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Mental Wellbeing: A Call to Action for Leaders with Michael Weston

Mental wellbeing a call to action for leaders



Michael Weston’s moving message is sure to make you reflect on what’s most important in life. He recounts his story of working in a demanding role in the mining industry that ultimately took its toll on his mental health. What started as a normal day in 2013 quickly turned into an unnerving experience for him and his family. Michael was preparing for his commute to work that morning and was found lying unconscious on the driveway several minutes later. Following his successful recovery, Michael has made it his mission to coach leaders and team members on the importance of prioritizing mental health and well-being. This Mental Health Awareness Month, Michael is highlighting his insightful advice when it comes to actively caring and listening, looking out for your team members, and striking a healthy work/life balance.


Real leaders leave a legacy. They capture the hearts and minds of their teams. Their origin story puts the safety and wellbeing 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 bring Michael Weston to the show. This month marks a mental health awareness month in the USA. And so, this brings me to Michael’s story, which is an incredibly powerful story that I think every listener needs to listen to. He’s from Perth, Western Australia, public speaker, advocate for mental health, and previously was in senior roles within the mining industry until his life changed forever. Michael, welcome to the show. Really excited to have you with me.

Hi, Eric. Thanks for letting me join you today. Really looking forward to our chat.

Absolutely. Let’s start with your story because when you shared it initially with me, it was very powerful, really hit home. So, tell me a little bit about your story.

Sure. So just for the people that are listing 55 years of age, living in Perth, Western Australia at present, I have been happily married for 55 years. Not 55 years. I’ve been happily married for 30 years this year, three adult kids, a couple of grandkids. So, life is pretty good these days. But my career background, I worked with Rio Tinto in the iron ore sector, in mining in what’s called the Pilbara region in WA. The Pilbara is about 1600 km north of Perth, quite an arid area, very dry and hot around the 40s to 50 pluses, but a beautiful part of the world, lot of red Earth and fantastic landscapes. So, I was working with Rio Tinto for 16 years. It was a great career that I had with them. My last role with them. Before leaving the business in 2015, I was a maintenance Superintendent in a place called Damper on the coast in the Pilbara, and I was overlooking probably about 200 staff. 30 to 60 contractors would come and go every week because I was a maintenance shut overlooking two ports in Dampier. And I suppose responsibility, accountability. We’re looking after the maintenance week to week teams like fixed plant workshop, light vehicle, heavy vehicle workshops, the crane engine transport teams, and also conveyors so quite a diverse group and geographically sparse over those two ports.

So that’s a little bit of my background anyway, who I am and where I came from.

So, what happened there’s a very impactful moment. Tell me a little bit about that day and how it changed in terms of your life and the flow on effects.

Yeah, sure. I suppose the role I was in was considered back then; it was considered a burnout role. It was a very front line, was always go, go, highly remindful, demanding, highly stressful, because, you know, maintenance, shuts. We’ve all got Gantt charts and we’re on a time restraint. Yeah. And safety obviously is paramount, so you’ve got to deliver on time and obviously in a safe way. So, you had a lot of stress and demand on your shoulders, but mainly the people and the time, I suppose. But unfortunately, as leaders for me, myself, is we get caught up in this vortex of work and we just tend to just work and we forget about looking after ourselves and everything else around us, including family, friends. So, for me, I was on a slow spiral, I suppose, just starting to become exhausted. And that was clear on the day that I woke up on the 19 April 2013. And what I’m about to share with your viewers, your listeners today are I don’t actually remember anything of this day. I have no recollection of this day. So, my wife tells me we wake up like any other day.

We’d wake up at 430 every morning, jump in the shower, throw the high vis, close on. We’d chat around the kitchen table having cup, tea, bit of toast, talking about the day ahead for both of us, what the kids were up to, what sport was going on, and most importantly, what fish we were going to catch on the weekend. But my wife says, I suppose my characteristics and mannerisms quite changed that morning because I was very much a Habitat type of person and I was very non coherent, if you like, just nodding and saying nothing. But she just put that in the back of the brains trust, if you like, and thought, okay, we’ll just put that in the back and see how the morning goes. But when I went to brush my teeth and come back and kiss my wife goodbye, she could see something was different in me again and she actually asked a question, Are you okay? The reason why I’m asking is because normally in the morning I can’t shut you up and you’re just quiet as a mouse and there’s something about you that your persona. I don’t know, there’s something different.

And my message to her was, I don’t know what it is, but I feel nervous under my skin. And for her, those words were unlike me and thought, okay, so nervous on his skin. What does that look like? What do you mean? I said, I actually don’t know. She goes, “well, I’m really worried about your driving to work. I don’t want an accident to happen.” Or I said, “I think I’m okay. I think I’ve just got a large shut going on and I think I just need to get there, get the teams moving, and I think I’ll be fine.” So, I kissed her goodbye and I walked out the front door. And I was found about five to six minutes later by my neighbor lying face down on my driveway, lying unconscious, not breathing, and in his words, was unresponsive white to look at and cold stuff. So, I wasn’t in a great space. My neighbor did CPR. I came back to life, if you like, but I kept dipping in and out of consciousness. So, raise the alarm with my wife. One thing I’d like to share with people that are listening today to let people understand how much our lives in our work and consumers is that my wife, as she came out the door and she was obviously quite overwhelmed by what she was seeing, she had my head in her lap and she kept saying, this is not your time to leave.

This is not your time to die. And my wife and I laugh about it these days because if you don’t become morbid and you don’t learn from things. But one of the things I said to her was, I’m going to be late for a meeting. She even says these days, if you haven’t died that day, I was going to kill you anyway, because who says that? On the driveway, on the darkest hour, I went to hospital. I don’t remember anything of that. But I seem to come to the end of the day, they couldn’t find anything really wrong with me apart from burnout, you know, total exhaustion. So, I was told to go home and just take three weeks off and take time to rejuvenate and recover.

Wow. One thing is it seems like from what I understand, you went back to work after the three weeks. Yeah. And what happened at that stage, one of the things that I think Australia does very well, but I think you’re going to share maybe it’s not enough. Is the whole campaign around. Are you okay? Which is very much an Australian thing. It’s starting to shop in other places around the world. Tell me a little bit what happened when you went back to the workplace.

Sure. It was probably a good thing in my mind, or my gut told me not to take my work vehicle and to jump on the company bus from where we resided, which is about ten minutes away from Damper, where I work. It’s a place called Karratha. So, something told me to jump on that bus that day because I had time to, I suppose, take my time to go to work, just slowly get my way back into the Superintendent role because I had someone babysitting the role. So, I remember jumping on that bus. But the feeling that I had as that BBS came to the gates at Dampier to go through the boom gates on the C-suite, I got that nervousness under my skin again, that same feeling as I had that morning in the kitchen. The difference was between then and now was my nervousness under my skin was now external. So, I was actually shaking, and I was sweating profusely. I was sweating on my forehead. My palms could have squeezed my socks out in my work boots and filled up a cup of sweat. Horrible to turn the people listening right now if they’re eating dinner or eating breakfast.

I was really shaking externally as well. So, I was trying to take a drink of water and it was like at a drinking problem, you know. And what I was to learn later in life, I was actually having a panic attack. So, my body was actually reacting to the gates at the workplace and telling me, don’t go through those gates, you are not ready. And our bodies are amazing, our brains are amazing that actually send all these warning signs and triggers. So, if you don’t know them, it’s the first time that you’re really starting to understand what’s going on. You just move on and get over it if you like. So, I did. I just pushed on and waited for those gates to go through and I went through on the bus. I started to get quite confused from the time I went through the gate. And in reflection, this was happening over three weeks at home. So, I was starting to become forgetful in my memory. I didn’t seem to be able to problem solved very well. My spelling was really out, and I was quite a good speller if you like. Even my sentences when I was speaking, I seemed to be mixing my words up and I don’t mean as in what we do usually as humans and say hot when we mean cold.

I’m really meaning is mixing a whole sentence up and can’t put words together. So, things were quite confronting for me going back to work and listening to a superintendent who was looking after my team at the time at the start-up meeting and just couldn’t get a concept of what the hell was going on. Interesting to the people that are listening right now is if I was to try and explain this articulate this way for someone, it’s like, you know, I suppose I’ll put it in your sense, if you like in your position, Eric, is, you know, you have this podcast or you know what your business is, you know what your role is and one day someone just switches off that light and you know who you are, you know what this business formula is, but you just don’t know what to do. You actually don’t know the process. And that’s what it was like for me. It’s like someone flipped the switch and it’s very confronting when the medical fraternity are saying, well there’s nothing wrong with you apart from burnout and exhaustion. But in my gut and my brain was telling me other things so I was for sure starting to see cracks and signs throughout that time I was there, and I never actually returned to that role as a superintendent, because as months went on, I think it was about three months that I was just trying to work my way into that role.

And things got worse and worse and progress fully worse until I decided that my mental health was starting to take the client side. I actually spoke to my leader and said, hey, listen, I’d like to self-demote myself and had a conversation. And that’s what I agreed to do. I ended up demoting myself from a superintendent to a quality assurance quality control officer. So as a QAQC officer, I just went to work every day, went to the start-up meeting, didn’t understand any instruction. So, you think about this as a safety point of view. It’s pretty scary filling out a take five, that a risk assessment. But I had no understanding of what I was writing. My words were all mixed up on the page and I’d put what they call as a camel back on my back, which is we fill up with water and drink water out of and I’d walk for ten to 15K every day by myself, walking live conveyor belts and just looking for preventative maintenance. And life got very hard during that time.

I’m sure when you were going through this, what was on your mind? How are you dressing? How are your colleague’s kind of checking in in terms of how you were?

It’s a great question. So, I suppose mental health was starting to take a decline because I couldn’t do anything what I was educated, trained and confident to do anymore. And so, I thought, well, I’m starting to paint a pitch now that my doctor was saying that there’s doctors saying that I’m just burnt out. So, I just need time. But then all these things are happening to me as well. And then I had a workplace that I suppose was walking on eggshells as well because I used to be their leader, right? So now I’m part of their team and some of them are my leaders now. So, I suppose a bit of a shift in the way people are thinking and how do we treat this person? But as I try to build that rapport with everyone else, because I needed them to feel comfortable who I was. I’m just a person out here like anyone else working. And I thought, if I do that as well, people can start looking out for me as well. And I found that people always asking, Are you okay? People on the past and saying, hey, Mike, how are you?

Okay. And I’d say, yes, I’m great, but I had a facade. I had this smile on my face, go, yeah, everything’s great. But I think for me is, I suppose for me, I had a lot of stigma about what was happening to me because whilst people asking whether I was okay, are you okay? It’s actually a non-for-profit organization in Australia. It’s just trying to raise that. I suppose awareness of asking your mate and your colleague how you are, but as they say, Are you okay? Goes way beyond that. It’s not just Are you okay? Because are you okay? Is a closed question, and it’s going to get a closed answer, which they got yes or no. So, people weren’t really pulling me aside and saying, hey, Mike, are you okay? Because I’m starting a bit worried about, you know, you’re a bit forgetful or you’re biting people’s heads off. That’s unlike you. But they didn’t know, just saying Are you okay? I’d say yes, great, and I’ll go my way. Things were very much changing for me as well in my mind because I always thought that I was always raising issues with people saying, hey, I’m getting lost in plant.

I’m forgetful. But suppose people they weren’t dismissive; they’re just not understanding the situation and saying things like how old are you here? We all forget things, or at this age we all mix our words up. So, I was feeling that maybe it is just me, I suppose, but people are out there looking out for me. But it was really a brush by passive listening type of situation, not an active listing.

Yeah. And I think that’s a really important message is how do you open the dialogue? And safety is a lot of conversation around actively caring. And when you think about actively caring, it connects very well in the mental health space in terms of if I know how Michael is today, then I should say something’s a little bit different. Right. And if I really know my team, I have the ability to say something’s not quite the usual, and maybe I need to go a little bit deeper. So, I think that story is very important. What would you advocate a leader to ask? You said, livid more probing questions. What other things can they do to show that care for their team members to really check in if something is maybe a little bit different?

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In reflection now, when I reflect on my time as a leader, we’re obviously always focused on efficiencies and productivity, but at the front, obviously, safety and I reflect on my time as a leader with safety is the times where you’d be doing your observations, daily observations of how the team is working, how the job is going. And you’d come across those people in the teams that appear to have their head not quite in the task if you like. And I suppose in reflection, I look back and I think, well, it would have been a different conversation I would have today as a leader compared to them, because back then I think as leadership, whilst we had empathy and we treated people right, I think the right questions weren’t asked. So for me, instead of Eric, I can see your head’s not in the game here today. You need to pick your game up and get your head back in the game, which is not shallow, but it really achieves nothing. It’s really a kick up the bum. Whereas I think knowing what I know now is actually all I wanted when I was walking around Plant was actually someone to ask if I was okay, but take me out of that environment that I was in and it doesn’t have to be off site, but away from the noise people, because it’s very confidential and people can be very confronted by what they’re about to tell you. 

So, I think in my day now, I think I would go in that situation, pull that person out of that task, out of that team, and have a real heart to heart, one on one, and say, hey, Eric, I’ve just been watching you guys change that conveyor I can see everyone is working really well together. But I know you seem a little bit head in the clouds today. Is there anything that you need to tell me? Is there anything I can help you with?


Because I really want your head on this task, your mind on this task, because I don’t want you to hurt yourself and I don’t want to hurt anyone else. And it’s not that you’re not going to be meaning to do that, but if your mindset is not there, if you’re not present, these things can happen. And from that you can actually start a good conversation. You’re actually leading a person into I’m glad you told me because I’m not sure if you know, but we just had a baby at home and things are not getting much sleep. And my wife called me this morning and just before I was about to start work. So, she wants me to get something and call someone. So now I’m confronted by I’ve got a work to do, but I’ve also need to make a phone call. So that would change totally for everything. It would change everything. So, I’ll tell you what, you go up, make your phone call, let me know when you’re done, and I’ll catch up with you and you can tell me that you’re ready to go. And I think by doing that, you’re showing empathy, compassion, and you’re investing in that person. 

I think it’s a really important point because somebody had shared with me even a story where a leader had found that somebody was a little bit different that morning and they were about to start some heavy machinery, fairly dangerous work. And they just checked in saying, are you okay? And I said, yeah, I’m okay. And then they went a little deeper and the person said, well, in fact, I’ve been evicted from my home last night. I don’t know where I’m going to live. Well, not the time to be operating heavy machinery and just having that conversation potentially saved a life or saved a very serious injury from happening. Just going a little bit deeper because you recognize something is a little bit different. 

And by doing that, Eric, I think you’re changing the whole team’s perception of what a team actually is, is looking out for each other. And it’s showing that, hey, someone’s got my back and I can open up with my leaders and say things aren’t quite right now. And I think we have as leaders this perception, if we give a little, they’re going to take the whole lot and like, oh, they’re going to spin one on me and they’re going to take the week off. But it’s the wrong mindset to have. You really need to be thinking in that space of what if this person has something going on and I can prevent something worse from happening? And I think we’re a better, I suppose, place for it if we actually show some interest and empathy in people.

Absolutely. And I think one of the things as well that strikes me about your story is normally, we talk about injuries that happen in the front line. What you’re sharing is you were a successful executive, successful in your role, dealing with a lot of pressures, which are common in a lot of those roles, but can also even happen when you think about safety in an office environment. Same thing. There can be a lot of pressure to get stuff done. What are some of the things that as a leader, you’d reflect that maybe you’d do differently or maybe you’d be more aware, change some of the approaches because we tend to just go, go, we get things done and whatever comes, it’s a badge of honor to get it done, which creates high stressful environments in a lot of organizations and in organizations, sometimes in the safety roles, but even in roles that are in office based environments. 

Absolutely. I think for me, the first thing was working longer hours meant I was going to get more work done. It is working smarter. The longer I work, the more little mistakes I made. The one percenter, if you like. So certainly, wherever you are in life if you’re at work, be present. But if you’re at home, be present with your family, because I was never present with my family. I’d work at work, and I’d work at home. And look, there’s nothing to say. The goal posts have changed these days. You can work at home and from work, but have those strong boundaries and have those timelines that set you up for success to say, well, you know what? I’m only going to work from 11:00 in the morning. Till 500 today at work. Why? Because I worked a few hours last night while when everyone went to bed, I just did a few things. So, you can still have that flexibility. But in a perfect sense is you want to be present at work, have your work at work, and you work at home. But we understand, even with Cove now we’re all working from home, a lot of us.

And as well, it’s really important to have those boundaries at home because whilst everyone had that perception that everyone working for the home would budge and go to the shop and down the beach, the actual truth is everyone is working longer hours. 

There’s maybe 1%, but 99% are doing more than ever before. Absolutely. 

Exactly. So, I suppose my message there as well. And even as leaders, we have leaders is to have that conversation with both your team and your leaders to say, you know what, I’m not working after 03:00 this afternoon because I’m going to pick my kids up or I’m going to play sport or a Carnival. But you can contact me between six and eight if you need to. And even in emails, hey, I’m working my hours to suit my flexibility in my life. So, it’s really about not only having the boundaries with yourself but sharing those boundaries with others. Because what we’re finding here in Australia is people are contacting people outside of all sorts of hours at home because I thought, oh, this is great. Before I couldn’t contact them at work because the office is closed. Now I can just pick up the phone and call Eric anytime. It’s really inappropriate. And so, we’ve got this silent burnout going on. The other thing with leadership as well is one thing I found is just the 1% is those little things in life that you can look after yourself. And I’m sure that people listening right now, if I said to everyone, all your listeners, hands up to all the people that eat their lunch behind their desk, and most people, when I speak to them face to face, no one says anything, they just smile and then all the arms creep up because we tend to do that as leaders.

We tend to my work is important and I’ve got to keep going. And I think we tend to think that it’s not real work, it’s work, but it’s not labor intensive because we’re behind a desk on a computer or in boardroom meetings and things like that. So, my message there is to take time out for yourself, be kind to yourself, be kind to say that I deserve this lunch break and I’m going to go out and have some fresh air and it’s amazing what that will do for you. Your brain to rejuvenate and your self-esteem and you’ll be more productive in the end. So, there’s all those little one centers that we’re just not kind to ourselves.

Great. Is there anything an organization can do to remove the Brady of honor about working endlessly. So, it’s not the organization’s responsibility fully. There’re also the individuals to shared responsibility. But there are some things in some organizations, I think it’s getting better in many places. But if you work the longest hours, you’re that person, there’s a bad one, you get the recognition, which I think also drives a sense of more hours will get me more success.

Yeah, I think there’s a couple of things there. I think what I’ve learnt is the more you give, the more they take, if you know what I mean. And I don’t mean that as in businesses being ruthless and bearing into the ground. It’s just like the old story. It’s still going to be there tomorrow. So, it’s just a bottomless hole sometimes. So be content with that list that you have for the day and say, be kind yourself and say, I’ve gone through most of that list and what I’ve done is there 100% that I can be done. My job is done today. So, from a business perspective, I think I’d like to share with you your listeners as a leader, one specific leader. I had a manager years ago that was, I suppose I really didn’t apply this myself at the time. But in reflection now it’s really made a big difference to how I see good leadership. And I remember actually working back one night. I’ve been there from 05:30 a.m. It was about 06:15. He was leaving his office and he said, hey, pack your stuff up, let’s go home. And I said, “look, I’ve just got to just finish up this proposal.” 

And he goes, “no, pack it up can’t be that important.” And I said, “yeah, I will.” And he went beetroot red, like B Troop red. And I looked at his face and I thought, “geez, this guy, okay?” And he pushed my laptop closed and he goes, “no, I want you to go home. I’m not asking now. What I want is I don’t want you to be, I suppose, what this team is about. I don’t want you to be that person in that team that shows everyone else that they’re not doing enough here. So, what I want you to do is stop. You’ve done a full day’s work. Be happy with what you’ve done. Go home to your family, rejuvenate, and come back.” So, what he actually did with me is he enabled me, he gave me that tickle of approval to go, it’s okay to have a life. It’s okay to go home. And I approve of that. I want you to do that. And I think that was really powerful because in my past role, during the days of when I collapsed, it was more of a passing by conversation of share your socials here.

Well, don’t stay too long, have a great night. And that was the conversation. So, I suppose it’s like safety. It’s like walking past something that you see, the standard you set is a standard that’s going to always be there. The standard you walk past is the standard you set. So that was my experience as previously. Just don’t stay too long. But this leader actually really enabled me by saying, no, I don’t want you to stay here. So, I think businesses, even the business I was working for, had a policy to say that you can’t work past 14 hours. But I would abuse that all the time. And I was a leader. So, I suppose they’re real admin controls. But we need leaders above us and like ourselves to say to our people, you know what? This isn’t good enough. If you’re not doing the work in the time that’s allowed, we need to have a sit down and actually break down what’s happening. Are you overwhelmed by too much work, or do you need further development? Do you need more help? And I think that’s a good conversation that you can have with your leaders saying, I’m not coping. 

I think it’s a really good point. I also like what you’re saying in terms of having your checklist of things you’re going to do that day and being comfortable that maybe I can’t finish everything on that list. Right. Give a good shot. And maybe there’s some days where you’re going to be much more productive than others, and that’s okay. The days where you’re maybe less productive, you didn’t accomplish as much as you’d hoped for because there were more distractions and more themes, or you maybe weren’t 100% focused on that day. Doesn’t mean you need to make it up with more hours necessarily. Maybe we just call it a day and start again the next day.

Yeah. And look, it’s easy to say this when we all work as leaders in different roles, in different businesses and different business models. But for example, in a plant, if a conveyor breaks, there’s iron ore that needs to keep filling ships if you like. So, it’s easy to say, well, at 600, that conveyor can stop. It doesn’t work that way. So, it’s about really having that balance and saying, okay, well, I might have to work longer this one, but I’m going to be kind to myself in the next couple of days. So, we got to look out for ourselves. 

Absolutely. Michael, thank you so much for sharing your story. I think it’s a very powerful message around broadening the role of safety, really looking at it beyond just regular safety as much as that’s important, but also exploring in terms of how it connects with mental health, because we know these things are also intertwined with each other. But I think it gives a lot of pause to listeners that are executive professionals or even people thinking about how do I extend the role and the impact of safety into other parts of the broader safety? How can somebody get in touch with you if they’re interested in having your story shared with their employee, group, or leaders. 

Yeah, I’ve got an email address so au and also have the same name for my website and I’m also on LinkedIn and Facebook as well under my own name Michael Weston.

Thank you, Michael! Really appreciate you coming in sharing your story very powerful message as we’re exploring mental health Awareness month and really thinking about what we can do to drive the dialogue forward and also for an organization to really reflect in terms of the impact of the pandemic had and how it’s taken a toll in a lot of people’s lives in terms of their well-being. Thank you.

Thanks Eric! Thanks for having me. 

Thank you for listening to the Safety Guru on C-suite radio. Leave a Legacy distinguish yourself from the pack grow your success, capture the hearts and minds of your team’s. Fuel your future. Come back in two weeks for the next episode or listen to our sister show with The Ops Guru Eric Michrowski.

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Michael Weston has worked in the mining industry within Western Australia for 20 years,16 years of which were devoted within the Iron Ore Production and Export industry located across the Pilbara Region (approximately 1600km north of Perth WA). In 2013, Michael was working as a Maintenance Superintendent in a highly demanding and stressful working environment. This role consumed much of Michael’s life which affected his work / life balance and unbeknown to him, life would take an unexpected turn. Life changed for Michael and his family on the morning of 19th April 2013.

As Michael was about to commute to work, he collapsed outside his family’s residence and was later found by his neighbour unconscious and not breathing. At the time, the only diagnosis provided by Doctors was exhaustion or otherwise known as burn-out. Whilst Michael survived, his ability to function in the work place and in life was profoundly affected. He and his wife Donna had spent the next 2 years searching for a further diagnosis and answers to why Michael couldn’t function as he had prior to the incident. Doctors and Specialists began investigating further into Michael’s condition, in which an Acquired Brain Injury (ABI) was diagnosed. In addition to these ailments, Michael was also diagnosed with Anxiety, Depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a result of how these ailments affected both his working and private life. A team of dedicated Doctors and Specialists then assisted Michael with his recovery and rehabilitation.

Following a successful recovery, Michael commenced motivational Workplace Speaking and Leadership Coaching, sharing his experiences and learnings with others globally which has proven to have a positive impact on others’ lives. Michael’s inspiring story is unique, resonates with a diverse range of audiences, provides a greater awareness of our Mental Health and Wellbeing by sharing his own coping strategies and how building resilience provides a positive platform towards a greater work / life balance.

For more information on Michael’s story, you can visit:



Making Safety Communication Magical with John Drebinger

The Safety Guru_EP 53_John Drebinger_Making Safety Communication Magical



True leaders understand companies that are safe are more profitable and more productive. John Drebinger, professional magician and safety speaker, shares his insights with large companies through genuine inspiration, fun magic, and educational safety messages. In this engaging episode, he emphasizes the importance of giving employees a personal reason behind safety. People often don’t buy into the safety vision of an organization without the why. Through honest, subtle communication and intentional actions, leaders can convey the importance of safety messaging in a way that prompts everyone to take personal ownership.


Real leaders leave a legacy. They capture the hearts and minds of their teams. Their origin story puts the safety and wellbeing 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, 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 really excited to have John Drebinger on the show. He’s a safety motivational speaker, and also a trusted adviser to senior leaders on communication strategies. He’s worked with over 400 companies at 30 years doing this former magician has exceptional reputation in terms of shifting mindsets with all the organization he’s worked with by being fun and engaging. So, John, welcome to the show. 

Hi there. 

So, John, first tell me, how do you go from magician to passionate about safety and working with all these organizations driving amazing outcomes? 

Sure. Well, I still am a professional magician and still an active member of the Magic Castle in Hollywood, California, and proud to be that that’s an organization you have to actually audition to become a member of. And I’ve been with them for over 25 years. But anyway, the way I started in the safety business was I was doing magic at a restaurant in Stockton, California, and two restaurants I would do one night a week and go table to table. And some people from Pacific Gas and Electric were sitting at the table. And then they said, hey, we could use you as a magician at our safety kickoff. Back then, they used to do these huge safety kickoffs. They were safety Giants back then. And they would do these huge safety kick offs. The year before, they had a Dixon jazz band. They said, if you can use magic, safety is the magic word. We can tie that in. I said, that’s great. But at the time I was doing corporate magic. I was doing trade shows for companies. I would work their display and tie their product into the tricks to illustrate a feature of their product, the product name, whatever they wanted to get across. 

And so, I thought, well, I can do the same thing with safety. So, I said, send me one of your safety manuals and send me how you hurt people. Last year statistics, they did. And I wrote three magic routines tied to three different tricks that taught their concepts. And so, they had me at the Modesto fleet operations kickoff. And that was my first introduction to safety. I remember arriving, they had a truck that had been destroyed. Apparently one of their drivers was following a semi that had a forklift on the back of the semi, and the forklift was in an extended position. And when they went under a bridge. It flipped off and landed right on the roof of the guy’s cab. Luckily, didn’t kill him. He was there all bandaged up, and they had the truck as a message to everybody, hey, don’t follow too close. But anyway, so I did that meeting at the time. Another strong thing they used to do was they would attend each other safety kickoffs. And I highly recommend that the companies to find out the businesses, even if you’re in different fields, if you’re in a manufacturing company and there’s other ones in your neighborhood, go visit their safety meetings, see how they do stuff and get other inputs. 

So, you have other ideas and concepts you may not have thought of. Well, these guys had the smarts their safety people from all the different divisions would visit each other’s safety meetings. Well, immediately after the meeting, they’re going, hey, can you come to our meeting? And my answer was, of course, you pay me, I’ll go anywhere. That’s fine. So, they started having me go up and down the whole system, and I kept creating more and more safety message in the presentation. I did a lot of safety awards banquets for them. They used to do award banquets every year for their safety people and so forth in the different divisions in the company. And so, in those when it was families like spouses and the worker. And so, for that, it was probably 70% entertainment, 30% safety. But then when I was speaking at locations, it was pretty much 30% magic and 70% content with safety. So, over a period of time, the Los Angeles chapter of the National Safety Council heard how effective I was. And Joe Kaplan, who was then the President executive of the organization, asked me to develop a full day course for him on safety communication, which became my first book, Mastering Safety Communication. 

So that book came out, and we pretty much took that course national. And then the business took off from that point. Once I had the book and we started going to national safety shows, and all of a sudden people see me and saying, hey, we have to have you at our location. And it started a whole new career. And then since then, of course, I’ve become a professional member of the American Society of Safety Professionals, learned a whole lot more about the safety side of the business. But I think my real calling has always been how to get people. There are so many companies that are so focused on getting employees to understand all the safety procedures, rules, policies, and they’re great at that. There are very few times where somebody gets injured and they can honestly say, oh, I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to do that. That virtually never happens. The training in these companies is fabulous. The part they leave out is and I hate using the word motivational because it’s so cliched, but they don’t give people the reason why they should do something a certain way. All right. You need to explain to a young person why using hearing protection is important. 

And when I’m giving a talk, I will say something like, hey, and I’ll talk about my grandkids. I’ll say, you guys, your 20-year-olds out there need to use your hearing protection. First off, you love listening to your music. You want to be able to listen to whatever music you want to when you’re 60, 70, 80, 90 years old. But someday you’re going to have kids, you’re going to have grandkids, and you’re going to miss out on hearing the sweet sound of that grandchild. If you can’t hear well. And I’d tell a story about a guy who used to be at a Rotary meeting I’d go to, and his hearing was horrible. You’d sit across the table from him less than 3ft away, and you had to yell. It was, hey, Wayne, how are you? And he’d go, what? And I’m not even screaming as loud as sometimes I would. And I guarantee you, Wayne, with all his grandkids, has never heard the sweet sound of their voice because this hearing is so bad. You need to give people the reason why. And a lot of leaders leave that part out. They tell people that safety is important, safety is a value for the company, but you need to give people a personal reason why for them if they would want to work safely. 

And the same thing for leaders when we talk about leadership, why is it important that you, as a first line supervisor, hold safety as a value? And that’s tough because you get somebody that’s been promoted. They’ve been doing a task now. They’ve been promoted because they’re great at their task. They’re now a supervisor. They’re leading other people. But they also know that one of the biggest factors is production. And they’re so focused on that. And they haven’t been with the program long enough to understand how important safety is, how you never want to be in the position where you found out somebody got hurt under your leadership, that you find out that when you have an injury, it does grow up production and cost. That safety actually has a huge impact on the effectiveness of any organization and its profitability. And because they don’t have that experience and that knowledge, it’s one of the things a lot of times upper-level leadership forgets to instill in those people. You’re not giving those young leaders, the men and women that are now leading. You’re not giving them a reason why safety needs to be of value and a very important principle to them in what they do and what they’re evaluating that their team’s doing in a given day. 

And because you leave out, that why they don’t do it. It’s the same thing where you teach somebody, hey, you need to lift properly. I remember I worked at Scout camp, and we’d throw mattresses onto a truck. We had a whole bunch we had to get rid of and we’re throwing them in a truck. And somebody says, hey, you need to lift Propulo. And I’m like, I’m a football player, I don’t need to do this. 

That nothing. 

I’m strong enough, right? But you have to make sure that people understand in an effective way that, hey, this is for down the road. It’s not going to affect you now, but later on, unless you give them that personal, why for them, whether it’s leadership, why safety should be important, or the worker, why they should put the guard on this device, why they should have their hearing protection on without that, they’re not going to do it. They just think, hey, what’s the point? And a good example of all the stuff we’re dealing with COVID now and everything else, people are so confused because the messaging has been so bad is, okay, do I need to wear a mask? Is it important? So, you need to think in terms of why is this important? And of course, that brings up a whole other topic you could go into and spend days on. But honesty is very important. Leaders need to be honest with people. That the reasons why you do things. I think that’s another problem with what’s occurring. There’s been so much misinformation about stuff. In the beginning of the whole COVID thing, they told everybody, oh, you don’t need to wear a mask. 

And the reason why they told them that was they didn’t want to run on masks because they needed them for the hospital workers. But that was an outright bit of its misinformation, and it had a reason behind it. But all of a sudden, the people that gave that information out had no credibility because they’ve already proven, I’m willing to tell you an untrue statement in order to get a behavior out of you. And leaders do that in safety. Leaders and corporations do that. You need to be honest with people, hey, we need you to do this because it’s more profitable. We need to do this because we don’t want to see you get hurt unless you’re honest with people. And people figure that out really quickly. There’s an inherent ability to figure out when somebody’s not being honest with you. So, I think those things are critical. And I think it’s so true. I’ve been seeing that when a leader expresses their personal why safety matters to them with stories an example, it becomes even more powerful because it feels more genuine. You’re more authentic, right? 

By the way, one thing I didn’t tell you before the call if you would like and you can edit this out or not or leave it in. But if you would like, I would be glad to provide anybody listening to the podcast a free eBook version of my book. Would you watch out for my safety? 

That’s fantastic. 

And all they would have to do is if they email me, That’s John at Drebinger. D-R-E-B as in Mention the podcast and I will send them a link where they can download a free copy of that book. I’ve sold over about 45,000 copies of that in print. My first book, Mastering Safety Communication, word about let’s see 90,000 copies on it. So, both have been pretty good best sellers. But since they’re listening to your podcast, if they’d like, they can just email me and as a courtesy to you, send them a free copy of that and they can read that on you can read that on a Kindle. You can get a PDF version of it. You get a mobile version for Kindle and an EPUB for any other device. So, they’re welcome to that. 

Excellent. So that’s a great offer. Thank you very much, John, for offering that to the listeners. Maybe if we can touch on because you touched on a lot of the executive safety messaging piece, can you share maybe some techniques on how you’ve already shared quite a few. But any other thoughts in terms of how executives should message around safety? We talked about why matters being more personal around its authenticity. Any other thoughts that you think executives should really think about and look at themselves in the mirror and say, am I doing this to improve my safety performance? 

Well, one of my favorite formats is companies that will bring me in, and I’ll spend part of a day or a couple of hours doing a leadership session on safety. And a very good example of this, I was at one company, and we did the session with them the day before. I was doing all the employee talks at their different sites. And so, what was great about that is the leadership found out how important their role in what they do and what they say is the very next day because they had attended the session that I did on the importance of leadership, there were leaders actually going out throughout their facility, making sure that everybody was at the meeting where I was speaking. They said, hey, you got to make sure you’re here. They made sure people shut down what they were doing and came over and listened to it, where there’s a lot of times they’ll go to places. And there was one location that was really unfortunate for the supervisor involved. But the CEO of this one oil company was following me around. I was actually going around the different control rooms and stuff at the refinery and doing short little presentations. 

And when we got to one and the safety person had done a great job scheduling every little supervisor knew when we were going to get to their spot to have everybody ready to go and everything, well, we got this one spot, and the supervisor had purposely sent everybody out to do tasks at that moment. So there was virtually nobody in the room to hear the presentation. Oh, my, the safety guy was really disgusting. And he shared that with me. So, before we left that little section, I asked the CEO. I said, hey, give me a minute. Come on out. Let me talk to you. We went outside and I explained to him how good a job the safety guy done on scheduling everything. And that what had happened here was the person had sent people out on tasks right before we got there. And the CEO happened to be there because their company had two guys who were in the community and saved somebody’s life, did CPR and save the guy’s life in town, and he was there to help give them an award from the community and recognize them. So that CEO had flown out specifically for that had coincidentally going around with me, and I shared that. 

He said he was very pleased. He said, I’m glad to hear that. And I’m sure later on had a discussion with a supervisor that probably wasn’t the most comfortable moment in their experience. And by the way, that’s a significant factor when upper-level leadership pays attention to those kinds of things. I was speaking at the Johnson Space Center back in 2001 when George Abbey was the director, and I spoke for an entire year. I was there three days a month for the entire year to hit all the NASA employees. And it was a full day program called Safety Through Everyone’s Participation. And George is absolutely committed to safety. And he’s known as Mr. Abbey. And one week I showed up, and there was supposed to be 150 people at each session of the three days. And one day there were like 75 people. And I asked the safety person, I said, what happened? She said, I don’t know. Their managers apparently didn’t get them there. Well, Mr. Abby came in the room, saw how empty the room was, and everybody was signed up. By the way, it wasn’t a matter of like who showed up. 

They knew who was supposed to be there. Apparently, the next Monday senior managers meeting held in Mr. Abby’s office was a hell fire and brimstone session because the rest of the year there wasn’t a single session with 150 people in it. So, he was able to convey to his team that this was not something that people had an excuse to miss. And that was pretty significant. In fact, one of them to give you an idea at NASA, when they do a flight ready, when they’re getting ready for a launch, everybody that’s got their regular tasks during the launch may have additional duties. And one day when I was speaking, there was a launch coming up two or three days later. And I said, how many people here have launched responsibilities? And at least two thirds of the people raise their hand. And that really pointed out that even in the midst of a launch being at that safety day was that important and that Mr. Abbey wanted to make sure they were there. They understood that. And it was clear from the leadership, from the top down, this is not something you put aside, because he understood that’s the foundation of making sure everything happens. And he was focused on employee safety. We’re not talking about flight safety here. 


Which he was very much a proponent of also. But anyway, the key thing there was that the leadership making sure that other leaders understood this is important. This isn’t something you set aside. I spoke at Boeing years ago, and their safety person was smart enough. He contacted the President of the company and said, hey, you have a monthly manager’s meeting. Can I have 2 hours of that meeting? And the President said, sure, no problem. And so, he had me come in for those 2 hours and do a talk on leadership and safety. But he knew if he held a safety meeting about leadership, that a percentage of people would come to it and a percentage of people would have other excuses than things to miss. He knew nobody had an excuse for missing the president’s meeting. It was like, everybody is going to be there. And the President understood that he needed to lend that authority to safety. But I absolutely love it when I see leaders that I’ve taught their expectations. Everybody understands expectations when it comes to production and the things you’re getting done, holding people accountable, and it’s like, hey, you guys are meeting your production goals. 

You’re meeting this. But they need to do the same thing when it comes to safety. And it’s not safety performance, it’s not. How many injures did you have? Is everybody attending the safety briefing? Is everybody doing this? Tom Walters, President with the ExxonMobil, was sitting in a room. I was doing a presentation for them at Exxon Mobile. And afterwards, no less than five employees came up to me and said, hey, did you know the President of the company was here? And I said, yeah. I said, I’ve interviewed him, and he’s very committed to safety. And I had actually talked to him. I went over and said Hi to him when he got there. And he said, yeah, it’s a meeting for safety, for the employees in the building. And I work in the building. To him, he was going to be there for that reason. But what was powerful was the employees noticed him being there, and they were impressed that it’s like, wow, because he could have easily not bother to be there. P.G and E back in the days when they were safety Giants, I was speaking at the Abbot Canyon Nuclear Power Station, and one of their senior vice presidents, former Admiral of the Navy Ben Montoya, was there, and they had a policy whenever they had local safety kickoffs, somebody from the headquarters building in the executive offices had to be at each of the safety kickoffs and be there for the whole day. 

And Ben was so focused on safety. I’m part of this full day thing they have. And I stayed and listened to the other speakers. At one point, Ben stood up in the middle of the meeting and said, Excuse me, ladies, and gentlemen, but I have to leave for a moment because my number has come up with a nuclear regulatory Commission on having to take a drug test. And so, he had to go out and do the urine test. But he was so committed to safety, he didn’t want to have anybody think he was going out of the room to take a phone call to check on something. In other words, something else was more important than safety meeting. He let everybody know that this was something they all had to do. If their number came up, you don’t get to go. I’ll do it later. When he came back in, everybody noticed when he came back in the room, but they knew he didn’t leave because of something like somebody made a call that he needed to follow up on or they understood safety was very important to him and he was going to be there with them for the whole day. 

And that’s the kind of leadership that really conveys the message of how important something is. And so, I’ll coach leaders on the how to. I’ll also spend time sharing with them things they may be doing that’s undermining their message. I’ve had leaders that I know are committed to safety, that they’ll tell me stories and part of their history and everything, and I understand they are absolutely committed to safety. And yet when I interview the employees, they don’t think the leadership is committed. And so, I’ve discovered over the years there are things that undermine a safety message or even subtle communication skills where you’re not getting the safety message across. I always tell leaders; you need to tell people safety is important. Safety is a value in the midst of a crisis, when all hell is breaking loose, when the production is behind schedule, when everything’s going wrong, and you say, hey, Bob, we got to get this done by 04:00. This has to be done. I don’t care what you have to do. It’s got to be done at 04:00. That’s the moment when you have to say, and they need you to do it safely. 

In fact, I even use the illustration I teach, I teach leaders to say, look, when you do this, Bob, Shirley or whatever, when you’re doing this task, I don’t want you to do anything you wouldn’t want your own kid to do. And that’s what we call in communication and archetype. You don’t have to have kids to understand that’s a very high level of performance that I wouldn’t want you to do anything you wouldn’t want your own kid to do. But they need to share. That not just at the safety meeting, where the safety leaders will stand up and say safety is number one, which, by the way, it isn’t. That’s another thing I teach leaders, stop telling people safety is number one. It’s not you’re in business. If you’re in business, your job is to make a profit. And without that. But safety is how you do it. You make your product with quality, you have integrity, and all those are all the values of how you do something. They’re not what you’re doing. And so, you’re in business. Same thing with government agencies. When I speak at NASA, it’s, hey, you don’t waste any money. 

You want to spend all the money you can on your next mission, on the next space discovery that you’re going to make on your next trip, getting to Mars, getting to the moon, whatever it is you want to save every dollar you can, you don’t want to waste that on somebody getting injured. I mean, aside from somebody getting hurt, you’re wasting resources that could accomplish something. And I spoke in Oklahoma one year to the people that handle all the welfare and dealing with people that need homes and everything. I said, you guys don’t want to waste money on injuries, car accidents and other things like that that could be going to social services to help the people and your clients that you’re helping. Every dollar you spend on an injury isn’t going to that person that really needs your help, the counseling or whatever it is you’re providing them. And true leaders understand that they get the companies that are safe, are more profitable, they’re more productive. And the same thing with organizations that are working on a budget, nobody has more money than they know what to do with. That’s just not the case. 

Never seen that problem. But you’ve shared a lot of great ideas in terms of how to peers through different levels of management, because a lot of the challenges when I speak to executives is I’m committed to safety. But how do I make sure that message goes across the organization? And a lot of it, I think, is the signals you just shared, the CEO President showing up, demonstrating this is important, demonstrating why they’re there. Small signals tend to have a big impact in terms of piercing through. 

Yeah. And people say, walk your talk and everything else like that. And they think in terms of like, okay, are you wearing a hard hat or safety glasses when you’re in a facility? That’s not the key thing leaders need to do. For instance, a good example was the Boeing meeting where the President had the safety guy take part of his meeting. I used the illustration marketing. If you look at your market and companies all go to places and people attending a safety meeting is optional, whereas attending a marketing meeting isn’t. And I go, you’re telling everybody what’s important. 


Or maybe not optional. But if somebody on the teams feels like, oh, I had to go do such and such, that’s why I’m not at the meeting. I couldn’t make a safety briefing because I needed to do X, Y, or Z. If that same excuse would work for the marketing meeting, their salesperson meeting, their production, whatever other meetings there are, I’m fine with that. But if that wouldn’t work in those situations, you’ve got a problem because people aren’t agreed. You’re not applying the same importance to safety. That’s the other key thing people get that the first level supervisors, the people that would say, oh, there was something more important. The person that sent all the workers out when we were supposed to be at their little control room, they believe those tasks they were going to do was more important than the safety message they were going to hear. And you just need to let people know these are all equally important. 

In that case. Exactly. 

Making a quality product is critical. In that case, I always tell people quality is easy for a manufacturing company. If you let quality go down the Hill, the marketplace will get rid of you. You’ll be gone in a heartbeat, of course. But with safety, that’s not the case with safety. You see disastrous things happening. I’ve seen over the years leadership change in companies. We’ve had clients where their safety focus was incredible. We see a change in leadership, and they’re the type of company that would bring in somebody like me to teach their leader stuff. They’d bring in speakers like me to talk to employees and do motivational talks. I do one talk called Ensure Your Safety, and that’s focused on overcoming, getting people to not take shortcuts, taking personal responsibility, how to refocus when you get distracted, because that happens day in and day out. Other talk I do what you watch out for. My safety is about how to share safety. When you see somebody doing something unsafe, how do you do that? Well, people that bring in speakers like me and other speakers, all of a sudden somebody comes in and says, oh, we don’t need all that stuff. 

I literally over the years, I’ll tell my marketing person, I go keep track. I said, they’re going to have a major injury or a major incident down the road. And sure enough, they do you read about some fire or whatever? People in my Church, there was a fire over in the Bay Area at a refinery probably 15 plus years ago, and three people were killed. And somebody in my Church said, all they need to have you speak over there. I said, those guys will never have me speak there. They’re not committed to safety. They never have been. I’d already heard stories about them. I said, they’ve killed people before and they’re going to kill people again. And I actually bumped into a consulting company in Teams. I was having lunch with somebody, and they had mentioned that that company had actually hired them to come and analyze this one incident. And they contacted about six months later saying, hey, what do you want us to do to implement all this? And they said, no, we just needed the report, and they weren’t following up. So, you can spot places. Of course, in one of my presentations, I go when my kids were growing up getting a job, I wouldn’t let them work someplace where safety wasn’t a focus. And I make the joke. I said, yeah, if they got a job with a company that wasn’t safe, I’d call up the supervisor and say, yeah, my kid is stealing from you, get them fired. But anyway, the point being is I could spot the characteristics and the things that made it obvious that safety wasn’t a value to those people. And I’m not going to have my family members working at a place like that because eventually somebody’s going to get hurt and it could be them. 

Absolutely. You mentioned you talk, and you teach around executive messaging for safety. You teach around personal responsibility. I’d like to pivot a little bit on your third topic that you teach is really around how to share feedback and how to receive it, which I think is so critical. 


Because at the end of the day, that’s one of the best ways to drive improvements in performances is having good conversations around safety, around feedback, when maybe you’re doing something unsafe. Any thoughts you can share with our listeners around some of the techniques when you see unsafe work? 

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, reenergize your BBS program, enhance supervisory safety capabilities, or introduce unique safety leadership training and talent solutions. Propulo, has you covered. Visit us 

Yeah. Years ago, I was reading a fellow safety professional book, one of the things they pointed out that people had done a lot of studies on how to when you see somebody doing something unsafe, how to go and correct them or do an intervention so that they would feel comfortable, so that afterwards they’d feel empowered and all that good stuff. They said, the problem is nobody had studied how to make the person doing the intervention feel comfortable. And because of that, people don’t intervene. And that’s the other scary part in the field of safety. You talk to most safety professionals; they’ll tell you that a huge percentage. I don’t know what the true number is, but I know it’s way beyond the majority of incidents. Somebody gets hurt and people will say, yeah, oh, I’ve seen them doing that before. I’ve seen them do that. I’ve seen them do that dozens of times. Or we’ve always done it that way or basically, that behavior that way of doing the job or that hazard had been noticed? Oh, yeah, I noticed that bad step for a long time. It’s like, well, then why didn’t anybody say anything? 

There are so few incidences where somebody gets hurt and nobody saw that coming. And that’s tragic because you can argue, you can get into debate and safety. Are all injuries preventable? Well, certainly if somebody has seen the hazard or the behavior before, that’s 100% preventable. But the problem is people don’t know. And there’s a full 45 minutes to an hour presentation. I do would you watch out for my safety? And the book that I offered them if they want has the content of that end. But it’s the talk I do, and I generally take about an hour with it with employees. And I go into five reasons why people would want to watch out for each other’s safety, because I focus on the standpoint. You want to get people to want to do something. You want to get executives to want to focus on safety, to want to make sure safety is of value. And sometimes people call it a priority. But I like the term value. You want to give people to want to use the safety glasses or the hearing protection, even when nobody’s watching that they naturally don’t like. I’m putting these on because I want to put them on, not because I have to, not because it’s a rule or anything else. 

I want them to want to do it. In fact, my goal whenever I talk to employees and leaders is I want your people doing this stuff when they get home, when they get home and they’re doing something in their garage, they want to put in their safety glasses on because there’s no rule that says they have to. But I want to put them on. I post a picture on Facebook a few weeks ago. I was doing some mowing before we got our first rains here in California for the fall. And I had my hearing protection on my headsets on. And somebody, a safety professional, as a friend on Facebook posted, nice touch with a hearing protection. But I wear that because I want to protect my hearing. I want to be able to hear my grandkids. I want to be able to enjoy music. So, I approach that the same way I go into Why would you want to watch out for other people? And I talk about five basic reasons, two of which actually benefit the person. First, when I start with this, I said, you want to watch out for other people because when you start watching out for the safety of other people, your own personal safety awareness goes up. 

You become aware of hazards to you that you wouldn’t be aware of because you’re now looking out for other people. You’re going to see stuff other people won’t see. I say that about safety professionals. We tend to see things other people don’t see too many safety professionals ignore them. It always drives me crazy when I see at a safety convention, people Loading the exhibit hall or something and lifting him Propulo. And I’m like, or when the traffic signal changes and they’re crossing on the red or after the little flashing red hand comes up and it’s like, hello, we’re in the safety business. We do it because it’s the right thing to do and it’s a better example. But anyway, so I talk about why you’d want to watch out for other people. Then I get into when you see something, the reasons why people don’t. And there are three reasons I talk about in the presentation that people don’t intervene, one of which is they don’t think anything’s going to happen. I think that’s the primary reason people don’t point a hazard out to somebody. It’s like nothing’s going to happen in our life’s experiences. 

It won’t. I mean, think of all the safety violations, all the shortcuts that are happening today in the workplace and all the people that are texting while driving, all the things that are happening that people shouldn’t be doing and nothing bad happens. I mean, how many times you’ve seen people driving down the road with their phone very engaged, not paying a whole lot of attention? Somebody cuts you off on the road and you look, and you go, they had no clue I was there. You avoided hitting them. And you literally know for a fact they had no clue you were there for that person. They’ve been doing that behavior all day long. And how many people have they not hit? So, our human experiences and nothing will happen. In the talk I mentioned, I could be having lunch with you, and I’d be looking. Maybe I see somebody in the white staff step and climb up on a chair to change the light bulb. And I think, well, man, you shouldn’t do that. It’s not safe. You should use a step ladder. But in my life’s experience, I have yet to see somebody use a chair as a stepladder and fall off it. 

All right. So, I know you shouldn’t. I know it’s not a good idea, but personally, I’ve never seen a result in an injury. So, I could look at that and think, how would I feel? So, I actually go back in the presentation, I point out the fourth reason why you watch out for other people, why you’d want to watch out for other people is having no regrets. And I point out to people, I go think to yourself, if the kid fell off that chair and fell just wrong and got hurt, how would I feel knowing I could have prevented it? If I feel bad, then I go say something. I’m doing it to protect them, but I’m also doing it to protect me. I’m not going to feel bad. Oh, shoot. Something bad happened. Once again, the main reason, I think is people think nothing will happen. So, I say the way you handle that is you ask, if it did, how would you feel that you didn’t say something and protect that person. The second reason people don’t watch out for other people’s safety is or intervene is it’s uncomfortable. It’s not comfortable going over to somebody and saying, hey, that’s not the best way to do this. 

Or there’s a hazard there. And it’s because people self-talk. They say negative stuff to themselves. They think, well, that person must know that, or they’ve been here longer than I have. And it’s like in the talk, I do a whole the second reason people need to watch out for other people is people get distracted and they have this cognitive failure. Your mind misses something. You could be the most experienced working in a facility looking at a hazard and not actually see it. As a magician, I can make that happen on purpose. In my presentations, I’ll do two or three tricks that tie in the message. If I’m doing a full day presentation, I’ll do tricks every so often. Even if they don’t have something tied in the message, they’re just for breaking things up. Keeping the meeting interesting. 


But that second reason it’s uncomfortable. So now you got it. The key is and the third thing I point out is they don’t know how to safety meetings. I can’t tell you how many places I’ve been, and the leadership will say, be your brother’s keeper, watch out for each other. Everybody gets that. I understand. But how do I do it? Well, that’s what I teach people. And I guarantee you there are very few people that teach straightforward what I do a simple technique on how to point safety out to people in a way that the person pointing it out feels comfortable. By the way, it’s also comfortable for the person they’re sharing it with. But I see the person over there, I’m at a grocery store, I’m at a hardware store or something, and I see somebody near a hazard. I feel comfortable, perfectly comfortable going over and saying something to somebody because of the technique that I’ve come up with that allows me to do it. And one of the techniques is similar to the title of the book. It’s, hey, would you like me to watch out for your safety? And I do magic in the presentation. 

But that’s a trick question. When I say to somebody, hey, would you like me to watch out for your safety? 

Nobody’s going to say, no. 

They’re curious. It’s like what’s he up to, what’s he thinking of. Sometimes they’ll go like, oh, yeah, I shouldn’t be doing this because they are doing something they know they shouldn’t be doing, but they generally will say yes. And of course, now I feel comfortable because they’ve said, hey, they want the input. As a professional Speaker, I’ll hear somebody else speak. I’ll be at Church. I was visiting a Church downtown Sacramento. My son just moved there, and it’s about 20 miles farther from where I go to Church. And so, I wanted to go there and meet the pastors. I went to Lutheran Seminary for a couple of years. I couldn’t pass Greek to save my life. So, I continue on the lay Ministry. But I was talking to one of the pastors. I don’t give unsolicited advice, but I said to him, I said, hey, I’m a professional in the speaking field and I do coach. I said, “would you like it too?” And I said, “sure, the same thing.” It’s similar to saying, hey, would you like me to watch out for your safety? It’s like, hey, there’s something that might help you that would be useful. 

And I said, Great. And then he asked some more questions, and I gave him some more input. But people are curious. They want that. But you ask them nicely. There’s another technique I teach, very simple, just the simple phrase. As you know, you see an experienced worker over there. I’m new on the job. I’ve been here for two weeks, and this person is over there. I just got done with all the training, and you’re not supposed to be doing that or whatever. And the simple phrase, hey, as you know, there’s a power supply under there. As you know, there’s a hazard right behind you. If that person is having it is distracted. That moment, they’re thinking about their kid’s softball game that afternoon. They’re distracted because their car has a breakdown that they weren’t counting on. And they’re thinking about that. They don’t see that hazard. I’ve just protected them. But I’ve said, as you know, which presumes they know what they’re doing, and that way they feel comfortable. I feel comfortable. And so, I cover that in the presentation. Then I also go into how to respond. And the key there is, of course, to make the person appreciate that you appreciate their input. 

And I go into some great stories on that. Actually, my closing magic trick is I’ll borrow a dollar bill from some of the audience, and then we record the dollar bill serial number. It then gets torn up and ends up inside of a lemon back in one piece. And that’s my closing effect. But while I’m doing it to cut the lemon open, I’m wearing safety gloves. And I tell a story about a guy who, after a presentation, I had left my gloves at home that particular trip, I threw them in the wash. I left the gloves behind, and he came up to me after a presentation. So, I noticed you were cutting that lemon. He didn’t have any gloves on, but he walked up first, and he said, hey, would you like me to watch out for your safety? And I said, yeah, you bet. That’s the other cool thing about the technique I teach that’s cool people use it instantly and some companies have a good time with it. I call and the safety guy say, yeah, we’ve got everybody walking around going, hey, John told me to ask you if you want me to watch out for your safety. 

They’ll refer back to that. But either way it happened. So, he said, yeah. I said, sure. And he said, let me get you some gloves you can use the rest of the week while you’re here. And he got me these cool gloves. And I tell the whole story about the gloves and somebody else a few weeks later pointing out something to me and how I respond and what I do to let people know I appreciate that. And also, the communication barriers that you can set up. 


I was wearing gloves. The first guy gave me in another presentation, another guy came up and said, hey, would you like me to watch out for your safety? Because they were leather gloves with a Kevlar lining. And he didn’t know they had a Kevlar lining. But he walked up and said, hey, he offered me a pair of Kevlar gloves that would protect me better than the leather ones. I said, that’s great. I never told them the other ones had a Kevlar lining because I didn’t want to steal his moment here. He’s using what I taught them. He’s watching out for me. And later on, and I point out the presentation, it’s about making sure that the next person is watched out for it. If I just said to him, hey, don’t worry, these have a Kevin lining. Then later that day he might have seen one of the more experienced people in a place doing a job and thinking, oh, yeah, Bob knows what he’s doing. He must know about that hazard and then not say anything. And the person gets hurt. And of course, I use the magic to illustrate the points to keep it interesting. 

I also really believe an important element, and this is part of how I got into taking this nationally with teaching people communication skills and safety was so many safety meetings. Everybody say how boring they were. I was at one safety meeting as one of these big safety kickoffs, 350 people there. There was a guy on after me that was talking about something. And it was incredible, great information about how to stay healthy or whatever else. It was so boring. I mean, I was trying to stay awake, and I was interested in what they were talking about, taking notes and everything else. I finally had to go to the restroom. I got to go to the restroom and realized that the 350 people, easily 250 of them were outside taking a break. They had walked out of the meeting, and I said, no, you guys should be in there. This is really good stuff. And they go, buddy, so boring, we can’t take it. And I couldn’t argue with that. And so that’s part of the mission I took on was teaching safety people how to make safety interesting, how to get the that’s another thing I do. 

My happiest situation is where a company will have me come in and teach communication skills to the safety teams of the leadership, teach values to the leadership, and then have me do the employee talks later in the week, because then I get the whole spectrum where they get the whole package together. And that has a huge impact on how they do things. But yeah, it’s interesting still, I go to safety conferences and sit on other speakers. And it’s funny, some speakers actually have a negative impact on when they’re like some of the safety motivational speakers, there’s actually a negative impact on the audience. And it’s one of the challenges one of the challenges I have with what I call experiential speakers, somebody that got hurt, and then they’re telling how they got hurt. And, hey, don’t be like me. And it’s like there’s not a success, I’m sure, in your business or anything else, when you want to study how to be successful, you study people that are successful, not the failures. You study the people that are doing all these amazing things and how they got to where they did, what did they do. 

And in safety, too often we spend time as safety professionals analyzing what went wrong and what the root causes are and everything else. But that’s not the important part you share with employees. The part you share with employees is the reason why you’d want to do it years ago, I’m sure. I know you’re familiar with, but they had on TV a lot of the scared straight programs where they would take young kids and send them through a jail to talk to the prisoners and everything else. It turned out the people that went through that program had a higher incidence of crime than the kids that didn’t. 

Oh, my goodness. 

Yeah. Because scaring people doesn’t work. You tell people all this bad stuff will happen. And unfortunately, it doesn’t motivate people. And part of the reason is the element that any safety professional will tell you is most people believe it won’t happen to me. 

Almost everybody you talk to who’s gotten injured will say the same thing and convinced it wasn’t going to happen to me. 

Yes. Famous last words or the other one people say is, oh, I’ll be careful. And they do that when you hear an experiential speaker and they’ll go, wow, that’s amazing. They may even cry listening to the story that the person tells. And I’ve heard I’ve had speakers that I’ve worked with tell me, oh, yeah, they have the audience in tears, and that’s fine. But the problem is all the audience members are thinking, yes, but I wouldn’t have done that or that fatal flaw they made. Well, I would have been more careful. I would have seen that thing coming and avoided it. When I text, when I’m driving, I’m more aware of what’s going around because they’re different. That’s the fallacy. And the whole thing of you tells people like, okay, this is the person how they get hurt. You don’t want to do that. And it’s like, yeah, but that’s not going to happen to me because I’m better, I’m more skilled or I’m aware of that hazard. So, it wouldn’t happen. 

Which is the biggest risk. 

None of which is accurate, but that’s what people believe. Therefore, those motivational talks don’t have the effect. You need to teach people the positive techniques that actually get a result in people doing something safely, wanting to wear the personal protective equipment, wanting to do what they need to do. I far prefer. There was a guy who spoke at Con Edison. I was speaking there, and he got up and told the story and says, you know, the safety guy has been bugging me for years to make sure my shirt is tucked in. And some of the things he was talking about. And he says, I finally started doing it. And he says, three weeks after I started doing it, all of a sudden, one of the utility things they were working on, there was a fire that came flashing up out of it. He said, had I not had my shirt tucked in, I would have been severely burnt. Now there’s a story of somebody that was doing something the right way and it protected them. I’d far rather hear that than the person that got injured and why you shouldn’t do that. And I’m also a certified hypnotherapist. I studied that for communication. But when you have somebody talking about how they got hurt and how you shouldn’t do that, subliminally, they believed nothing would happen to them. A lot of the unconscious messages, they’re just terrible. So, it’s unfortunate, but it doesn’t have the impact you really want to get. 

But I think you bring an interesting point, even this element around that the gentleman with the shirt is another utility I worked with where they started using campaigns about people that made the right choice. So, for example, there was a storm rolling in. They decided to reassess the hazard, step away, and Lo and behold, lighting struck that particular place where they would have been. And they realized if I hadn’t done this, I could have had a worse result. And those types of messages are sharing what you should do and the positive impact, which I think is really good. 

As a hypnotherapist, I can tell you the unconscious message there is much more powerful because you’re reinforcing somebody did what they should do, and this is the payoff they got. And by the way, when people hear that, they don’t go, well, that wouldn’t happen to me. It’s like, oh, that’s pretty cool. It protected them. 

So, John, I really appreciate you coming on the show, sharing your thoughts. You have some great insights around the executive safety messaging, how you Pierce through different levels of leadership to connect with frontline team members as well as some great techniques around how to address something unsafe. Really appreciate you sharing your offer around the free eBook you’re going to send. So, if somebody wants to reach you, what’s the best way to do that? 

John, they can always reach me at our office phone number is area code 2097-4594-1929-7459 four one nine. Our website is so it’s www. Dot D as in David. R as in Robert. E as in Edward. B as in Boy. I as in India. N as in Nancy. G as in George. E as in Edward. R as in So, and if they send me an email mentioning the podcast here the book offer. Would you watch out for my safety? Then I will send them a link. If they don’t hear back, be sure to call our office if all of a sudden, their email got caught in my spam filler or something because they should get the responding email within about 48 hours. So, we’d follow up on that and it’s been great talking to you on any more time you want to get together. I’d be glad to. This was a great experience and appreciate what you’re doing with it. 

Absolutely. Thank you so much, John. 

Thank you for listening to the safety Guru on C-suite radio. Leave a Legacy distinguish yourself from the pack, grow your success, capture the hearts and minds of your team’s. Fuel your future. Come back in two weeks for the next episode or listen to our sister show with the Ops Guru Eric Michrowski. 

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John Drebinger Jr., acclaimed international safety speaker, author and trusted advisor, has been delivering his dynamic safety presentations worldwide for the past 32 years and is known for injecting humor and passion to engage audiences to help people work safely.
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Leadership Lessons from a CEO that Gets Safety with Brian Fielkow

Leadership lessons from a CEO that gets safety



Being a CEO calls for making tough decisions and trade-offs every day. Great CEOs also focus on building safety excellence and understand how to balance safety, quality and productivity without allowing trade-offs. In this episode, we have a conversation with Brian Fielkow a CEO who was recently awarded the Distinguished Service to Safety Award from the National Safety Council. A “CEOs Who Get It!”


Real leaders leave a legacy. They capture the hearts and minds of their teams. Their origin story puts the safety and wellbeing 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, 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 Brian Fielkow. He’s President CEO of JETCO Deliveries and also EVP of the GTI Group. So JETCO is part of the GTI Group. So really excited to have you with me, Brian. What’s really cool about what you’ve done is you’ve had a lot of work leading companies but bringing safety first in all of those organizations. And in fact, just recently, just a couple of weeks ago, you were awarded a very prestigious price by the National Safety Council, which is awarded every year of CEOs who get it, basically a handful of CEOs every year that find ways to incorporate safety and everything they do because this is really exciting, Brian. So, tell me a little bit about that prize and then let’s get into how you got into safety and then this passion as an executive. 

Thank you so much for having me on this podcast, Eric. I really appreciate it. Well, the National Safety Council recognition is really exciting. Again, they pick, as you said, CEOs, I think, six or eight a year who really have a proven track record of being safe and productive. Safety and productivity. It’s not either, or choice. Both. 


I think that the more I’ve gone on, the more I recognize and would encourage other people to recognize that safety is at the foundation of an excellent operation. Safety is at the foundation of a profitable business. Too many people have this idea, Eric, that safety and productivity are in conflict with one another.  


When nothing further could be from the truth in my own organization, if I see things getting a little bumpy with safety, it’s my bellwether. I know that we may have deeper issues somewhere in the operation. They’re one and the same. 

I completely agree. Tell me about where you got that realization, because it’s rare to get a CEO who has that perspective. Obviously, there’s some great case studies from Alcoa as an example. It’s probably the most celebrated. But where did you get that realization that safety really is a barometer for running a good business? 

Well, my career is a little different. I began my career practicing corporate law in Milwaukee and went to go work as a chief operating officer for my favorite client. And they were in the recycling business. So that’s my first exposure to kind of high consequence business because you’re operating recycling plants, trucks and I always look, it was never that I didn’t value safety. Of course, it was always important. But having it be important and knowing how to make it happen are two different things. So, along the way, we sold the recycling company to Waste Management, which is based in Houston. And I got to Waste a couple of years after a new leadership team came in and took, in my opinion, Waste Management on the worst first journey. And I was so lucky to learn from these people. 

So, tell me a little bit about that journey because it’s not a journey that is talked about as much. So, tell me a little bit more about Waste Management and what was unique about the leaders that you observed there and the approaches that they took to running the business safely. 

The approach at Waste Management was behavior based. It was frontline engagement based. So, there was a lot of focus on safety branding. There’s a lot of focus on keeping rules and regulations. Understandable the idea being that if you have all the rules and regulations you want, if they’re not understandable by the intended audience, you don’t have rules and regulations. You have words on paper. 


So, it was a very front-line engagement, behavior-based focus. When you start talking about safety culture, people tend to think, well, it’s a feel-good proposition. No, it’s a hardcore business proposition. So, there was also a focus on those behaviors which are more likely than not to get you a one-way ticket out of the company. So, I really was able to kind of learn at Waste how to engage, how to motivate, but also how to make it clear that we’re not messing around. And if you choose not to behave in alignment with our values, then you’re going to go find somewhere else to work. 

Yeah, I think that’s really important. So, tell me, let’s fast forward to your current role. I love the topic of frontline engagement. Tell me some of the strategies that you’re using that are very effective, because a lot of organizations talk about engagement, but it’s really not total engagement. Once here and there, I have a workshop involves a couple of employees. Tell me about your approach to engagement. 

Yeah, I mean, you’re right about sometimes people will say, all right, we had the meeting this year. We can check the box and move on. Engagement is not a project. People treat it like a project, or they treat it like an initiative. It’s part and parcel of your company culture. And then your safety culture is also part and parcel of your company culture, where you’ve got an engaged workforce, you’ve got a safe workforce, you got a workforce that is in alignment with your values. So, part of creating an engaged workforce is, first of all, you can’t always be so serious, right. So, we try and have some fun with safety recognition awards. The key thing to do is it’s no longer enough to get into your employees’ hearts and minds. You got to get into the families, too, because we’re just too distracted. We’re a text message Facebook post away from our families at all times. So, one of the things we’re always communicating with families, we want our families to partner with us and getting their loved ones’ home every night. One of my favorite things that we do is we have a kids art contest and everybody wins something, right? 

We pick art, and that goes into our calendar. So, we just released our 2022 calendar. And it’s not pictures of trucks and trailers, pictures from the heart. 

I love it. 

And that’s the key, I think, to engaging people. It makes them understand that safety is about you. It’s about me, it’s about your family. It’s not about big handbooks, and it’s about behavior. It’s about holding yourselves and holding one another accountable. And to create an engaged workforce, employees crave process, because without process, they never know what’s going to happen one day or the next. So, to create engagement, we’ve worked on clear, understandable process. Our employees wrote our best practice manual. 

I love it. 

Nothing off the shelf. 

This part about engaging the families is really interesting because I’ve seen a lot of organizations that are good at engaging, engaging employees and building processes, building practices, which is really good, making it, realizing that safety is really personal. But I think taking it to the family is even more powerful because then you get another ally every day that’s reminding them of why they need to make safe choices. That’s really cool. So, you mentioned a little bit about behaviors. So, most of the work you have, I assume there’s a lot of lone worker, independent workers. How do you make sure that you see the right behaviors on a daily basis? Is it more than an observation program? I’m assuming? 

Yeah. Well, an observation program is really just the beginning. We could all take a lesson from the US airline industry and the FAA, where there’s so much encouragement. It’s really not encouragement. It’s an expectation that people self-report and that there’s no retribution. In other words, for reporting near misses, for reporting unsafe conditions. Part of the observation process. There’s the old saying, manage by walking around. Well, okay, I understand manage by walking around. I could go take a walk around, and it is what it is. But what I’m more interested in is having peers peer to peer observations. Their eyes are better than mine. They’re going to see more than me making sure I’ve got a culture where if somebody in good faith makes a mistake or observes an unsafe condition, unsafe behavior, where it’s an honest type situation that we’re focused on continuous improvement. You see, when you’ve got that punitive culture, you’re never going to engage your employees. If everything is right up in the punishment, the game is over for 100% not going to work 100%. 

I came from the airline industry and understand what that means. But what’s unique is a lot of people admire that of the airline industry but are scared of taking the leap towards it. How did you take that leap towards it? In a jet code to make sure that people would recognize and feel safe, but also that you weren’t going to create more liability, more risk by opening up the absence of punishment. 

Eric, when I speak, I do some keynote speaking. I talk about the three T’s treatment, transparency and trust. And that last one, I could tell you all day long that we’re going to use, quote, unquote punishment only in the most egregious cases. But until you try it, until you test me, it’s just words. 


If I allow us to get punitive with somebody that innocently and honestly reports a closed call, I know that’s the last near miss, close call that I’m going to get 100%. It’s up to me to manage my behavior, keep my commitment, define those violations that are life critical and that aren’t going to be met with too kindly. And then the others, we look for improving the system. And if we need to do extra training for our team, that’s an investment in our great people. I’m happy to do it. 

That’s cool. So, when you came enroll, how did you start creating the trust? Because it takes a lot of trust to create an environment like this. What signals did you intentionally send in your business to show that you really trusted team members? You wanted their input, and you were going to treat them fairly if something if people made an honest mistake. 

Yeah. Trust is so hard to build, so easy to lose. It’s an everyday challenge. But some of the things that we did this isn’t necessarily safety related. But bear with me. In our business, your pay can be variable. It can be based on either your hours worked, or miles run. There’s variability. And with that comes some potential for payroll error. Nothing like payroll errors destroyed us and we weren’t that good or that timely about fixing the errors. So, what we did is we put together a group email for payroll errors. And we promise if you use that email, the issue would be addressed and fixed, either same day or next day at the latest. That completely fixed the problem, that built trust. And that trust then extended to people’s engagement with the organization and to safety. So, it can’t just be narrowly focused on safety. You have to have an organization where there’s trust, where the door is open, where you’re heard one of the ways that we break trust all the time is we listen to somebody, we give them lip service, we say, yeah, good idea, and then we never follow up. I mean, how does the person giving that information feel? 

So, there’s a lot of different ways we can break trust and just make sure that you and your leadership team are aligned on that. 

I agree, because you talked a little bit about how you brought in just culture. Just culture is a component of it. But for people to understand that safety is a value, that leaders understand it, you have to do a lot of things at the front end, I’m assuming, to create that the environment. 

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, reenergize your BBS program, enhance supervisory safety capabilities, or introduce unique safety leadership training and talent solutions. Propulo has you covered. Visit us 

So, Brian, when you started your role, I’m assuming you didn’t inherit a culture that was already at that level of maturity. You’ve talked about just culture and how you created the environment for it. But it takes more than just culture to get a great safety culture. What are some of the things that you did with your leaders to get them on board with where you wanted to go with the culture you wanted to drive? What did you do with some of the team members to really get them aligned with your vision around safety? 

Eric, I’d say that it happened sort of organically. In other words, there was a commitment to safety, but it wasn’t necessarily one that we were delivered about, meaning that other things could compete for safety. That’s why for years I’ve been kind of telling our team, safety is not a priority because priorities shift. If you see a sign that says safety is a priority, tear it down. Safety is a value. So, you got to, first of all, truly be prepared to live that way. Well, production pressure is important. It’s critically important. Production pressure is good. It’s not bad. It means we’re busy. It can never, ever leapfrog safety. Nothing can compete for safety. So, you have to have that nonnegotiable value alignment to start and then to build a healthy company or safety culture. Really? This may sound like I’m oversimplifying it, but I think it is this simple. It’s the convergence of the right people in the right process, working in harmony. And if you don’t have the right people, you might have some choices to make. And I believe that most people are very coachable. But there’s that small handful that’s not. And the real problem comes when you’re trying to build that culture is you got that small handful of un-coachable people who, by the way, are technically good.

They know what they’re doing on their job. So, replacing them is not convenient. But you have to you have to if you really want to walk the walk once coaching has failed. Because if you don’t, Besides the obvious safety risk, you’re telling the rest of your team who are pulling hard in your direction. 

I agree. 

Their efforts don’t matter. By allowing un-coachable toxic people to stay in your company, you’re sending the vast majority of your people the exact wrong message, which is we have two sets of rules, one for all of you and one for our select few people here who can get away with what they want. So, it’s having the right people, the right process. And I think I mentioned before in our conversation that the problem with process in my mind for a lot of us, is not that we don’t have enough, we have too much, we’re drowning in it, and none of us understandable by the intended audience. So, the right people in understandable process that there is no excuse for not following. 

I completely agree. And I think that’s a theme. I personally struggle with that in the past where you allow somebody who’s maybe not right doesn’t have the right values alignment because they’re high performer and you end up paying for it in the long run. And you do have to make those tough decisions at times when coaching has failed, because the other part is, otherwise you’re sending a message to the frontline team members as well that safety is not necessarily always a value. It is when it’s convenient. 

That’s right. It cannot be situational. 

Yeah, I think you’ve done phenomenal work. I love that you really take this view that safety and production and quality can coexist at the same time and must coexist at the same time, and that safety is really a barometer for everything else. There’s a handful of leaders that I’ve seen over the years that look at it that way and invest and make decisions that way. So, I think that’s phenomenal. 

I think I appreciate it. I’ll be honest. I’ve learned it a lot of times the hard way. But people who say, well, safety is expensive, I’d ask them to consider the opposite. Safety is compared to the cost of crashes and incidents. And the other thing is to ask yourself, what is the real cost of that incident? People will look at their insurance loss run’s and they’ll say, well, it was an injury and I’ve got $10,000 reserved. That’s the cost. And I will call Bull on that right away. The cost of an incident is so much more than that. When you think about not just the injury itself and the insurance claim, but put a price on your eyesight, put a price on your arms, put a price on your life. You can’t put some things on a spreadsheet, but I will tell you some things that you can put on a spreadsheet. You let your experience modifier go. Good luck getting the best customers right. Your safety performance gives you a competitive advantage in the marketplace. I don’t know if that was true 20 years ago in a lot of industries, but I know it’s true today. 

So, it is a hardcore business proposition not to mention last year, one of the buzzwords in 2021 was the great resignation, whatever that means. But if you have a culture that doesn’t care about safety, you’re also not investing in your employees and engagement. Why would I want to work for you? If you really are going to put me in harm’s way, you’re not going to help mitigate inherent risk in the job. I’m going to go work for somebody that wants to get me home every night. I’m not going to work for you if you don’t care about me first. So, it’s key to engagement. It’s key to showing your employees you care, putting your employees first. And it’s also key, in this day and age that we live into customer confidence, pretty much any business. You’ve got customers have choices, and the best customers, not all customers, but the best customers are going to vet you for your safety commitment. 

Yeah, I think that’s incredibly true. And I think your comment is really key. I remember looking at this was a particular construction project on the Gulf Coast, and they had a significant investment in safety. They truly own safety across the site. But when you looked at on those really hot, muggy days in summer, their absenteeism was next to none versus almost all the other sites. The upside of Tianism was in the ten to 20% range. And then when it came to turnover, they were dealing with turnover of one to 2% versus others in the ten plus percent. Significant differences because people wanted to work there. People talk about engagement, but at the end of the day, what is engagement if you can’t even come home to your home, to your loved ones every day? 

Yeah. You can pretty much put the pool tables and foosball tables off to the side. 

Right. It doesn’t matter at that point. 

Real engagement happens when people know they are cared for. 

Exactly. So, I love all the themes you’ve shared. You’ve also written a book, and you’ve had to tell me a little bit about your book and the course that you’ve developed, sharing some of your thoughts in this space. 

Sure. Thank you. I wrote a book. We published it, I think, in 2016 called Leading People Safely. We began our conversation talking about waste Management, and I had the privilege to learn from Jim Schultz, who was the senior vice President of safety at Waste Management. We co-wrote Leading People Safely together. So, it’s really a pool of our experiences. In fact, we just did a reprint and paperback. So, it’s sort of, again, the summation of what we know. And it’s not meant to be a handbook like, you must do things this way. You read it, you take the ideas, you make them your own, fit them to your business. But the book is done really well. And then last year, I guess late 2020, I launched a course called Making Safety Happen. And it’s been a lot of fun to do and I’m looking to grow the course this year but it’s an online on demand course, so you watch it at your convenience. There are various tools that you download. Once again, not one size fits all. You download them, make them your own. And then I have two price levels. One price levels for people that want the course and the tools great. 

But then another I do six live monthly workshops and I keep the workshops small, so they’re meant to be conversations. It’s called reverse classroom so six workshops and my course online have six modules so workshop one is tied to module one and then we talk about what was in the course and how you apply it, and we get deeper into discussion. So, the workshops are fun because if I can get the right people in them and we’ve had over 300 people go through already. For me, the fun is listening, learning and having conversations. 

I love it. Thank you as a CEO for the gift of safety you’re giving to your team’s members every single day and your commitment and Congratulations on the NSC prize that you just recently got. I can definitely say from your story that you’re definitely a CEO that gets it and really appreciate you sharing your journey, you’re learning and how you went from being a lawyer to safety guru and executive. 

Thank you so much for having me. I really enjoyed this conversation. 

Thank you so much. 

Thank you for listening to the safety guru on C-suite radio. Leave a legacy distinguish yourself from the past back grow your success, capture the hearts and minds of your teams, fuel your future. Come back in two weeks for the next episode or listen to our sister show with the Ops guru, Eric Michrowski. 

The Safety Guru with Eric Michrowski

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Brian Fielkow is currently CEO of Houston based Jetco Delivery and EVP of its parent company, The GTI Group. Brian has over 25 years of experience leading safety-sensitive industries. He faces the same daily challenges as his audiences when it comes to leading teams, driving safe outcomes and managing risk. Brian grew his businesses dramatically by focusing on his company’s safety culture. Now he shares what has worked — and what hasn’t — with audiences internationally. Today, Brian teaches company leaders how to develop and anchor a behavior-based safety environment that promotes accountability using low cost, easy to implement tools. 

Brian is co-author of Leading People Safely: How to Win on the Business Battlefield.

Fielkow is the recipient of the National Safety Council’s most prestigious honor: the Distinguished Service to Safety Award. Fielkow was recognized by the Houston Business Journal as one of Houston’s most admired CEO’s. He was recognized by NSC as a 2022 “CEO Who Gets It.”



Stepping Up the Importance of Ladder Safety with Dylan Skelhorn

Stepping up the importance of ladder safety with Dylan Skelhorn



Dylan Skelhorn recalls the unfortunate events that led to his fall from heights. He shares stories of leadership that did not demonstrate the commitment to safety and how it contributed to the choices that led to sustaining serious, life-altering injuries. Far from brushing off the importance of safety ownership, his story speaks to the importance of speaking up and increasing safety awareness and the role leaders have to drive a meaningful impact. Dylan shares great ideas around ladder safety as well as an innovative solution to reduce this critical risk in the workplace. Tune in to listen to Dylan’s important message!


Real leaders leave a legacy. They capture the hearts and minds of their teams. Their origin story puts the safety and wellbeing 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 Dylan Skelhorn, who is a safety motivational speaker from the UK, coming to share with us a really powerful story and a powerful story as well in terms of the impact that he’s making in the space around ladder safety. So, Dylan, welcome to the show. 

Hi, Eric. Thank you very much for having me. 

Let’s start maybe if you can tell me a little bit about your story and what transpired. 

So back in June 2011, I had a serious accident which involved a fall from height, and it was 33 from a chimney stack. Now I was standing on the chimney stack sweeping the chimney. It wasn’t really my job. I’d been sent out this day to cover somebody else’s work and I’m up on the chimney stack with no fall protection equipment. And the company I work for, the employer told us basically when I started with the job that we weren’t allowed any safety harnesses or fall protection equipment or anybody who knows ladders. And he had a special dispensation from the UK Health and Safety Executive work at height without safety equipment. Now, I was told that on the first day of going into this job, my job, I was a solid fuel heating engineer. So, I basically installed chimneys, flu stalls. The company was also a roofing company as well. Wasn’t really my thing, but I did do roofing as well for them and labor for the roofers as well. So, most of the work was at a height. And from going to this company on day one, I was showing everything the wrong way. Now, I have been a firefighter for six years before working for this company. 

So, I was used to having Sunday food and my ladder. I was used to working safely, all that sort of stuff coming into this company, it was a totally different safety culture, or they didn’t really have a safety culture. So, the first day on the job, I’m sitting out with the Foreman and I’m told to go up on the roof. I’m told to go that way. And I say, well, can you sue the ladder for me? He basically said, no, we don’t put ladders here. I asked why I was doing it safely in the Fire Brigade and he basically said that the boss is not going to pay for somebody to stand at the bottom of your ladder. And put it well, in his opinion, that person could be somewhere else making more money on another job. So, this worried me. Claiming this ladder. I got the gut feeling in my stomach. I got a little voice in my head, don’t do it. But jobs are quite scarce at the time, especially doing what I was doing. So, I sort of got on with it. And I also asked for a safety harness when working. And this is when I was told by my employer getting one vehicle, a special dispensation. 

Now, it turns out, as I thought, this was complete lies. It didn’t exist. But after the accident, he typed up a fake dispensation, put the Health and Safety Executive name on it, even put an inspector’s name on it saying that we had permission. I then took it to the HSE, and they said, we didn’t issue that. We would never issue one of these to anybody. So, my gut feeling is right, because I still had the accident. So as time has gone on, I was going out to jobs on my own and I was getting scared. Every time I was going up the ladders, we were moving underneath, and I could see them moving. They weren’t safe. It was uneven ground. So, what I started doing was I would get my van and I would park my van in front of the ladder to stop it kicking out at the bottom. Now, we all know that’s not the best, but in my opinion, I thought to myself, it’s better than nothing, you know, the ladder’s not going to move if a van in front of it. Sometimes I couldn’t put the vanilla for obvious reasons, you know, access and stuff like that. 

And when that happened, I would just take the risk. And again, I’m going out nearly every day on my own up these ladders. And I’m getting a gut feeling and I don’t want to do it. And I thought to myself, I need to speak up again. So, I spoke up and I was basically threatened. Losing my job. If you don’t like it, there’s the door. Now, in hindsight, if I could go back to that day knowing what I know now, know what happened to me. I would have walked out the door. I wouldn’t have cared about the money. I’ll get a job somewhere else. The bills might be paid late, but I’ll get a job eventually, right? That wasn’t the way I was thinking. I was thinking, well, you’ve got to pay the bills. And I would try and convince myself when I was claiming these ladders, when I’m getting the gut feeling and when I’m worried, I would say to myself, it always happens to somebody else. It won’t happen to me. I’m only up there for a few minutes. It will be fine. And this is me trying to convince myself that what I was doing was fine, it was safe. 

And like I said, I made the wrong decisions. So, on a daily accident, well, I had actually planned to leave the job. I made a plan. I don’t want to do this anymore. I’m going to end up having an accident. So, I plan to leave a job. Now, I know I can just walk out of the job, but we used to get three weeks off for the summer holidays. 


So, we’ll get three weeks’ holiday. So, I will wait till then. It’s only six weeks away. I’ll keep my three weeks’ holiday pay. I’ll go and get a job with another company, a bigger company or a bigger site. Because my thinking is a bigger company, bigger site. If I ask for a safety harness or somebody to put my ladder a piece of PPE for protection equipment, I’m probably going to get it. Not always, maybe. But in general, the bigger companies, and tends to be the way it is. You tend to find a lot of the time the people are taking the most risk of the smaller companies because they think they’ll get away with it. So, this was my escape plan. I’ve got six weeks to work. I’ll just keep my head down. I won’t take any of these risks and I’ll get through it. And in six weeks’ time, I’ll walk out the door and I’ll never have to work like this again. I didn’t like it. Unfortunately, that day never came. As we know, I had the accident on the day of the accident. Like I said, June 20, 2011. I come into work on Monday morning and my boss says to me, John is not done for work. 

He’s on sick. I want you to go out and do the chimney sweeping with another colleague. Now, John was a young lad, he was about 23 and he used to go drinking every weekend and he continued Sunday night. He knew he had work on Monday morning, but he goes Sunday night, gets drunk and he’s fallen in sick. Usually, somebody else would go and do his job for them. I’d be on the more technical side of the chimneys. I was the only heating engineer in the company, so jobs like that never really got given to me. But because we were short staffed this day, I got sent to do this job and my employer insisted on two people sweeping chimneys. One person goes inside the house, deal with the fireplace, and the other person goes up on the roof and sweeps the chimneys from the top down the way. Now, I don’t know how it is in the USA, I presume it’s the same as the UK and the UK. Everybody sweeps a chimney from inside the house and they sweep up the way. So, there’s no work in heat involved. And as you know, if you can eliminate the best for sure, the hierarchy of controls. 

So, I don’t know to this day why my boss insisted on two people sleeping in the chimney and one of those people going up and risking their life, especially when he wasn’t prepared to provide them with a safety harness. But I insisted on it being done. So, unfortunately, this day I was the one. We’ve done about five chimney sweeps throughout the day. I got to lunchtime and this next house after lunch. It was about 15 miles from my house. Local place actually is a place called California, believe it or not, in Scotland, that’s what it’s called. So yeah, I’m up on the chimney stack. I’m sweeping the chimney ever since I signed, and I’ve just finished the job. But because I’m standing on the chimney stack and like I say, I’m not wearing a safety harness. What had happened is the corpse stone on top of the chimney stack had split into four pieces. It was really weak. It turns out the rebar inside it was all rotten. It was about 50, 60 years old and it collapsed. And because I’m not wearing a safety harness, I found the pitch of the roof. I’m approaching the main ladder and as I’m approaching it, I’m thinking I’ll grab on the main ladder when I get to it and that will stop me falling. 

And I’d already tried to grab on the roof ladder, but I couldn’t. I was going too fast and I damaged my fingers on my hand and I hadn’t got anybody sitting this ladder, like I say. And I also hadn’t tied it to the roof ladder. I was told on a ladder, of course, it was sent on with this company for insurance purposes only, not to tie the two ladders together. So, I didn’t do it. I’d always done it in the Fire Brigade for safety. I’ve since found out again that you are allowed to tie your two ladders together. It’s done for safety, you know, again, it was something I was told that wasn’t true. I just listened to it because it was a ladder professional on a ladder course instructor telling me not to do this. And the reason he gave was if you tie the two separately insured pieces of equipment together, you turn them into one piece of equipment. It’s not insured as one piece. So don’t tie them together. Like I say, since asked the health and safety executive, there’s nothing wrong with tying them together. It’s done for safety. If I had tied them together when I was going down that route when I had that ladder, I wouldn’t have felt any further would have stopped. 

The red shade on the roof ladder would have stopped me. But because it wasn’t tied, there was nobody C-suite and I hit it. It went straight over, and I went down from about 33ft on the chimney stack. It was right straight down off the edge of the gutter level and it was about a further 20ft from the gutter to the ground. But I actually landed on a garden wall on my side Castle style wall, you know, with the pillows. One of the pillars caught me under my arm. My arm was over the wall, and it caught me inside where my ribs are. So, I’m lying on the ground in agony. I can only describe it as the worst pain I’ve ever felt in my life. And I’m lying on the ground. My colleague heard the noise. He came running out of the house. And he says, what will I do? And I said an ambulance. And it was about five minutes until the ambulance came, Thankfully, I’m really lucky now. I actually remember all of a sudden, just the pain leaving me. And I was starting to smile, and I couldn’t understand it. And I asked the doctor when I got to the hospital, why was I smiling that day? 

I was in terrible pain, but then the pain and I was smiling. I was lying, thinking I was dying, but I was smiling. And he said, yeah, you were actually dying. He said, what was happening? It was shutting down. You were going into shock. He says, when you’re about to die, your brain knows before you really know that your body is shutting down. And what it does is releases endorphins. And I find that fascinating. Releases these endorphins, and they’re there to keep you calm because if you go into further shock, your body is just going to shut down and you die. But this apparently buys you a bit of time, so it stops you from thinking bad thoughts, scary thoughts. I’m going to die worrying. It just puts you in that calm place, and it buys you by time, unfortunately for me, because the paramedics got there quickly and the ambulance, he managed to save my life. He worked on me in the garden for about 45 minutes before the stretch of melt ambulance. And then they take me to the hospital. They get the X-ray and scanned. They bring me into the emergency room. 

Now, they puncture my bladder with a catheter by putting it in too hard and too fast. Now, I never damaged my bladder in the accident, but that’s one of the knock-on effects of the accident. When you have an accident, you get all these knock-on effects. And after the X rayed me, they came in with the exit and said that I’d broken two rugs on the right side where I had the wall. They had been punctured my right lung. And that’s why I was struggling to breathe anywhere else on that wall. The source and the impact of having that wall had snapped me into both sides of the pelvis because when I hit the wall, I sort of landed sideways. So, I snapped sideways. The two bones that I broke, one is actually a joint. So, the pubic Remus bone is down near the pubic region. There’s a blood clot in there from the trauma as well as from the blood of damage. There are clothes in there as well. Now if they want to try and remove those, I could end up having to wear a bag on my leg for the rest of my life to go to the toilet. 

It gives me the option; do you want to take this risk? You must sign a form saying that if we damage you down there, there’s no comebacks. You can’t sue us all this kind of stuff and there is a high risk that we may damage you down there. Now, I’ve got enough problems physically as it is, without having to go through that. So, I left it in place. But because I did, the pain is still there and it’s painful constantly down there. The other part on the other side, on the left side that I brought, was a sacral iliac joint, which is between, you know, the big iliac wing on your pelvis. Between that and the secret, which is just a little triangular bone at the bottom of the base of the spine, sort of tailbone right in there between there. I also broke snapped it. So, it’s about half an inch from the spine. So that’s how close I am to being in a wheelchair. If I had that wall an inch or two, either side the wrong way, I would be sitting in a wheelchair right now. Or even worse, if my arm had been inside the wall, I would have smashed my head off the wall, and I’d be lying in a coffin somewhere in a casket. 

It’s not worth thinking about. I just think I’m really lucky. Although I’ve got these injuries and these aftereffects, it could have been so much worse. When you hear people falling under 10ft and the dead, they are the most common deaths because you don’t have time to put your hands down, protect yourself. When I fell, I had time to think about it. I remember going down the road thinking, I’ll grab onto that ladder, it didn’t work. I’ll grab onto this ladder, it didn’t work. Trying to think about it right. In a way, it was probably better for me that day that I fell from a higher rate than a smaller rate. Who knows? Maybe not, but there’s no formula to false, right? That’s the thing. You can’t determine what the injuries are going to be, what the outcome is going to be. I just feel very lucky. 

It’s unbelievable, though, that your employer at the time, because most of the cases or I’ve heard the opposite, the employer is at least putting some preventative measures here. It seems like the employer was willfully lying to try to improve profit. So, from a really horrific safety culture, from what I’m hearing. 

It’s really disgusting what he did. I’m actually the third person to have a serious accident in his company. I’m the third person to be made disabled for life with serious injuries. Now, the first two accidents were before I joined the company and they were never reported to the Health and Safety Executive, and that’s why he got away with those. That’s why the HSE had been in and made him purchase harnesses or closed them down, even if telling me he’s not running a safe company, but because they were never reported, he basically got away with us. So, I’m the sort of person now, if that was me owning a company after the first time it happened, I would have been scared and thought, well, no kidding. Yeah. I’ll never let this happen to anybody again. I’ll buy the right equipment. This guy did not care. And there are people out there like that to this day, running companies that will risk your life for the price of a safety harness, $5100, whatever they are over here. I’ve purchased one for my presentations and it’s like £50.65, $70, nothing. But this guy just doesn’t want to put the money out because to him, we meant nothing. 

And like I say, not every employer you will work for or may work for cares about you. And that’s the thing. You’ve got to make sure that your own personal safety officer first. And I always tell people that I made that mistake, not thinking like that, putting money first. At the end of the day, the money meant nothing. I didn’t earn a lot of money, so why did I risk my life for it? But we do stupid things. 

Yeah. So, touch briefly, maybe on the aftereffect of an accident. You’ve talked about the physical side, but there’s a lot more than you have to live with for several years, for decades. 

Yeah. And I would say the aftereffects of an accident are a lot worse than the accident itself. The accident itself is horrible and it’s traumatic, but it’s over after it’s done. It’s done. It’s the aftereffect. And what you got to live with after the accident. And for me, it will be for life. And I’m sure for most people that have serious accidents and injuries, it will be for life. Every single day of their life will be affected in some way or not just their life. The family, the friends, their colleagues, all these people. Now, I go to the hospital after five days. They said there was nothing else they could do for me because I didn’t want those operations and risk down below. They basically said they were clean breaks; they couldn’t do anything with them. So as long as I could walk on crutches, I could get out of the hospital. So, I chose to go home. But like I said, that’s just the start of it. I’m 40%, disabled, in classes now with degenerative arthritis, my pelvis, my lower back and constant pain every second of the day, especially with the bladder stuff as well. 

So, it follows you every day of your life. Now, I was on 744 pills a month. That was a medication I was taking at the time, 24 pills a day. And some of those pills are not good for you. They make you feel terrible sometimes. You can’t even you’re walking about the house like a zombie, you know, they’re not all good for you. So, I was on noise. I’m off a lot of them, though. They are sort of the worst ones. But I’m still taking a lot of pills for paints and stuff like that. But that’s sort of the physical side of an accident. The obvious part, I would say, since you’d associate with having an accident, the pain, the pills, the physical injuries. But there’s another site unless people have had an accent themselves and they know somebody close to them, accent, there’s another site that they might not know about. And I always try to highlight this and the presentations that I do. I was stopped and followed by an insurance company because I had put a claim in for compensation. So, get something to help me later in life. I was stalked and followed. 

They followed me everywhere. And they do this because they want to catch you doing something you shouldn’t be doing. Show the judge, they throw your case out and you get nothing. So, they spend a fortune doing this. And this is sort of every day you wake up in the morning, you look out the window and there’s a car sitting across the road waiting on you. And if you leave the house, I don’t know if this is the same in the US and other places, but in the UK, this is what happens, and this is what happened to me. And they follow you every day, anywhere you went, surgeon’s appointment, doctor, lawyer, physiotherapy, they would follow you everywhere and they do this, like I said, to try and catch you. And I knew I wasn’t doing anything wrong. But you started becoming paranoid. You think maybe I am doing something wrong, so you tend not to go out now. I had to go out for these main appointments, a lawyer, a doctor, stuff like that because if you don’t, it will be used against you in court. You didn’t try to mitigate your losses and get better, but any other day I just stopped going out. 

I wouldn’t leave the house now. Fortunately for me, I live with my parents at the time and if I didn’t, I would have lost everything. I would have lost my house. If I have had kids and a wife, I would have affected their life. I would have ruined their life forcefully for me. I had my parents put a roof over my head to feed me, put some money in my pocket. Because again, I don’t know how it is in the US, but in the UK, what happened to myself was with the benefits. I think you guys call it welfare. They stopped my benefits money not long after I got a hospital. So, I had no money, nothing to live on. So, if I hadn’t been for my mom and dad, I might have been living on the streets. It does happen to people. So again, I try and highlight that side of the accent and I say to people, you could be at work today and life is good. You’ve got family, you’ve got a nice car, you’ve got a nice house and you have an accident today and tomorrow. The bills aren’t getting paid. 

You only get paid for coming to work for one day. So tomorrow the bills aren’t getting paid. Three months’ time. When you’ve missed three payments on the house, the car, they get taken away. Your family can walk out on you. It happens to people because they can’t handle it. Their life changed. So, all these people that could be affected by your accident, something you do unsafe at work one day, can lead to that. And that’s the knock-on effect. And an accident has a huge knock-on effect on everybody. And like I said, not just the person who has the accident, your friends, your family, your colleagues, the person who was with me on the day of the accident, who was doing the job with me, he left the next day to shock. He was so shocked after what he saw. He saw me lying on the ground dying. 

He basically said to yourself, I don’t want that to happen to me. And he had a family, he had two kids and wife and good on him. I’m glad. And maybe that’s a positive to come from my accent, that he was no longer in danger anymore. He started his own business, and he does everything safe now, so maybe that’s good. My colleagues. The company eventually closed after my accident, about a year or two later, I think it was he who was basically told to purchase the right equipment, the safety harnesses. He did it to comply, but he was still sending people out and telling them to not use it because it takes too long, really. 

We think that at that stage he would have changed his mind. 

Yeah, he didn’t. He just did not care. I’m going to say he was signed, but the company was signed £20,000 a quote, which is maybe, what, $30,000? And he made lots of money, this guy, but he just didn’t care. It was all about making money for his employees. So, I think because he was getting followed by the health and safety executive quite a bit and he was sort of retiring age, he basically closed the company. So, he was saying he had money in the bank, he was retiring age, but he put my colleagues at a job. So, they were affected by my accident. Now, their families were probably affected by that. Now, I don’t even know their families, I don’t know their kids, their partners, but they were affected by that because those people lost their jobs. Whether it was financially, whether it was emotionally, I’m sure it affected those families. Like I say, those are people I don’t even know. So, I’ve affected all these people by doing someone safe at work. So, when I said earlier about think about what it is, you’re doing your own personal safety offer. That’s the way it is. 

You’ve got to be safe first. Look out for number one and then look out for other people. If you see somebody doing something unsafe, speak up. They might not even know they’re doing it. You could stop them from the accident. But the way I should have been working that day was if I can’t do it safely, I’m not doing the job. And money should never come into it. It should never have been on my mind. But that’s life. It’s the way we think at the time, a wonderful thing. But like I said, if I could go back to that day, I’d have walked off the job. I would have walked off the job the first day when I was told to claim that ladder that was unsafe, I really would. 

And how do you help leaders and team members make that same realization? Because you talk about trusting your gut. You also talk about safety as about taking pride in yourself. How do you help leaders and team members really realize that they do need to stop in those cases and really reprioritize? 

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Well first, before I go into a company and speak for them, I ask them questions. So, do your employees have the authority to stop the job of the task without getting reprimanded, without being threatened myself? If they say no, then I don’t go into that company because my message is a waste of time. That’s part of the message. So, it’s a partnership. So, I basically see in my presentations that the company is allowing you to stop the task. Stop the job. If you do, you will not be shouted up. You will not be threatening to lose your job like me. You may even get a Pat on the back for it. They do not want you to have an accident, but you must meet them halfway. You must speak up now. If a company does that, people are more inclined to speak up now. I spoke up, but when I did, I got shot down, and that meant nothing then because then I didn’t want to speak up because I knew I would get shot down again. I’d lose my job. I’d get lost in my job. So, it’s a two-way thing. It’s a partnership. So, I always like to say and make sure that the company gives the authority. 

And I usually pick out a director, a manager, someday of authority in the audience. And we do arrange us before I ask them if it’s okay to say this again. If they say no, I wouldn’t pull them out. I bring it up and I say, am I right? I’ll see the director. Am I right in saying that all these guys here, these people here have got the authority to stop the job? And they’ll say yes. And I say, see, you’ve heard that. You don’t need to hear it from me. I may never be back here. You’ve heard it from the person at the top. They’re saying you can stop the job. If they’re saying you can stop the job, why wouldn’t you stop the job? And given people that empowerment and that authority to stop a job, knowing in the back of their mind that they won’t be in trouble for it, they are more likely to stop the job. I totally believe that because that’s what happened to me when I tried to stop a job shot down. If you’re not shot down, you’re more likely to speak up. And that’s how you stop accidents. 

Everybody’s got to be on the same team. And there are like I said, there are companies out there that will never allow people to speak up. They don’t have a safety culture, but they are likely never the people that would throw me and ask me to. 

They won’t call you. 

I’ve never heard a company yet say to me, no, no, you can’t say that. I’ve never walked away from a company. So that’s great. I get phone calls from people who want safety in a company. They don’t want accidents happening, which is great. They are the people I want to work with, of course. 

So, what are some of the other messages that you share? You talk about your gut feeling that day and about trusting it. And you talk about really, that safety really reframing what safety is about. 

Yeah. So, going back on what I was talking about, how it can affect not only you, your friends, your family or colleagues, all these people big knock-on effect. Safety for me is about pride and self-respect. Having that pride to stand up and say, that’s not going to happen to me. I’m never going to have an accident. I’m going to go home every single day in one piece, intact, uninjured because I care about my family. I care about the people around me. I care about my children and obviously themselves pride in that self-respect. And I always say that to the people. When I do a presentation, as you walk out of this room with that attitude, thinking I am never going to end up like him, then my accent hasn’t been for one day’s wages being to stop you going through the same thing I go through every single day of my life. And if I stop one person having an accident, then it’s worth it. I’m negative into a positive. Obviously, we don’t want anybody to have an accident. They do happen, as we know. But if it stops, just one person doing it, then I’ve been doing this for seven years now and I intend to do it for as long as I can. 

And if it just stops one person going through what I went through or being killed even or just even a cut finger, then it’s worth doing it because it stopped an injury. 


Obviously, like I said, we hope it’s more than one, but we can only try our best. But that’s the aim. And that’s why I didn’t want my accent to be for one day’s week, because that’s all we come to work for. One day’s wage. If you have an accident today, you may get that money in your bank, but you’re not getting it tomorrow when you’re lying in a hospital bed or you’re lying in a box. So, we only come to work for one day’s wage. And when you look at it like that, one day’s wage is nothing. We put everything on the line every single day to risk everything for one day’s wage. Why risk everything for that? It’s not enough. It never will be enough. A lifetime wage isn’t enough to lose your life or be seriously injured. So why risk it for one day’s wage? And I tell people that as well. Don’t put everything on the line, you know, it’s just a job at the end of the day. Yes, it’s important. It’s how we make a living. But it’s not as important as the things or the people outside of work. That’s why we really go to work, to provide for them, to provide for ourselves, to enjoy life.  

There are many parts of life now that I can’t enjoy and that’s just the way it is. I don’t want other people going through that. So yes, safety is about pride and self-respect. And another message I like to use is the most important piece of PPE is the human brain. The safety harness or the steel toe cap boots. The hive is vest, that sort of stuff. Yeah, they’re important, of course, here. Unless you actually use your brain first to know your stuff, that stuff on or listen to that little voice in your head telling you something like the gut feeling, unless you actually listen to that first and act on that first, you can still have the accent. Doesn’t matter what PPE are, we so the most important piece of PPE as a human brain and I would say also the gut feeling, they call that a second brain. If something isn’t right for you, what I say is stop. Take 5 seconds. Look at it again. If it’s still not right, don’t do it now. It could be 5 seconds, it could be five minutes, it could be 5 hours. We say 5 seconds just to stop and look at it again. 

But however long it takes, if you’re getting a gut feeling or the little voice in your head or just something niggling at you, you don’t feel like doing it. We’ve all heard that. The butterflies in our stomach, we get that for a reason. And if you ever get that when you’re about to do a task, stop, like I said, take the 5 seconds, 10 seconds a minute, whatever it takes. Look at it again. If it’s still not right, you don’t do it. If you can make it right, you can make it safe. Great. Get on with it. The task. But if you can’t look at it and you know what, get other people around as well. Are you getting the same gut feeling I’m getting? Two heads are better than one, as they say. 


That’s the kind of thing just to look at again. But would you do all of that stuff if you thought in the back of your mind that if somebody sees you stopping a job, you’re going to get shouted up, threatened, lose your job? You probably wouldn’t. And that’s why it’s so important to have the company on-site as well. The people are told the people you’re working for, whoever’s in charge got the same attitude towards safety as the person doing the task as a team’s effort. Safety, as far as I’m concerned. Like I say, if you’ve got a boss or employer like me, it’s not going to work. My advice then would be to get out of there quick. Get a job where? Somewhere where you’re appreciated, where you’ve been given the authority to stop the job. And I talk about self-respect and pride. Now, if an employer hasn’t got enough respect for me to allow me to stop a job and not be injured, why should I risk my life to line their pockets? It’s a two-way thing. It’s mutual respect. So that’s the way I see it as well. 

Absolutely. At the end of the day, that is a responsibility from an employer’s standpoint to try to do their best to create a safe environment. If they’re not doing that, they don’t deserve to be in business. We talk about employee engagement, but employee engagement is important. But even more primary, more critical than not is ensuring that your team members come home day in and day out to their loved ones. 

Yes, if you’re sending people out to do a task or a job, it’s down to you to make sure that safe. You’ve done your risk assessment, you’ve written your message statement, you’ve looked at the risks, you’ve tried to make it as safe as possible, and then at the end of it yet, that’s okay to go and do that. That’s your responsibility. And also, like I said earlier, it’s the person doing the task to the end. If they see something that’s not right. Not safe to speak up and do something about it. The employer may not always be on the job, may always not be on the site. It’s down to you to be your own personal safety officer. 

Yeah, absolutely. So, I’d love to hear a little bit about the passion project you’ve been running. So, you’ve tried to make a difference in speaking to people around safety, but you’ve also tried to take some actions in terms of improving ladder safety, which is incredibly dangerous. A lot of people underestimate the risks associated with a ladder. Tell me a little bit about what you’ve done on the ladder safety side. 

So back before I had the accident when I just started with this company, and as I said, at the start, I was sent out to work on ladders unsafely on my own, nobody footing them. I thought to myself, one way I can try and be safe is to go online and look for a ladder stabilizer that I can put in the box on my ladder and stop my ladder moving. I went online and looked and as far as I’m concerned, everything I saw that was available, there was nothing that would actually stop my ladder moving. There was nothing that would do that. And actually, working on even ground put it at the right angle, all that kind of stuff. So, I came up with an idea for a product, and it’s called Ladder Locker. Now, I came up with the idea and I thought to myself, like having somebody fruit in the ladder, it needs to be something that uses weight, right? Most of it. But all of the ladder stabilizers I saw online when I looked with the blown away in a strong wind, so they don’t work. The problem with C-suite and ladders is, as well, as you probably know, it’s the last sort of thing you do. 

If you don’t have any other way of supporting a ladder, securing a ladder, you get somebody to put it. But it’s been proven that if somebody’s at the top of a fairly the bottom, it’s never going to hold them. 


Going to happen. It’s physically impossible. So, it’s a bit of a placebo. It’s more to make the person up the ladder feel a bit safer. But are they actually safer? Probably not. And the other problem you’ve got with that is people tend to get bored when they’re in the ladder. They walk away, they move, they start getting their phone out of their pocket and actually looking. And then the other thing is, if somebody does fall, well, the ladder is being sued. If they fall on the person sitting on the ladder, you’ve got two severe injuries or possibly worse. So, I came up with this idea. Then, unfortunately, I had the accident, and I started my motivational safety speaking business back in 2014. And I was always putting this idea to the back of my mind because I thought it was going to cost a lot of money and it’s a lot of work and I’ll get around to it. And in 2016, I was waiting on my car getting serviced in the garage. And you know how you sit and Daydream just waiting on things. I thought to myself, you know, what if I don’t do this now, I’ll never do it. 

And I don’t want to get to 70 years of age and think, what is? Imagine if I had done that, imagine how many lives it might have saved, where would it have went? So, I contacted a patent lawyer and they loved it. They said it was patentable. They thought it was a great idea. So, the patent process is very long, and I’ve now got Water weight patents granted. So, I’ve got all that. And last year, on the 20 June, which was the ten-year anniversary of my accent, I launched Ladder Locker. You can watch it on YouTube, just type in Ladder Locker and you’ll see that the product. Like I said, what it does is it uses weights, and the ladder is put on it. So, you put the ladder and it’s got an angle plate in it. So, when you put it in, you rest the ladder on this plate and you get it sitting where you want it, at the top, the land and resting. If you’ve got it resting properly on that backplate, because it’s angled at the correct angle and it’s sitting where it needs to be at the top, the ladder physically cannot be at the wrong angle. 

It’s got to be at a perfect angle, the 75.5 degrees angle that it should be at. So, it puts at the right angle. It was uneven ground. There’s a spirit level built-in. And again, as long as you level up with the spirit levels, it cannot be at the wrong angle. You then clamp the size of the ladder and clamp the front of the ladder in and then the door shuts at the front to keep it in as well. And you put weights in the back of it. And that is like having somebody put in your ladder. But the beauty of this is those weights won’t walk away, they won’t get bored, they won’t go on the phone, they are there to stay. And I just believe that this is needed. I’ve been there. I was looking for something rather moving, and that’s why I invented it. That’s why I brought it out. And I’m trying to get onto the market now, starting a new business. It’s not easy. So, I’m at the moment, I’m trying to get the proper manufacturer and software, the distribution, all these kinds of things. So, it’s taking a bit of time. 

But like I said, the reason I launched it last year, the video was I wanted to make a sort of symbolic and I put it on LinkedIn and all these other places. And I basically said you know, it’s ten years today since my accident, I want to mark the occasion with something positive. I don’t want to push poor me; I’ve had an accident. I want it to be, this is what’s come from the accident. This is a negative being turned into a positive coming from the negative. In the UK, there’s like 2 million and use estimated every day, the US will be even more. There are 2000 ladder-related injuries every day in the US, there are 300 deaths a year, 130,000 emergency room visits. I’ve actually seen that figure as 168,000, and I’ve even seen it as high as 500,000. You got all these different stats coming out, which one is true? But if you just take the smallest one, there 130,000 people go to emergency room every year. A lot of people. It costs the economy. In the US, $24 billion work loss, medical costs, legal costs, liability, the pain and suffering, not to mention the physical and mental problems that people get from these accents. 

In the UK, 40% of fall from height in the home and in the workplace, a lot of accidents, right? 480 people are admitted to hospital every year in the UK, obviously, we’ve got a less of a population than you guys. 14 deaths per year. Like I said, there are 2 million ladders used every day. I don’t know what our figure is in the US, but it’s got to be a hell of a lot more. So, it’s probably the most used tool out there. And for me, the fact that there wasn’t anything out there actually worked. That’s what worried me. And most ladders accidents are because the ladder moved. It’s not that the ladder got hit by something or something because the ladder moved, the friction wasn’t there. And 40% of those over 40% is because the bottom of the ladder moved. Six and a half percent sideways slip 4%, top 3%, the ladder went backwards. But I see this all the time still to this day. And what really gets to me is the fact that we’ve got phones in our pockets that can link to satellites. We’ve got all this technology that when it comes down to things like ladders and safety harnesses, people aren’t prepared to buy the right equipment, or the right equipment isn’t available. 

And to me, like I say, ever since I saw online that day that I look for a lot of people, I wouldn’t have bought any of them. And I’m not here to test anybody else’s product. But for me, like I said, nothing worked. So, this is why I came up with this idea. And here we are, 1112 years later, it’s taken to get there because of the accident. If it hadn’t been for the accident, I would have probably got there a lot quicker. But like I say, affect your life so much. So, I mean, that’s what I want to concentrate on now, as well as the motivational. Safety speaking. I want to get this product out there. I want to make it available to as many people as possible because the more people we can start on these actions, the better. 

Absolutely. So, Dylan, thank you very much for coming to share your story and for investing in creating a stabilizer for ladders. I think that’s something that hopefully can have a significant impact as well because a number of people that even at home are using ladders and aren’t necessarily thinking about safety because they may be thinking about it in the work environment. Definitely a significant impact there. So, if somebody wants to get in touch with you, what’s the best way for them to connect with you? 

Dylan, I have a website. My company is called safety up, safety up. So, www. Dot Safety Up. Co. UK I think if you just put safety up dot. Co. UK and you’ll be able to get it on there, there’s a contact form and you can contact me that way via email. The phone numbers are on there. I’m also on LinkedIn so Dylan, scale on and brackets its safety up and ladder locker. If you want to find me there, you can contact me that way. There’s a safety up and a ladder locker Twitter page. There’s safety up ladder locker Instagram all these sorts of things. But the best way to get me is via the website like I say safety at the UK and like I said, if anybody wants to watch the video of ladder locker, it’s on YouTube. It’s just a ladder locker if you take that and you’ll see it as a red-colored product, so you’ll know it’s the correct one. Excellent. 

Well, thank you for joining me. 

Dylan, thank you very much, Eric, thank you for having me. I really enjoy it.  

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Dylan Skelhorn has been working as a Motivational Safety Speaker since 2014, sharing his story to try and prevent others from having life-changing injuries which he is very determined and passionate about. His story is a harsh reminder to those in all industries and at every level that unfortunately these incidents are still happening today.

He worked as a Solid Fuel Heating Engineer for a small company that specialized in Chimney work and Roofing where he sustained his ladder collapsed from underneath him. Dylan fell headfirst down a pitched roof, knocking over an unsecured extension ladder and fell a total of 33 feet, landing on a brick wall. It had left him physically unable to work and in severe lifelong pain.

He travels the length of the UK and Ireland presenting to a lot of companies and is prepared to travel even further to share his story. He has presented to tens of thousands of people. In 2017, Dylan was asked by major national construction company Willmott Dixon to be their Safety Ambassador and worked with them full time for three years visiting all of their sites and offices and still continues to present for them. Since his injury, he has designed Ladder Locker, a product designed to stabilize ladders for safe use, which has won an award from the World of Safety & Health Asia in the Safety Category for new & Innovative Solutions.

For more information on the product, check out: Ladder Locker – YouTube




Communicating your Safety Business Case with Dr. Georgi Popov

Communicating your Safety Business Case with Dr. Georgi Popov



Call it ‘lost in translation’ when speaking to executives about safety improvements. More and more organizations recognize safety and prevention measures as an essential role that needs to be effectively communicated to upper-level management. Dr. Georgi Popov talks about safety prevention through design standards, business cases for change, and the next level of safety performance.


Real leaders leave a legacy. They capture the hearts and minds of their teams. Their origin story puts the safety and wellbeing 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 option safety guru, public speaker, and author. Are you ready to leave a safety legacy? Your legacy success story begins now. 

Hi, welcome to the Safety Guru today. I’m very excited to have with me, Dr. Georgi Popov. He’s a professor at the University of Central Missouri, holds a Ph.D. from the National Scientific Board of Bulgaria, as well as a master’s in nuclear physics from Defense University in Bulgaria. So, Georgi, welcome to the show. Really excited to have you with me as your professor in safety Sciences. I’d like to start out with you, maybe sharing a little bit about your story and how you got started into safety and your passion around safety. 

Well, thank you and thank you for your invitation. So, like you said earlier, I graduated from the Defense University in Bulgaria with a master’s degree in nuclear physics way back in 1019 and 91. That tells you how old I am. I was selected to go to Cambodia and serve as United Nations Environmental Health and Safety officer. It was one of the longest and most successful missions of the United Nations. So, in these days we call it EHS for short instead of environmental health and safety. So, we’ll go with that for the next couple of minutes. 

So, I worked with many different officers from different countries. They’re addressing variety of risks. You can start with heat stress. Think of 110 degrees Fahrenheit, we’re almost 44 degrees Celsius and 100% relative humidity. Think of contaminated water with biological and chemical contaminants, not to mention the variety of safety issues. Then two years later, I ended up working for Defense Research Institute in Bulgaria, where we had to develop a variety of protective clothing, respiratory protection, you name it. And at that time, I started working on NATO project, so I had to go to process a couple of times to work with other nations on respiratory protection. 

 So that was a very interesting time. And during that time, I started working on my Ph.D. in chemistry, and I successfully defended my dissertation in January 2000. Then the very next month, I won a competition to attend the Command and General Staff College here at Fort Leavenworth. And while I was studying here at the Command in General Staff College, we discussed many different safety issues, including risk management. And we have used the Army Techniques publications 519 to be more precise, we have also used the military standard 882, which is widely used in the safety field even to this day. 

At that time, there was no international risk management standard. And as you can imagine, as a chemical officer, you must think two levels up. And then in 2001, I was before 911, we were downsizing the armies. And I had to work in a private company. And I found a very interesting position with an environmental company here in Kansas City area. And there in that company, I learned the importance of the business case for safety. And the very next couple of years later, University of Central Missouri needed somebody on an emergency basis. 

Sure enough, I agreed to do that for one year. And here it is, 16 years later, I’m the interim chair of the safety Census programs at the University of Central Missouri now. 

Excellent. Well, thank you, Georgi. Tell me you touched a little bit on the business case for safety. Tell me a little bit more about why organizations need one, and more specifically for more mature organizations, organizations that have done well already in safety. And looking at the next level of performance. 

Well, that’s a very interesting question. Let me ask you that how many times you had to go and ask your upper-level managers for half a million dollars to invest in safety? And what kind of answer you’ll get? I’m sure many of you have done that. And some of you had to ask for 5 million or even $50 million for bigger projects. But while I was working for the environmental remediation company at that time, I was early career what we call now occupational safety and health and environmental professional. 

And I was thinking, okay, well, that should be easy to justify such investments, right? It’s safety after all. So, I did buy the book Job hazard analysis. I identified probably 70, 80% of the hazards, not these hazards that were at that time associated with that project. And I was so proud. As we all know, job hazard analysis or job safety analysis are not that difficult. You identify the hazards; you identify the potential consequences. You identify one control measure. Sure enough, that control measure was to put everyone in personal protective equipment, right? 

That should be enough. Next thing to do is to go and tell your manager, consider one level up from my position that, see, I have identified all these hazards. That’s what I said back then they will have to invest the money to fix the issues. So, we’re in compliance with OSHA regulations. Well, you can’t imagine how wrong I was. So, my manager told me, well, sure. Go and explain that to the CEO and that’s a midsized company. We knew each other. So, most of the OSH or BBS professionals have at some point in their career handed upper-level management a list of hazards or compliance issues that were found and all that in response. 

It is very likely that the upper-level management handed that list back to them and said, what does that mean? And that was my exact experience. So, I must explain to my CEO that, hey, if we don’t address all the issues, there is a possibility that the company will be inspected by Ocean and find a few thousand dollars for each violation. And I also listed regulations that may have been violated. Like you start with 29 CFR 1910. One, three, four respiratory protection says we need to do this and that. 

So, he told me, why don’t you go back to your office and work on a risk assessment, spreadsheet, work on a business case, and then present the findings to me. So, he also said, by the way, prepare a full cost-benefit analysis for me. So, there was an accountant during that meeting, and the accountant told me, no, you prepare benefit-cost analysis. The benefits come first for the accountant. My manager probably knew what was going to happen when I tried to speak a compliance language in the CEO’s office. 

Lessons learned for me, I realized I had to learn different language, and that’s not because of my accent. I went back to my office. I found a very interesting OSHA presentation that was titled Business Case for Safety. It was published actually and made available in 2004. And there it was. In that presentation, I found the answer why the compliance is not the way to ask for investments in EHS initiatives. Very quickly, I had to learn the business language, and I have never done cost-benefit analysis before. 

I have never done EHS risk assessment before. I quickly realized that to convince the CEO I needed to learn that new language. If you ask me, DHS professionals should be speaking in a language that upper-level management commonly uses. And in this case, that is risk reduction dollars, nonfinancial benefits. So, after you address all that, it’s more likely it will be better accepted than the compliance language that I tried. At first, to be honest with you, even the financial analysis was not sufficient. 

So, when I completed that’s what it was back then cost benefit analysis. I found out that we had to invest about $100,000 to avoid $7,000 OSHA fine. 


So, I discussed the findings with my manager, and he was smiling and told me, well, good luck convincing the CEO with these numbers. So, I added the component of nonfinancial benefits, the personnel risk, the operational risk, the financial risk, the strategic risk for the company. So, I did my homework. And next time I presented the case to the CEO, I had benefit cost analysis, noticed that and the risk assessment completed. He looked at the numbers and said, well, why didn’t you tell me that the last time we had that discussion? 

Now I can understand it. I must admit, it wasn’t a perfect risk assessment. It wasn’t perfect benefit cost analysis. But it worked. I had to use back then very simple qualitative risk assessment process, something very similar to what I have seen in the military and, the interesting thing was the risk assessment matrix that I converted from the military standards was very similar to the one that is required by US Army Corps of Engineers. The next time we had to bid a core of engineer’s project, the CEO told me, now you go and do the risk assessments and you do the benefit cost analysis. 

And it turned out that risk assessment is required for any core of engineer’s project. They caught activity hazard analysis but includes the qualitative risk assessment matrix. And sure enough, we must justify the financial component of any project. Now, that was before 2009. The reason I mentioned that year. It is very important for me personally, because in 2009 published the first risk management standard. And with that standard comes another companion. If you will, I saw 31,010. And in that standard, you will find a cost benefit analysis, for example. 

Now notice they do call it cost benefit analysis, but our accountants like the benefit to be first, indeed. 

So, it’s interesting because I love what you mentioned about speaking the language of business. I think that’s something that’s often missed and speaking the language of regulatory versus the language or compliance towards something that other leaders can connect. So, I think a big component is what you talk about in terms of the business case for change. But it’s also how as safety leaders, we connect with different executives. Would you agree? 

Yes. Absolutely. That’s a very interesting observation. And we must do something what we call consider your audience. So, when you talk to wine employees, we must use different language. When we talk to the CEO, we must use different language. And I had a very interesting discussion with one of our local section safety professionals. And they told me, well, we think that they should send all the CEOs and the business leaders back to school so they can take safety classes. 


I went to ask our business schools how many safety classes do you guys take? And that’s zero. But if that makes you feel better, we’ll multiply it next year for you. So that’s how it works. But I would encourage early career professionals to become familiar with the risk assessment methods and the business case development methodologies. Notice how I mentioned the job hazard analysis before. Job hazard analysis is very widely used, but it’s not considered a risk assessment method in the latest Prevention through Design standard, which, if we have time, we’ll talk about that later. 

We converted the job hazard analysis to job risk assessment method because the original form of job hazard analysis only includes hazards and consequences and simple control measures. It doesn’t include the likelihood and risk level. And that is what I did not include in my first conversation with the CEO. He looked at that job hazard analysis form and said, well, it’s very unlikely to happen. So, he told me to use simple color coding. They like traffic light color coding. Green is good yellow, not so good red don’t even go there. 

So, when I started developing these risk assessment tools, he invited me to upper-level decision making meetings. And there I was not only thinking two levels up, but I was also talking to the decision makers. And to be honest with you, that business case for Safety OSHA presentation that was published way back when in 2004 can teach us the different terminology that is used in the decision-making process. And one of the conclusions was that safety should not be considered a cost should be considered an investment. 

So, I wish I had an effective risk assessment and business management education. I had to learn all that the hard way. But to this day, I don’t have MBA degree. However, I took a couple of continuous education courses, and you learn quickly. So, the business case development methodology was not in the EHS textbooks page then. In fact, even to this day, 95% of the safety textbooks are hazard based and compliance based. And like I told you, the compliance didn’t work for me. Think about that CEO question. 

Why would I invest $100,000 to avoid $7,000 or fine? Well, not to mention that I was told that we have good lawyers. Probably that $7,000 ocean will be negotiated down to around $1,000. So probably let me share my experience with a couple of business cases. 

That would be good. 

So, I have done many business case development projects now. And some of you probably remember that we used to consolidate trash in big black plastic bags and then we take it to the driveway and then the waste collection company comes in and they must lift the heavy black plastic bags. In some cases, in some counties, they had different colors and that, of course, teams to Ergonomics type problems. And one of the waste collection companies wanted to reduce the Ergonomic disorders and automate the process. So, think of the automated waste collection trucks that we have now that required significant investment. 

About four and a half million dollars, I think, was the figure at that time for the company. So, I had to estimate their risk reduction percentage to calculate net present value, internal rate of return, payback period and many other variables. And net present value was positive. Internal return was amazing. The problem was the payback period was four and a half years. So, the CEO didn’t like that. So, I was puzzled. I said, well, look at the net present value. Look at the internal rate of return. 

Well, here it is. Homework. Again, it turned out the average job expectancy for a US CEO is, what do you think? Two and a half years. So now I know what they were thinking. Why would I invest all that money to make my successor look good? While I look like the CEO who spend all that money later, I worked on many different cases. I should mention probably welding was one of them. Where again, we had to calculate net present value and internal rate of return and the payback period license one. 

I gave them a couple of different options the next time, not just one because they believe it or not, decision makers like options. They want to see the different variables there. You can start with, and I show them well, if we do personal protective equipment for the welding operators, it’s going to cost us that much money. But every year you must continue to invest in personal protective equipment and respiratory protection fit testing, and you name it so that net present value didn’t look great. 

You can imagine. So, the next option was put better ventilation system that created different problems. Again, that looked much better. The payback period was close to two and a half years. But the problem was that the better ventilation took the fumes away from the welded materials and the Weld quality was not that great. So, the operations manager didn’t like that. So, I gave them a third option. Why don’t you do complete enclosure and use welding robots? And they looked at me and I said, who can’t afford that? 

That’s a couple of million dollars. But when we ran the numbers, it turned out that was the most financially beneficial option. Risk reduction was greater because there is no exposure to the welding operator, two parts spray painting, but one thing that I can remember very well as a coal mine business case study in Colombia and that’s Columbia in South America. When I told our faculty members who would like to work on that, and that sure, we’ll go to Colombia tomorrow. And that’s not Columbia, Missouri, when I told them it’s in a different country. 

But I worked with a very knowledgeable individual in Colombia. He is a CEO of a consulting company. We developed a very interesting business case study where luckily, he had MBA, so I was lucky to work with him. So, we developed all these financial calculations. We are in different analysis, but at the end of the day, they found out that it’s more beneficial even financially, to install an engineering control, which is a ventilation system for each of the dozers. That’s an open pit coal mine in Columbia. 

And think about 146 dozers a couple of thousand doors for each one of them. Suddenly, you are talking about real money. But it turned out that ventilation system reduces the noise, so added benefits. We liked that project, and we developed a poster presented that poster at an American Industrial hygiene conference, won AHA award. I’m currently working with AHA and NIOS to develop interactive business case tool, and after beta testing phase, we’ll make it available free of charge. It is coming good very soon. 

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So, these are great illustrations of the use of the business case and even how it could inform different options, different scenarios that an organization could look at. I love how you are talking about the way to connect to the account, to the CEO, to the C suite in general. But let us talk maybe about some more mature organizations because I’ve come across organizations obviously that essentially you mentioned it before. The safety is an investment. They do not necessarily look at it as something I need to do a return on investment, then maybe more willing to accept a later payback period and so forth. 

So, can you share some examples of how you have seen that show up in organizations that are more mature and really bought into safety? 

Well, I was really impressed with Alcoa, of course, sustainability report. I had listened to some of your podcasts and that was mentioned number of times. And of course, you hear about their sustainability reporting matrix. But if you look at that report, safety is front and center and left and right. And for more mature organizations, we must consider something that is called enterprise risk management. So, they will consider occupational hazards and risks, the operational hazards and risks, financial risks, and the strategic risk. So, when you think about more mature organizations, from that perspective, you see all these issues in the sustainability reporting for more mature organizations. And of course, that’s an amazing example. But they’re not the only ones many organizations will consider the enterprise risk management model. Think about safety. Where is safety in that whole model? Is it in the hazard category? Is it operational risk? Is it financial risk? Is it strategic risk? And when you picture the four quadrants of the enterprise risk management model, if you insert safety right in the middle, you will find that that’s where it belongs because it will affect the hazard insurable risks. It will affect operations. 

If we don’t have safe operations, picture that open pit coal mine in Colombia, they were able to improve operational efficiency by I don’t remember 70%. They were able to improve financial performance because the more co we produce, the more profitable we are and think about from strategic perspective, for reputation of the company. Now everyone is talking, well, the management made that decision that improved safety, reduced risk. We don’t have to use respirators anymore. So yes, I think for more mature organizations, you must consider that enterprise risk management. 

I think it’s a good point. The scenarios you shared is also that I think we had Professor Steve Spirit speak to that a couple of episodes back that you end up investing in safety, and it has corollary benefits in all sorts of other areas. As you start eliminating ignorance, you start getting better at reducing hazards. Your operation gets better, which is hard to necessarily demonstrate in a business case because those corollary benefits tend to show up from more of a cultural lens. 

Absolutely. So more than one variable to consider. And if you think that financial benefits only are the way to go based on my experience, I can tell you in some cases, nonfinancial benefits are also absolutely. 

I want to make sure we spend a bit of time on a topic that you’re very passionate about. It’s really this. And you spend a lot of effort developing the concept of prevention through design standards. Can you maybe touch on the importance of it and why organizations need to start thinking about prevention through design? 

Well, I really appreciate the opportunity to share a little bit about the updated version of the Prevention Two design standard, which was published in September this year 2021. Now we have occupational health and safety management system standards like ISO 45,001, NC Ten. They provide big picture management system implementation process. Absolutely amazing standards. However, the Prevention through design is a more specific implementation standard. It is based on risk assessment, risk management principles, and the hierarchy of risk treatment. It used to be hierarchy of controls, but we all agree that if you avoid the risk early in the design stage, you don’t have to control it. 

That’s why it’s more aligned with ISO $31,000. It is called risk treatment. And now that’s why we call it the hierarchy of risk treatment. And our profession is changing. We used to be separate safety function, separate industrial hygiene function. We used to have environmental engineers that’s kind of the Silo approach, don’t you think? And now when you blend everything together today’s, employers want us to do all the above. And that’s why, EHS, environmental, health and safety or occupational safety and health and environmental and many different variations. 

And you start adding Lin six Sigma to it and even business knowledge these days. So, with that standard, we wanted to provide guidance on including prevention through design concepts within an occupational safety and health management system. And with the application of this concept, we must make decisions pertaining to occupational hazards and risks, and they must be incorporated into the process of design and redesign of tools, equipment, machinery, substances, work processes. You name it in a way we cannot apply that Silo approach anymore. 

We must work with engineers. We must work with accountants because for quite a bit of the prevention through design initiatives, we’re going to need significant help with financial justifications. We have to educate the CEO on how investing early in the design phase will save us quite a bit of money later on. And this standard provides guidance for a life cycle assessment. And it’s a design model that balances the notice, environmental, and occupational safety, and health goals over the lifespan of a facility process or a product. 

And these standard complements but does not replace the performance objectives for existing or other more specific standards and procedures. And with this standard, we have a number of goals, and the first one is to achieve an acceptable risk level. So, what’s acceptable for one organization may not be acceptable for another? We also want to prevent notice that prevent or reduce occupational related injuries and illnesses and fatalities. And we want to reduce the cost of retrofitting because retrofitting is always more expensive than doing it right. One of the important things to mention for this standard is the terminology. 

So, we must learn to use prevention rather than mitigation, and you will see in many standards in many textbooks. These two terms are used interchangeably. However, when you start digging into the terminology, you’ll find out that prevention is before the event had occurred, undesirable event, whether that’s injury or illness or let’s hope we don’t have to mention fatalities, but we want to prevent that from happening. And if any of this happened, then we can mitigate. But mitigation is never as effective as prevention. So, in a way, the standard encourages us to become more involved in the design process and apply higher levels of controls, especially avoidance elimination reduction or control of occupational safety and health hazards and risk. 

And we must do that early in the redesign process into our earlier conversations around getting executive buy in. 

How have you seen organizations communicate and sell the importance of doing prevention of the front end from a design standpoint, which is critically important? 

Well, that’s a very interesting topic to discuss, and I wish we had 8 hours to discuss that, but not going to happen. So, we included one specific tool that we think it’s important that we can use for communication with upper-level managers. And that is the striped bow tie analysis. So, in a way, you start with the hazards, you start with the preventive measures and then you have the top event. And if that happens, that undesirable top event, then we have event three analysis on the other side of the Baltic mitigation measures and the consequences. 

So, once you put that in a visual format, managers understand sure, they can see the hazard, they can see the consequences, what might happen? And do we have sufficient preventive measures? And then you can explain you can invest your money here upfront in the prevention side, or you can spend a lot more on the mitigation side. And that is a very good risk communication in my opinion, and my personal experience is that they do understand that. And even if you look at some of the COSO guidelines and some of their publications, you will notice that they do understand risk matrix and the color code I mentioned earlier, and when you include that and incorporate that into a bow tie, which was one of the methods they mentioned in 2012 publication, it’s an eye-opening for a lot of the upper-level managers. 

Well, Georgi, I really appreciate you coming on the show. Sharing about really, the need to communicate to executives in a language that they understand, talking about business cases IRR and all the net present value, et cetera. All language of finance, which is so critical and important but also touching on this important topic of prevention through design. So, thank you for the work you’re doing in safety and thank you for joining the show. 

Well, thank you. I really appreciate the opportunity. 

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Georgi Popov, Ph.D., CSP, QEP, SMS, ARM, CMC, FAIHA is the interim chair of Safety Sciences at the University of Central Missouri. He is co-author of Assessing and Managing Risk – An ERM Perspective; Risk Management Tools for Safety Professionals; and Risk Assessment – A Practical Guide to Assessing Operational Risk. Popov holds a Ph.D. from the National Scientific Board, an M.S. in Nuclear Physics from Defense University in Bulgaria, and a post-graduate certification in environmental air quality. He graduated from the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, KS. Popov is the chair of ANSI/ASSP Z590.3, vice-chair of ISO 31000 U.S. TAG, a professional member of ASSP’s Heart of America Chapter and a member of the Society’s Risk Management/Insurance Practice Specialty. In 2017, Popov received ASSP’s Outstanding Safety Educator Award.

Georgi Popov, PhD, QEP, CSP, ARM, SMS, CMC, FAIHA

Professor, GPS Chair (Interim)
Safety Sciences

University of Central Missouri
Humphreys 327A
(660) 543-4208