently.

But we’ve got to look at things like that. On the personal side of it, I talked about nurses who like three-day weeks so they can do overtime. One UK operator I was aware of did offer reduced contracts to some of the older pilots. A colleague told me of a friend who opted for this, and what he found was that because of the UK taxation system, by flying less, he got paid less. But when you took out the reduced tax bill, the net loss was negligible compared to the improved home life, and everything went with it. So, it was a price worth paying. Now, of course, not Everybody can make a salary sacrifice. If you’re younger, you’ve got a family, these things are challenging, which is why one size does not fit all. But it’s a case of exploring. And what I’ve just said there is the answer. I have adaptable contracts according to pilot needs based on where they are in their life cycle. It just requires progressive HR departments. That’s all. It’s not rocket science at the end of the day. The evidence is all out there if people go looking for it.

And part of where you started at the front end is that businesses are financially driven, which is perfectly fine. But we also tend to talk about safety at the operational level. So, in aviation, we’ll talk about safety for the flight crews. But we don’t necessarily talk as much about safety to the finance department or the HR department to understand how they impact a perfect day for a pilot. And there’s an element of awareness in the decision-making that also can have a key impact.

Exactly. And this is why you have to start looking at that bigger systems view. So, we’ve just introduced the equivalent of an air accident investigation branch into health care. And it’s just been reorganized and given a new name. The first report that it published just a couple of months ago was on whether healthcare needs a safety management system. The new interim chief executive announced the report and made a comment that finance directors need to get more involved. Now, that created a furor, and the Health System Finance Directors have their own little Trade Union, and they went public criticizing this comment. So, I wrote a little article, which went out on a blog, and I said that finance Directors do have an effect on safety.


And here’s how. And I developed this systems model. If you think about an organization, it’s a hierarchy of decision-making. I’m at the bottom, and I make decisions about how I’m going to do my job when I turn up for work. I make decisions about things like, am I even going to come to work today because I don’t feel very well? Once I’m at work, I’m part of a team. I’m surrendering some of my autonomy to be a team member. The team, whether it’s the crew on the aircraft or it’s the department I work in, makes decisions about the allocation of responsibilities. What are our goals? How do we apportion tasks and jobs?

There’s a level of decision-making there about the organization of work. And then I’ve already said, the next level up is the organization itself, the airline. And it makes a set of decisions. It’s all decisions that drive outcomes. And then above the airline, of course, you’ve got the regulator. So, the regulator decides how aviation will run within its jurisdiction. So, I was just trying to elaborate on this model and show how decisions made by, in this case, finance directors, as we’ve already alluded to, do have an effect on the front line and will shape safety.

But the problem is, and here, when you start thinking about systems, you’ve got to consider cross-scale effects. An act in one area will have an outcome in another area, but in ways that you possibly couldn’t predict, you couldn’t anticipate, and therefore, you couldn’t manage for. You just have to live with it but recognize that it’s a possibility that your decisions will work in ways you never really intended.

It’s a lot more frequent and common than we think. The complexity as well from a system standpoint, and this in some of the examples that I’ve seen is the impact of a decision doesn’t necessarily manifest itself that day, that week, that month. In the examples you shared, there was proximity. But I’ve seen the impact of decision-making, particularly when you’re talking about hiring, where you have hiring peaks because we talked about seasonality, but sometimes there are good years, and there are bad years financially. And so, there’s big hiring, some years, and then you don’t hire for a couple of years. That can have an impact three or seven years down the road in terms of the level of proficiency skills that people had because they weren’t necessarily properly trained or didn’t have the experiences they needed. And so that becomes easier to abdicate the role of my decision to the impact. But the other element is safety, not the absence of injuries or events. And so, if I take one pound or a dollar for a particular transaction if I take a penny out, probably there’s no impact. If I take two pennies out, there will probably be no impact.

If I take three, maybe not. And so, there’s a complexity there. You don’t know where there’s a trigger. If I cut something, when’s the impact? Could it have an impact 3-7 years down the road?

Yeah, exactly. I worked with an airline once that had a very stable workforce, and they’d all grown old together.

Wow, that’s rare.

Some of them were now getting to the point where it was time to retire and move on to other things. So they had a little recruitment drive, and it was absolute chaos because the workforce that had been there for years had learned to communicate by telepathy. We’re talking about cabin crew. You only had to look down the cabin, and you knew what the other person wanted. All of these new hires that had just come in, young kids, clearly hadn’t had the telepathy chip in schools when they were recruited. The breakdown in the crew functioning was, if it weren’t funny, it would be quite awful. But it was something that we tend not to really think about. The fact that a low churn rate is almost as bad as a high churn rate. We’ve got to reflect on the fact that we need to keep reminding ourselves of how we do the job. And then when someone new comes along, they’re not going to know how we do the job, and therefore, training and communication are all the more important.

Even if you think about 2008, there was very little hiring in the airline industry or most industries in general. The same thing happened around COVID, with very little hiring. All of this has an impact from a system standpoint because there’s less experience. People weren’t flying as much. We weren’t recruiting at the same pace as usual. And then suddenly, you might have the scenario you talked about about the Southern European airline, where you’ve got a huge influx of new talent, and that creates more stretch on the existing resources. Yeah, it’s a problem. Fascinating topics. Any closing thoughts on the system side and encouraging people to really start exploring that side of safety?

It was It is the next frontier. Partly, that’s why I’ve always been interested in how the organization works. So, in the European CRM regulation, there was always this one-line entry about organizational factors. I’m thinking, well, what are those organizational factors? Because it doesn’t tell you anywhere in the curriculum document, it’s just there. And that tacit recognition that the organizational behavior has an effect. And that’s why I became interested in it. But it’s always seemed to me to be, it’s the final frontier. We’re just scraping at the surface of how the business works and the implications of the way it does business. If I was going to say, well, one thing, at the worker level, the natural tendency is to get resentful and to blame the then. Management. Whichever floor they work on, it’s that floor that is the problem. If it’s operational management, the flight Ops Department Is the same as line pilots. They think the same, they act the same, and they have the same problems. The non-operational managers have a different focus, so understand what their different focus is. Don’t get angry with them.

They’re just trying to do a different job from yours, but they’re still trying to make sure that everyone gets paid at the end of the day. So, part of the problem is that people tend to get defensive rather than trying to understand why the other bit of the organization behaves the way it does. And then that’s from the bottom, looking up. From the top, looking down, it’s an awareness of the fact, as we’ve just said, that whatever you do will have an outcome you didn’t anticipate. So, try to understand how that might be and appreciate that the workforce, like you, are just trying to do its job. To the best of its ability. But the fact remains, unless we understand how these factors work and what the relationships between decision-making and outcome are, then we’re never going to make this system as safe as it ought to be. It is safe because people behave in a safe manner. It’s not necessarily safe because of how the organization has designed the work process and equipped the workforce to do its job to the best of its ability. That’s the bit we got to get sorted out.

Thank you, Norman. I really appreciate your insights, and your tangible examples really bring this to life. So, thank you very much for joining us.

You’re more than welcome.

And if somebody wants to get in touch with you, Norman, what’s the best way to do that?

I’m on LinkedIn. I don’t know. Maybe you can post my email address. I’m happy to go out. I’m out there somewhere.

Thank you, Norman. Cheers.

Yes. Bye.

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 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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Norman MacLeod served in the Royal Air Force for 21 years in the Training and Education specialization. During that time, he was involved in a number of pilot training projects, the most extensive of which was his involvement in C-130 transport aircraft crew training.  On leaving the RAF, he worked for 17 years as a consultant delivering CRM to pilots and cabin crew in over 25 countries around the world. In 2011 he joined Cathay Pacific in Hong Kong as the Human Factors Manager. Returning to the UK in 2019, he is now employed as a Patient Safety Partner in the National Health Service. He has written 2 books on aspects of instructional systems design in aviation, and in 2021, his third book was published, which takes a systems view of aviation and explores what that means in terms of pilot competence.

He can be contacted at [email protected]

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Alone and Not Unseen: Profound Strategies for Lone Worker Safety with Dr. Ryan Olson

Alone and not unseen: profound strategies for lone worker safety



In this must-listen episode of The Safety Guru, we’re focusing on the critical yet often overlooked topic of lone worker safety. While they have fewer interactions with leaders and coworkers, their decisions are still shaped by the safety climate and priorities set by their organization. Join us to dive deeper into this topic with Dr. Ryan Olson, who will share his invaluable insights, groundbreaking research, and profound strategies for lone worker safety. Tune in!


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. Ryan Olson. He spent many years with Oregon Health and Science University and is about to start a new program in occupational health psychology. Really exciting at the University of Utah. Ryan, welcome to the show. Really excited to have you with me. You have some amazing work that you’ve done over the years, particularly around lone workers, which is really what we’re going to talk about today.

Well, thanks so much, Eric, for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here and have this conversation about my work and about safety, health, and wellbeing in general.

Excellent. And so, the work you do on lone workers is quite unique in terms of the research and such a critical, important area. So, tell me a little bit about your story. Obviously, you’ve studied occupational health psychology. Tell me a little bit about your story and your interest in loan workers.

Yeah. Well, if we cut to the initial interest in loan workers, we’d probably start at graduate school at Western Michigan University, where I had a class with John Austin, who was my mentor, and we read a case study in a book that had bus operators self-monitoring their safety driving behaviors. They reported a… The authors reported a reduction in injuries by 66 %. And I just was skeptical. To me, that sounds like a change from three to one injury. And I just don’t know. I was skeptical, and I wanted to replicate or partially replicate and see if this actually worked, if it actually changes behaviors. So, my thesis turned into a small study of four bus operators for a long period of time with observers on the process of monitoring actual driving behavior. And to my surprise, using behavioral goal setting, and self-monitoring, and feedback type approach, one of the drivers showed a very large improvement in one particular behavior, complete stopping at stop signs. And so that’s really how I got involved with so-called lone workers, was just by chance that I read this study, and I thought, I don’t know if I buy that, and I wanted to get in, and I used it as a thesis topic.

And then it was a very interesting, informative experience. I did a bunch of extra safety work with that transit authority, doing a safety assessment of their historical injury and collision experience. However, my success with the thesis led to an opportunity to work with new flight students at the School of Aviation at Western Michigan. And that project really got me deeply involved in brand new folks learning how to fly a plane. Definitely a high-risk task. Definitely. And the big initial benchmark is when do you fly on your first solo? So, how well are students being prepared for that? When do they go on their first solo? We study predictors of success doing that quickly and videotape landings, and we could talk a lot about that dissertation. Still, it was a deep experience thinking about those new people, learning a high-risk, complicated skill set, and the system trying to do this safely with minimum risk to the students and instructors was the next step. And so, after my graduate training, when I moved to Oregon and was thinking about starting to pursue a grant-funded research program, it was really data that drove me next to truck drivers.

So elevated injury rates, a range of elevated health issues, including obesity and high blood pressure, and got going with work with truck drivers, and then from there, it built out to home care workers. So, I think I can trace it all back to that chance of reading a little case study in a graduate school classroom, and now here I am 20 years later.

In this space and one of the few researching this area is so important because a lot of the interventions around occupational safety, particularly in the culture space, heavily focused on interventions that work well in a shop floor setting, an environment where you’ve got teams, but it’s much more different in terms of how do I connect with somebody who’s working independently day in and day out? A lot of these methods do work, but these are often overlooked pieces. I think of your base safety as an example; it does not work particularly well when you’ve got only one person alone. So, tell me a little bit more about why loan workers are overlooked and some of the unique concerns that relate to the work and the interventions in that space.

I think the core reason is that the workers are dispersed. They tend to work unusual schedules or in unusual places. And so it’s just challenging to find, get with the workers, and get involved to study and work with them in a way beyond just doing survey research. Just that barrier results in fewer studies being done with groups like bus operators, commercial truck drivers, and home care workers. And that’s probably the fundamental issue. It has been tremendously effortful over the years to conduct, for example, a large randomized controlled trial with truck drivers. We couldn’t do it without the support of amazing companies who basically volunteered to partner with a researcher out of the goodness of their hearts, and maybe the hope that our health research will encourage workers to stay with the company or to have good positive feelings about the company. So, both employers and unions really donate a lot of their time and service to help us get the work done. But I think it’s really about the effort of getting involved with these folks. I think technology and wearable technology should help us tremendously now and into the future to get more work done with isolated and dispersed workers.

Absolutely. And so, tell me a little bit about some of the most exposed workers that are lone workers and maybe some of the tactics that you’ve seen work in those environments.

Yeah. I’m not sure I can say the most exposed. Maybe it depends on what hazards we’re talking about. But in the spaces where I’ve worked, there are people truly alone, like a commercial truck driver, but there are also small construction crews. For example, just at my house, I had all my windows replaced last year and it was a two-person crew, and we had a huge front-picture window. And watching that two-person crew handle that big picture window and have a near, a close call, that’s lone work there too. You don’t have a team around you. It’s just you and your partner, and they do a lot of things alone during their workday. So, I think I might add construction and utilities into the mix just because they’re doing a lot of things alone, and they do experience elevated fatality rates and injury rates, as well as all the commercial drivers and the home care workers that we work with.

And I think when you talk about that construction crew with two people, similar to pilots as an example, where you’ve got two pilots, there’s also the element, or you talked about utilities where you can have a small crew doing a job, is there’s a true lone worker. Still, in a small team, I can keep what went wrong, my near-misses, and my close calls to it within our group, in which case that accident operates like a lone worker crew and can work in very remote, isolated environments. So very much, that similarity of how we speak, because that was one of the big advances in aviation, is how do you get those two people to realize that there’s value in sharing what went wrong in a flight? Yeah, and.

To look out for not just each other but also the broader workforce. So, I don’t know, off the top of my head, I don’t know about the company that installed our windows specifically, but let’s imagine they’ve got 20 employees who all do this at work. The crew that was working at my house, if there’s a safety committee that meets regularly, hopefully, there is, and lessons learned could be shared through that process so that other workers can approach similar types of tasks in a safer, less risky fashion. And so, but yet that communication is a challenge. I think with lone workers, I do think a lot about this concept in behavioral psychology, which is the free operant. The behavior studied by Skinner and many other behavioral psychologists was named the free operant because the organism was really free to behave any way it would like in the environment. And then the research was to study, well, how is that free behavior shaped by its antecedents and its consequences. And lone workers are really quite free when they’re out on their own doing the work to do the work how they want. But they do have working conditions as well that are shaped by the employer and the design of the work.

Going back to my window crew, one of the first things he said after touring our house, the lead worker, was that this was a three-day job, and I’d been given two days to do it. So, right off the bat, I knew this working crew would be dealing with safety productivity pressure because of the schedule for the work.

Sure. So, I remember when we were talking originally, you touched on new employees and the onboarding of new employees. And you had done, I believe, a study around how you onboard a new loan worker because of the vulnerability of different shifts, all sorts of different complexities.

Yeah, well, specific to onboarding a new loan worker, like going back to the flight students, the question is, well, when do you let them really go out on their own? So, there’s some assessment if they have been trained, they are skilled and knowledgeable in their work, and that they themselves feel confident that they’re ready to go and work on their own, in bus operations in the transit industry, where we’ve been working for the past five or six years on a trial of an intervention for new employees. The bus operators have the chance to learn in the classroom together and on the road together, as a group or as a cohort, which is fantastic because they can bond with each other, get to know each other, and help each other out as they’re learning. And then, once they move into the workplace, there may be some monitoring of their driving with a coach or supervisor, maybe more frequently early on. But by and large, they’re on their own pretty quickly. But I do like, in that model, some type of mentor, coach, or a class, or a group that you can learn with. And most industries sort that out, and employers will do that in a more systematic, more rigorous way, or all the way in a…

We’ve had fatality cases here in Oregon where the story is particularly tragic, where somebody is quite new to the work site and killed within the first couple of weeks on the job. One potential contributing factor in cases like that is usually that training probably was not sufficient in terms of what are the hazards of the job and what are the ways that we protect ourselves against those hazards.

I think it’s pretty cool. The element I find interesting is when you talk about keeping the cohorts together, the mentoring aspects as well, how long—I don’t know if there’s an exact duration, but how long is it worthwhile to keep some of these elements in place?

Well, yeah, that’s a great question because it’s expensive to keep people in training. You’re not generating revenue or out in service. That’s a training expense. There’s a particular study I know by the first author’s last name, Breslin. I think it was done in Ontario, Canada, and it was a study of workers’ compensation claims for the first year of workers’ experience. And the first month stands out like a sore thumb. The elevated risk for injury in the first month is well above the rest of that first year. But it did take a full year for the relative risk to drop down to one. That study to me, if it plays out in the literature, suggests that the first month is a really important time for new people to be learning, coached, and trained, and not just what they need to do in terms of productivity or service, but also safety hazards, means of protecting themselves against hazards and safety procedures and processes, including what to communicate and when, so that employers know about hazardous working conditions that could or should be eliminated or reduced through engineering controls or design controls.

And so let’s think about some of the approaches that you’ve seen that work well for loan workers, some of the key principles. You talked a little bit about the onboarding, the mentoring, and the cohorts. I know when we connected, you touched on some elements around signals and the work environment. Tell me a little bit more about some of the tactics that organizations can take to better shape the decisions of that loan worker.

Well, I mean, working from top priorities and the hierarchy of controls downward, I would just want to mention that we have studied improving working conditions through physical environment changes in truck cabs, for example. So, to reduce fatigue and try to benefit workers’ sleep, we studied an active suspension seat that reduces whole body vibrations, which increases the risk for musculoskeletal disorders, but it’s also fatiguing to get bounced around in a seat all day. We also studied a therapeutic mattress that had the potential to alter vibration exposures for team truck drivers who sleep in a moving vehicle. And then we supplemented those cab enhancements, really job design changes, with a behavioral program. That’s an example of just trying to work from working conditions downward to more behavioral interventions. As a behavioral psychologist, I tend to specialize in behavioral approaches, but I do work with engineers like Peter Johnson in that study to address working conditions. Related to that, some of my current future plans are really focused on schedule, regularity, and consistency and how that might relate to sleep regularity, health, and safety. So, I just started there. If we work downward to behavioral interventions, I think Emily Wang’s safety climate research with truck drivers suggests that lone workers, like truck drivers, are still sensitive to safety-related communications.

What is my organization’s priority? Is it really productivity, or is it really safety, or is it tied? So, truck drivers do form safety climate perceptions of the priority in the organization. Those perceptions do relate to their safety performance and motivation. And those safety climate scores also predict future collisions and injuries in the trucking industry. So, what that tells me is that lone workers may have fewer points of communication, and that may be text messages, phone calls, or an occasional meeting. However, they’re still learning from leaders in those communications what’s really important, and that’s still affecting their approach to safety.

It’s interesting because it may actually skew the data. If I’m thinking about a team-based worker where there’s maybe a huddle every morning that talks about topics, then there could be some elements in terms of how we prioritize safety in the conversation, et cetera. But the lone worker is going to get probably significantly less data, and it may not be sorted in the same way. And so the signals might feel different.

Yeah, Emily and her team, in their discussion, argued that safety climate is still a valid measure in trucking, but the responses are less shared among the drivers. So, in a manufacturing setting, the perceptions of the safety priority in the organization are more shared because the workers are together. They look side to side and upward to leadership to judge the safety priority and to calibrate their perceptions of the safety priority. But for truckers and other lone workers they will communicate with each other, but the perceptions are less shared. However, those individual-level safety climate scores were still predictive of future safety outcomes. So that’s an interesting question, and that whole area of research is important and interesting. You know, it’s quite amazing, actually, the way we develop shared perceptions of the safety priority and how consistently that perception of the safety priority relates to safety outcomes at work sites. Safety climate is, as far as I know, the best leading indicator of future injuries, collisions, and incidents.

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It just speaks to me to intentionality because a lot of organizations, if you have a mix of… When you talk about truckers as an example, they may have truckers that are in a lone-work environment, but they may have distribution centers or logistics areas where people are working in a manufacturing-like environment, loading and unloading. And so, the intentionality of the messaging may need to be very catered to the audience if we want both of them to have the right message.

Yeah. And who are the leaders influencing each group? For truck drivers, the driver manager or dispatcher, who is helping assign loads to them, supports them when they have problems on the road. That person likely has up to 50, maybe more drivers on their board. So that’s a busy supervisor. They may not always be called a supervisor, always. Sometimes, they’re called a driver manager, but they are a leader and the main source of information about the company and its priorities for that truck driver. And I recall a study once I read that just popped out at me. Dispatcher responsiveness to driver concerns in a survey study had a 0.5 correlation with driver turnover. That’s a massive correlation. So, if I’m a trucking company and I’m having turnover issues, boy, are my driver managers important people? Their relationship with the drivers has a huge effect, potentially turnover. Of course, that’s one study, and that finding was particularly strong, but I would bet, on average, that would play out if you replicated it or studied it at other places.

It’s interesting because, in a traditional context, people are going to be thinking about the emails, the posters, the conversations, the huddles, the debriefs on safety, and all the various focal points that exist. But the truck driver may be hearing disproportionately compared to the environment that’s more with lots of workers working together. And so their interactions may be a dispatcher all the time saying, When are you arriving? All productivity, time base, follow through.

Yeah. And a driver might say, I’m feeling run-ragged. That was a super long day. I spent X number of hours waiting at the loading dock, and I could really use a little extra time before I pick up my next load tomorrow. And then if they get assigned a load, that’s another… Maybe it’s a little bit earlier in the morning or at an inconvenient time, but the message received is, oh, my driver manager, the company, doesn’t really care about my sleep fatigue because they’ve just given me a work assignment that isn’t consistent with my need to get rest. And in the real world, all sorts of pressures like that happen all the time. And it can be really challenging for someone like a driver manager to make these complicated choices. The freight’s got to move, and there may be only one person close to it. So, some realities constrain leader’s and workers’ choices in situations. But I think it’s up to researchers, companies, unions, all to do our best to work together, to understand where we can have levers for change, and where we can improve the lives of workers just so we can best support and protect them, especially the people doing jobs that are very hard on their bodies and their health, and put them at risk for safety incidents.

One of the things I know you talk about is a socially-connected lone worker. Can you share a little bit about what that means and some of the principles and ideals behind it?

Yeah, I think that would be a great segue to talk a little bit about our home care workers. I say our home care workers. They do feel like family after, or a part of your work team, at least after working with them for many years. But we’ve worked primarily with home care workers, who are independent contractors, to a degree caring for people who qualify for publicly funded in-home services. So, they don’t work for an agency, they work directly for a client, or in Oregon, they’re called consumer employers, who qualify for that in-home service through a state-funded program. So, these workers care for some of society’s most vulnerable or poorest citizens, but they themselves don’t make a lot of money, often struggle to get sufficient work hours, and sufficient work, and they perform a very physically demanding job in isolation on their own. And they’re navigating this unusual relationship, where their client is also their employer and can fire them or become unhappy with them. It’s a really complicated job and demanding job to do for 13 15 bucks an hour. So, for the home care workers, when I first moved to Oregon and started learning about their job, I reflected on an experience that was really beneficial to me as a new faculty member at Santa Clara University, which was a monthly faculty forum where faculty from all over campus would get together, and for a couple of hours, they would discuss a reading, share issues they were dealing with, and support each other, sorting through complicated or challenging work-related problems.

And I thought, boy, if anybody could use that support, it might be these home care workers who don’t get to see other people who do their job regularly.


So, with collaborators here in Oregon, an ergonomist and a sports medicine physician, we developed a peer-led and scripted group program for home care workers that brings workers together regularly to learn together, set goals, both group and individual and provide structured social support. And that program called COMPAS has been really well received by workers. It’s changed a bunch of safety and health outcomes in a randomized trial, and it was adopted by the Oregon Home Care Commission in Oregon. So, it’s available to workers as a paid training course, which is tremendous. So that’s a lot to say in response to the question of socially connecting, isolated workers. But it’s like a once-a-week meeting. We’ve also studied it once a month. But these isolated workers seem to really respond to and appreciate that chance to connect with other people who do the same work. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be applied only to in-home care, but it seems in particular for this type of worker. Their answers to surveys on how connected they feel with others and their profession do change and improve along with the safety and health outcomes.

And you touched on the connection once a week versus once a month. Was there a difference between both from a frequency standpoint in terms of how connected they felt with each other?

My memory is that the social connection is about the same for both schedules. The original monthly approach we were thinking of would get them started with a yearlong program, and then perhaps they might continue on their own as an informal, monthly, community, and practice process. And what we found, getting it ready to respond to the Oregon Home Care Commission’s needs, was they really needed a course that could be implemented in a short enough period that workers could take it really like a student taking a class. And so we changed to an every other week frequency. And so there are some trade-offs. The sustained longer-term access to a socially supportive group is great in that monthly growth for a year, but it’s a lot more feasible to run and to pay workers to do it if it’s like it has a start and stop of maybe a few months. And we’re currently studying it as a 10-week program for home care workers with chronic pain. We’ve tailored the program specifically for those workers, and it’s weekly for ten weeks. And so feasibility is better that way. But also, I would have to say goal setting, engagement with goals, and accountability for working on what you’re working on is probably better with the weekly approach.

Yeah, I see the applicability to this to a lot of other lone worker groups, where if there’s a sense of connection to each other, because there’s a loneliness to being alone, and it creates a common goal, bond, as a group, I would think.

Yeah, and I think these days, in the post-pandemic world with all the hybrid work, I think the isolation and how you generate that sense of team and collective purpose applies much more broadly than it ever did before. But you’d have to think that the basic common structure of a safety committee is a great opportunity for giving lone workers a chance to get together and communicate about safety concerns, what they’d like from leadership to support their safety on the job, what do they need in terms of tools, how is the work design and work hours working for them, things like that. It, and then also to communicate, close calls like we talked about earlier in the interview.

The last question I have is really in terms of the monitoring of lone workers. With technology, there are a lot more opportunities to do remote monitoring. There have been some successes. I’ve also heard of some disasters in that regard. Everything from telematics to understanding how your driving patterns are to all sorts of tools that connect workers. Any thoughts in terms of value and maybe the way to roll them out? Because there’s also this sense of big brothers watching that I’ve heard many times. Yes.

There is pretty good evidence that this technologically intensive surveillance is really stressful for workers. So, think of the warehousing workers who are on a really tight clock, filling orders in warehouses. We don’t want to stress out workers. Stress is bad. It’s associated with heart disease and work-related stress. I mean, stress is not a soft hazard. It really is a hazard that can kill people. It’s just a little sneakier and slower than perhaps an acute traumatic injury at work. So, yeah, monitoring. I have colleagues with stories of truckers evaluating these onboard monitoring systems, with cameras on their faces and things like that. I can’t share the specifics of the stories, but the stories indicate that they aren’t necessarily well-received by workers. So, I think the key is collaboration, especially with loan workers, supporting their autonomy and their participation and decision-making. So, their decision-making processes. It reminds me a little bit of a study by Tim Ludwig, and Scott Geller, of pizza delivery drivers. And they studied collaborative safety goal setting and assigned safety goals. And then they measured, I think, turn signal use and complete stopping behavior. In the collaborative goal-setting group, the goal behavior changed, but so did the other one.

So, the discretionary extra effort for safety was better. The workers improved safety in general. For the assigned group, only the assigned behavior changed. So, collaboration generates discretionary effort. And we’ve seen a similar thing with a study of behavioral self-monitoring of health habits. One group was assigned the health behaviors to work on, one group got to choose. And the group that got to choose engaged in the process 20 % more. So I think collaboration and choice are really important, especially with all the surveillance tech that’s out there so that the workers feel like they’re being, feel like and are really being listened to that this is not just a tool for the employer to keep their thumb on them and to control them, but it really is a resource and tool for their benefit and safety, and that they have a say with how it’s used. So yeah, I think that would be my comment on that great question.

It’s interesting. I remember one organization that chose, and there’s not a proper study unless you’ve seen one, where instead of using the monitoring, this was around heartbreaking. Hence, it was more the telematic side. Instead of using punishment as a result, they use it as the driver of the incentive. So, your access to the bonus pool was based on safe driving scores. And they had a mechanism to drive it. And they had had much more success than some of the companies I’ve heard of that have gone the other approach of punishment. It doesn’t mean you don’t address from an accountability person the person that’s always hard-breaking and so forth, but that they’re trying to turn in more of a reward as opposed to punishment.

Yeah, I think that speaks to maybe it’s a general human impulse to react to and respond to things we don’t want. Aubrey Daniels called it management, by exception, probably more than Aubrey. But I remember hearing from Aubrey about it, that you’re… Basically, it’s easy and less effortful to just not do much except react to and punish the bad stuff. It is a lot more effortful and requires a lot more thought to look for opportunities to provide constructive feedback and positive reinforcement and accentuate the positive. But I do think with the collaborative goal setting, there’s so much more potential for generating a positive safety climate and a spirit of shared purpose and a culture of caring with those more positive approaches that we’re all in this together. We care for each other. We don’t want anyone to get hurt on the job, and we’re going to help each other do our best to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Excellent. Well, thank you very much, Ryan. Really appreciate you doing the work you do in the lone worker space and also sharing this on our podcast.

Yeah, thank you very much, Eric. Appreciate you having me.

And if somebody wants to learn more, is there a way they can connect with you? Is there research that they should do to access the research that you do?

Yeah, you can find my laboratory page at Oregon Health and Science University, and that should stay active for some time. Also, you should be able to find me at the Rocky Mountain Center for Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of Utah. So, I should have descriptions of my work at both places for a while as I join Joe, Alan, and many others at the University of Utah to start the new Occupational Health Psychology program there.

Excellent. Thank you so much for joining us.

Thank you.

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 Come back in two weeks for the next episode with your host, Eric Michrowski. This podcast is powered by Propulo Consulting.

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Dr. Olson is a Professor in Occupational Health Psychology at the Rocky Mountain Center for Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of Utah. His research has focused on safety, health, and well-being interventions for isolated or “lone” workers. Dr. Olson leads an internationally recognized safety and health intervention research program with commercial drivers funded by NHLBI and has also designed impactful supportive group interventions for home care workers with funding from CDC/NIOSH. Prior to joining the University of Utah, Dr. Olson was based at Oregon Health & Science University, where he was a founding investigator and past Co-Director (with Leslie Hammer) of the Oregon Healthy Workforce Center – one of ten Centers of Excellence for Total Worker Health® funded by CDC/NIOSH. He also directed the state of Oregon’s occupational health surveillance program funded by CDC/NIOSH for over a decade. His interventions have improved a range of outcomes for workers, including safety, diet, exercise, sleep, stress, and job satisfaction.

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Like every successful athlete, top leaders continuously invest in their Safety Leadership with an expert coach to boost safety performance.

Safety Leadership coaching has been limited, expensive, and exclusive for too long.

As part of Propulo Consulting’s subscription-based executive membership, our coaching partnership is tailored for top business executives that are motivated to improve safety leadership and commitment.
Unlock your full potential with the only Executive Safety Coaching for Ops & HSE leaders available on the market.
Explore your journey with Executive Safety Coaching at
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Vision 2024: Shaping the Future of Safety Culture & Leadership with Dr. Josh Williams

Vision 2024 Shaping the Future of Safety Culture and Leadership



We encourage you to join us for another engaging conversation with Dr. Josh Williams, a seasoned safety culture expert for over 25 years and partner at Propulo Consulting. Josh highlights five key, big-picture safety themes for 2024: structured governance and executive commitment, SIF prevention, human performance, why observations still matter, and attitudes, beliefs, and mindsets. You’re sure to gain indispensable insight as Josh provides a clear vision for successfully shaping the future of your organization’s safety culture and safety leadership this year!


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. 

Happy New Year, and welcome to The Safety Guru. Today, we have a very special episode. It’s hard to believe how 2023 flew, but we have Dr. Josh Williams with me, joining me for a conversation on Vision 2024 some key ideas to shape the future of safety, culture, and leadership. So, as you’re exploring some topics to level up your strategy for 2024, we’re going to introduce five core themes. Josh, welcome to the show. Why don’t you give a quick introduction to yourself? This is not the first time you’ve been on the podcast.

Thank you, Eric. I appreciate doing this again. We always have fun doing these things, and I’ve been doing this safety culture and safety efforts for 25-plus years. I got a PhD years ago with a guy named Scott Galler, who is one of the foundational folks in the safety culture and behavioral safety space. I’ve been lucky enough to be with Propulo for five-plus years here and like doing these podcasts. This should be fun.

Okay. Well, the five topics we’re going to touch on today are work structure, governance executive commitment, and ideas around how you can level that up. We’re going to touch on CIF prevention. We’re going to talk about human performance. We’re going to talk about why observations still matter and how to level those up and then close off with attitude, beliefs, and mindset. Quite a few areas and themes, big picture ideas to look at for 2024. First, let’s touch on organizational structure, governance, and executive commitment. I think this is an area where a lot of organizations have huge potential opportunities. What does it mean? It’s one. Where does the safety report go? How do we make sure that safety has the attention of the right levels of executives, ideally reporting to the C-suite? That’s number one. Really making sure that safety is visible. We’ve seen too many organizations where safety is layered into the business or… We’re spread out across different functional areas, which simply doesn’t work. The second is really around governance and the importance of executives and how executives weigh in on safety. At the end of the day, employees know if the executives aren’t talking about safety on a regular basis, they can’t hide it.

We were doing some work in one organization. The executive team was not having a daily, weekly, or monthly conversation around safety. Frontline team members said that. They said senior executives don’t care. They saw it because they weren’t seeing the executives day in and day out in the field interacting with them. It does matter. So, four things to look at when you’re looking at the role of governance and executives is one, are they setting a vision? Are they motivating people around safety across different levels? Are they really looking at clear governance around safety, really trying to build a learning organization? The second one is are they showing personal commitment and role modeling safety? Are they really spending time in the field, visibly felt, role modeling safety, and really explaining the balance between safety and production? These are really key elements. We’re going to touch on something about listening to her soon. Decision-making is, are they looking at safety on a regular basis? Is the CEO and the top management team looking at safety, the safety culture strategy, and adapting it on a regular basis, ideally monthly or every second month? Are they talking about safety performance? But also, the strategy is to drive improvements.  

So, key areas to focus on. And then, the element of transparency and accountability, are they open to sharing successes and failures? It is a key area, really, in terms of how executives show up for safety. One area that I know, Josh, you talked a lot about is Listening tours. I’ve done this a lot with senior groups, getting them to go spend several days in the field listening, understanding what’s going on, but really there to listen about what are the things that are getting in the way of a perfect day for safety. Seeing some organizations do this they even bring people from different office functions that don’t normally understand their role with safety, people in HR and finance, and having them spend some time in the field. But what’s important is debriefing after. What are the things that you do in your corporate function that impact a perfect day in the field?

I think it’s a larger issue to me, Eric, of leadership and culture and establishing norms of excellence. For me, and I’m a big college football fan, and I’m not a huge Alabama fan necessarily, but you’ve got to respect any of your sports fans out there. What nick Saban has done over the years is not only to get to the top of the mountain top but to stay there for a long time. I was watching a game a couple of years ago, and I took notes, which means I’m pretty nerdy, but I was interested in what he said post-game in the press conference. He was talking about his team’s performance after beating New Mexico State 62-10, and he’s angry, and he’s thumping the podium, and he’s saying we didn’t play to our high standards for most of the game. We didn’t get any better this week compared to what we were last week. That leads to bad habits, which leads to trouble when you’re playing more competitive opponents. He finished with, you’ve got to play to your own high standards every day. I think there’s a lesson learned there in terms of safety leadership, which is we’re playing to our own standard of excellence, and the numbers take care of themselves on the back end.

Do everything right on the front end; things take care of themselves, but you’ve got to be vigilant. You’ve got to be focused on this every day. We’re going to talk about huddles in a minute. We’re going to talk about observations in a minute. Eric just mentioned listening to us is a great way of doing that. We’re staying sharp every day. And one of the things that I think is really important is what’s the scoreboard. So, in this case with Nick Saban, the scoreboard looks terrific, 62-10. But there were some underlying things there that weren’t quite right. And that scoreboard may not be so pretty next time if we don’t clean things up. One of the challenges, I think, is that we get so enamored with these numbers. It’s like our recordable rate went up 6.2 % and went down 3.61 %. I’ll go to a site and watch some of these presentations, and it’s like 12 slides of statistics on injury numbers of various things. I’m like, Good Lord, people are falling asleep. We have to be focused on not killing people. I think it’s high time, and I think we’re starting to get some momentum there.

The issue is stiff potential, serious injury, and fatality potential. We got to be looking at that. That should be our primary focus. Now, the little things matter, too, but sometimes we just go way overboard. The air precursors that predict smaller things are not the same ones that predict these catastrophic events that alter people’s lives forever. Bee stings don’t predict fatalities, you know what I mean? But we got three bee stings last month, and that’s not an exaggeration. That stuff people get dinged for, and we just get too enamored with the numbers. I think one of the things we should consider moving into 2024. There’s been some momentum there, but I think I encourage all of you who are listening to focus on the potential for really bad things to happen. That’s not to be negative. It’s just let’s keep our eye on the prize. Quick example: if you’re getting out of your vehicle and spraying your ankle, then it’s a recordable injury. It’s not the same thing as falling off a scaffolding 20 feet up. It’s a different deal. One thing can really change your life forever. We need to make those distinctions. We need to do things like risk registers with the top three or four things that are really seriously dangerous.

Pay attention to them with near misses. Pay attention to them with incident analysis. Pay attention to them on the front end with listening tours, learning teams, and peer checks. The sift prevention, I think, is really important. We need to keep our eye on the prize in terms of the big picture. Before we transition into talking more about some HP themes, some human performance themes, just a consideration. When we’re looking at this, we need to look at the big picture holistically. When I first started in this industry, it was all about attitudes. We’ve got to change our attitude. And then behavior-based safety comes along, it becomes a commodity that’s bought and sold and all this stuff. It was all behaviors. HP brought in more systems focus, which I think is a good thing. The problem is it’s not one or the other. It’s all of them. We need to focus on improving attitudes, behaviors, and systems so that we can do our best job to decrease the probability of something really bad happening to somebody. So, as we start talking about HP and human performance, one of the good things I think is that it has brought more attention to the system.

One more quick football analogy. I’ll turn it back over to you here in a second, Eric. But I think it’s important to consider the environment you’re in impacts what you’re doing. We all think we’re Clint Eastwood on the Wild West, Monolithic, whatever. We are shaped by our environment more than we realize. For example, Randy Moss, a wide receiver, one of the top five probably in history, was with the Minnesota Vikings years ago. Their culture wasn’t great, and I like the Vikings, but their culture was poor, and he had all kinds of problems on and off the field. He gets traded to the New England Patriots. At the time, the top in the cultural team, whether you like them or not, had their act together like Alabama football. All of a sudden, he’s a modeled citizen. He changes overnight. Maybe he grew up a little bit, but maybe he got into a better system. The same person in a different system operates differently. That’s why when we start talking about human performance and culture change coming up here, we’ve got to be really mindful of what we are doing with our systems to encourage the best behaviors and attitudes out of our people.

One last thing on the CIF prevention side: I think a lot of organizations are starting to look at it, but you need to be obsessed with a lot of the little details. As you said, the predictors are not necessarily high-frequency events. Hopefully, they’re not. But part of it is really understanding the near-miss is really getting a lot of visibility to it. I think when you look at Aviation, in 2010, there were 62,000 near-miss reports for 700,000 commercial flights. That’s what we’re trying to get a lot of potential things and then understanding which ones are going to be important, and then addressing those through the risk register that you talked about.

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You touched quite a bit on systems, HP, and human performance in general. I think the key component is really looking at the system besides the equation. But, like you said, it’s not about just doing HP. A couple of things I think I want to propose on the HP side is that HP is really about culture change. It’s not a thing, it’s not tools, it’s not training. Yes, those things are part of it. But I think that’s where a lot of organizations miss the opportunity on the human performance side, is they think it’s a thing, it’s a training program they need to do, rather than looking at it’s really culture change. And it’s culture change. I would even propose that it’s really the evolution of cultural models that we’ve seen in terms of ownership around citizenship. Some elements where I’m looking at a bigger piece, I’m driving continuous improvement on an ongoing basis, but it’s really about shifting the cultural norms. I think that’s what organizations really need to start looking at in terms of driving change.

Yeah, you know what? And the thing that interests me, and I really, like I said, I am happy to see more emphasis these days on system factors. The first response when somebody gets hurt shouldn’t be, would they do wrong? How did they screw up? The first question should be, where did the system fail? And in some cases, it didn’t. And it’s just a matter of personal accountability and responsibility. But our first instinct should be, was it the time pressure, lack of training, not enough people. There are a million things that are contributing factors when things go wrong, and that’s where our focus should be when these things happen. Let me just talk about a couple of principles of human performance. I think it will advance our dialog here today. But some of the fundamentals are things like workers trigger, late in conditions that already exist in the system. It’s like the stuff in the system is not where it needs to be, and it just so happens that workers may trigger some of those issues. Things line up a certain way, like the VP explosion years ago. It’s like all these little events happened at the same time, then you got that awful explosion.

And again, I like this quote: Safety should not be viewed as the absence of events but rather the presence of solid and consistent defenses against human error. And within this framework, human error is a predictable outcome of human beings operating in flawed environments. Again, we don’t want to take this too far. And sometimes people get into this thing where it’s like there’s never any accountability anywhere. That’s crazy. The nice thing about tightening up your systems is if you’ve got your systems really good and you still have someone operating outside those parameters, whether it’s repeated violations or egregious things, the discipline or punishment associated with it, it’s easier to do when you know you don’t have a ton of system factors contributing to it. So, you don’t want to take it too far and say there’s never any accountability. You’ve got to have positive accountability throughout your organization. But again, we want to try to stay away from that blame when things start to go wrong. And I also want to point out behaviors still matter. And this behavioral safety stuff, look, and I did years of research on this, did years of implementations on this.

I’ve seen some really good things and some not-so-good things, but behaviors matter. The National Safety Council said years ago that 90 % of all injuries are due in part to at-risk behavior or human error, but 80 something % of those risky behaviors are influenced by the system. I think both those percentages are low. I think it’s higher than 90 % of risky behaviors influencing incidents, but I also think it’s higher than 80 % that system factors contribute to these risky actions. But behaviors still matter. We still want to look at it. We want to set up behavioral expectations for leaders, for supervisors, for employees. This is our expectation here. This is what we do, and we’re holding people accountable for those behaviors. So, the challenges with, I guess, with behavioral safety and the way it has become a commodity where you can get all kinds of crazy stuff going on there. The checklist got way too long. They got way too complicated. It became a pencil-whipping, check-the-box exercise. Instead of asking the four or five simple questions, maybe seven or eight, like leadership listening tours. When we’re doing these listening tours, we should be asking things, and this could be part of a behavioral safety process as well.

We could have some associated behaviors. We’ve had great success with organizations that had behavior-based safety programs that were dying or dead, and we revamped them because there are some good benefits there. But in addition to looking at some high-risk behavioral categories, we’ve got things like, what scares you about the job? Where could somebody potentially get hurt? What can I do as a leader to help make your job safer? How would you do this job better moving forward? You’ve been here 25 years. You know the ins and outs and subtlety of this job. What do you want to do? By transitioning it, making it more simple and more conversational, and also advertising improvements when people bring stuff up with these behavioral observations or human performance observations, do something with it. Make changes, make improvements, and advertise it. All of a sudden, you’ve got more discretionary effort from your folks because they see stuff’s getting done. So, we’ve got to be really mindful, I think, when we’re talking about human performance and system factors that we look at it holistically. We’re also looking at attitudes. We’re also looking at behaviors because they still matter.

I think a couple of things as well on the observation side I would add. So, I agree with simplification. The other part is building this into your operating system with huddles. It’s a weekly huddle where, maybe even once or twice a week, you’re reviewing themes, you’re directing to particular risks that you want people to look out for. And you have those cascading across the organization to senior levels to really bring life to changes and what’s happening. It’s not about the checklist. One organization I’ve been working with, the huddles became something where they directed focus to key areas, which is really good. When you said direct to something, you could see a 300 % increase on the weeks where they said, look at this particular risk. And then you’d see the risk was high, and then it would decrease. So, they’re going after risks one at a time, week by week, looking, I think, across the system to see if those teams are happening in more than one location to make sure we’re addressing it. The other part is making sure that in those observations, yes, we’re looking at the behaviors, but we’re also looking at some of the system factors, some of the hazards that are present, the controls that are in place, because that can also inform some of the elements on the CIF prevention side as you’re going out, you’re looking at behaviors, but you’re also looking at system factors as you’re there.

Yeah, and what I like about that, too, Eric, and I’m glad you mentioned melding them together because we should be… That old expression, it’s not an observation without a conversation. We want to ask people what’s going on here. We’re learning through these conversations about what’s happening out there, and we can make adjustments and improvements, tighten up the systems, and become a more high-reliability organization by getting and using that feedback from folks in a more, again, holistic way.

And closing the loop, like you said before, is really, really critical. Observations matter, but the way they’re done in many organizations, system-focused from an IT standpoint, is not the way to do it. I think we’ve got to really make sure there are conversations flowing up and down the organization so that the change can be rapid. I’ve seen it in several organizations where we do it with huddles. Very rapid change happens because people are escalating issues all the way to a VP and fixing them. The last piece I think is really important to look at is attitude, beliefs, and mindset still matter. At the end of the day, I go back to my days when I was in aviation. The degree of safety ownership that people were taking was not coincidental. People felt responsible for 200 300 lives on a particular plane. And so, there was a very strong degree of ownership. A lot of organizations talk about hearts and minds. That comes through training. You can get people to reflect, like, why do I stay safe? Who do I stay safe for? And then really to influence from leaders, which is a higher order skill that you want your supervisors and your leaders to continuously reinforce and influence why you stay safe so you’re making the right choice that influences your behaviors.

Obviously, as you said, the system impacts it as well. But you really want people to start putting more ownership around and really reflecting and getting awareness around where is it that as a human, I’m more likely to make a mistake? If I’m fatigued, if I’m distracted, I have the awareness and tools to deal with it. But it also gets into how I design my work environment, the job, and how I create professional orientation. If you look at pilots as an example, there’s a lot that goes into the uniform to the stripes that goes in. It’s really about creating a strong professional orientation as you graduate. Really key. But you got to blend it with focus on observations. You got to blend on focus on behaviors and also on system factors. And I just want one thing, we didn’t talk about this earlier, but I think I want to jump in with recognition just for a moment because the attitude piece, they can shift, they can be influenced if we’re doing the right things and treating people right, and I think one of the best ways of doing that is appreciating the good things that we’re seeing. I think a lot of the frustration sometimes you’ve got people 20, 30 years asking, When’s the last time someone thanked you for something safety related. They laugh. It’s been 20 years. Recognition works. It influences future actions. If I’m being appreciated for something, I feel good at the moment, but I’m more likely to do it next time when nobody’s looking and it’s free. It doesn’t cost money. It takes time, but it doesn’t cost money. I think just wanted to throw that out there in terms of the attitude and mindsets, belief systems. We can influence that stuff by treating people right. Recognition, I think, is underappreciated. We should be doing it more often.

Thank you, Josh. To all our listeners, Happy New Year and Happy 2024. Hopefully, this gave you a couple of ideas in terms of how to level up your strategy for 2024.

Thanks, everybody. 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 Come back in two weeks for the next episode with your host, Eric Michrowski. This podcast is powered by Propulo Consulting.

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Dr. Josh Williams is a partner at Propulo Consulting. For more than 25 years, Josh has partnered with clients around the world to improve safety culture and prevent SIFs. Dr. Williams earned his Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology at Virginia Tech and is a behavioral safety, human performance, and safety culture improvement expert. Josh is the author of Keeping People Safe: The Human Dynamics of Injury Prevention and co-editor of Keys to Behavior-Based Safety. He has published more than 150 book chapters, government reports, white papers, blogs, and articles in leading journals. Josh has also delivered hundreds of presentations at leading national conferences and is a highly regarded public speaker. He received the Cambridge Center National First Prize for his research on behavioral safety feedback.




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