Case Study: Engaging Front-Line Teams on Safety with Sheldon Primus
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It was when Sheldon Primus was hired to be plant manager that he looked at safety a little bit differently. Being in a position of leadership, he sought to connect with employees to draw the importance of safety through initiating incredible active leadership. Getting involved and showing up for his employees was his way of provoking safety standards and a thoughtful relationship between himself and employees. From his experience, he defines the role of a manager to promote a communication plan, be a resource for employees and be involved throughout the safety process of projects.
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Hi. And welcome to the safety Guru today. I’m very excited to have with me, Sheldon Primus. He’s a safety consultant, and also the host of a podcast called The Safety Consultant with Sheldon Primus. Sheldon, welcome to the show.
Thank you, Eric. Thank you.
Tell me a little bit about your journey into the safety. I know when we first connected, you did some work as a plant manager, and I’d love to hear a little bit about your story as you got into a plant manager. And what really made safety interesting to you in that new role.
Yeah. When I got started in safety, I got started as a young man, early 20s, working for the city of Orlando in Florida, and they actually just needed a safety officer because they were doing every two years, they would switch the role and they asked, hey, you want to do safety? And I was like, sure, I knew nothing about safety at all. All I knew is that I was going to get time each week. Actually, I believe it was like, up to an hour a day, and I was able to have my own office and a procurement card so I could purchase things for safety.
And that’s all I knew. So, I was ready. And that actually got me into safety. And I was young in the field for wastewater treatment, which is anything you pour down a drain or you flush in the toilet, goes to a facility to get treated. So, my facility was treating 11 million gallons of wastewater at the time. And I was the operator trying to figure that out. But when I joined Safety, I quickly learned that I needed to know underground construction. I needed to know piping, I needed to know fluid dynamics.
I needed to know personnel maintenance, electrical and permit-required confined space. And it kind of took me by a storm if you would. And then I said, I better learn some safety. And eventually, I got into learning some safety enough. And for your audience, that may not be in the US market, Federal Ocean does not have jurisdiction over any state or city or county employees if they don’t have a state plan. So, I was working in a state where I had no state plan and therefore the city that I worked for had no regulation or should say, no regulatory agency over it except for the city itself.
So, I didn’t have all those tools that people will say OSHA will get you or the regulators will get you. I didn’t have that tool.
Interesting. So, from that role, correct me if I’m around, but you eventually moved into becoming the plant manager, correct.
And not that facility. I was a lead operator at that facility, and later, I decided I’ll take a chance. And my wife and I moved a little to the East Coast of Florida at that time. And I got hired in a position for the special district of the state of Florida. And at that point, I started progressing into management of the facility. And I was the middle manager. So, I had some people under me. And then I had my executive director and then also the board of directors above me.
And my board was either elected or whenever we had an in-between elections, a board member leave, then the governor of Florida would place that board member. And those are the people I have to answer to.
And in that role, you did a lot to connect with workers. How did you do that? How did you really connect with your teammates with the workers of the site to draw on the importance of safety, which I think is really key.
Yeah, actually, with my role, it was really unique. The reason why is they hired me to come in first as a low-level frontline Foreman if you would. And then from there, I was already promised that I was within a year I’d be the plant manager over the facility. So, when I had coming in right away was an outsider trying to join an organizational culture that they just did not understand where I was coming from. They knew I knew the job, but they just didn’t know how I would be as a manager.
So, one of the first things I had to overcome was a really poor lack of days of procedures and policies and sometimes nonexistent. So, I had to start from basics with the Rapport, and I first and foremost told the guys said, I am going to do everything above board. If I don’t know, I’ll find out I’m going to protect you from upper management. Just come to me and keep that chain of command. And I’ll do my best to protect you. And then also, I’m going to do things out in the open.
And I promised them that from the very first day I got the position I got people on. I even went to the midnight shift. I went to the evening shift because it was a 24-hour facility, and I had the same conversation that let’s be above board every meeting I have, I’m going to put minutes and I’m going to follow up. And I did. And usually when you do that, people respected enough that they started to feel like, oh, yeah, we’re not back in the Woods doing some job.
We’re actually here doing a professional task. And we have at this point, the facility was over a large portion of Palm Beach, Northern Palm Beach County in Florida at part of Southern Martin County, and a lot of the area was very let’s say, glamorous if you would. And this is a change in change for them to actually start feeling like they’re a part of that feeling like they were professionals and not just wastewater operators that you would see. Ed Norton, if you remember Ed Norton and the honeymooners.
He was the original wastewater operator if you would. That made TV. So, they got that feeling and they felt professional.
Yeah. And I think that element of professional orientation is really important. Tell me a little bit more about some of the things that you did with them. I know you also set a vision for safety. You talked about how you set an expectation around it. Tell me a little bit about how you involve workers to really make it personal, real so that they would take safety first and foremost as a key component of the role.
Yeah. When I got transitioned, great question. And when I got transitioned into being the well, it was always going to be the safety and health coordinator and the plant manager at the same time because the utility just honestly didn’t want to buy two or have two different positions if you would. So, in those cases, I ended up having to make a distinct role change every time we talk to the workers because I needed them to trust me enough to show me hazards and know that they’re not going to get fired because of it.
So, I had to make it distinct, just a decision to see them and talk to them by proximity and not manage from my office. So, I did. One of the things I thought was really influential in getting people to buy into safety is I showed up on the job. I showed up at midnight. I showed up in the evening shift. I showed up on day trip when they’re doing anything, and I could be there. I would be there. And I had a cot in the office, and I stayed overnight many times just to let them know I’m not that kind of manager that is just going to dictate things without asking what you need and then following up.
So, the key was being their proximity, asking what they need, seeing it. And sometimes I didn’t understand. And I’ll be all right. I see you guys doing excavation over here. What are we doing? And they explained, all right, well, this oil is classy, and we need to do this, and they went through the whole process. And I think in letting them talk, letting them be the expert, telling them I don’t know everything. I just know how to identify hazards. You tell me the job and let’s do this together.
And they bought in that way.
I think that’s an important piece that you’re sharing in terms of. You are meeting people where they’re at you’re comfortable connecting, talking to them. Often, I speak to leaders who are saying, some of my leaders don’t know how the work gets done. How do they have coaching conversations? That is exactly the way you just described, right?
Yeah, absolutely. And many of the leaders that are in some places, let’s say they come up from the ranks, which is great to hire within. However, once they’re in the responsibility of being a manager or even a supervisor in a front line, they may lose track of what the job was itself and they’re looking at absolutes. They’re looking at maybe regulations or they’re looking at best practices, as opposed to asking the workers doing the work and seeing, all right, we’re giving you PPE. Let’s say it’s eyewear, and that’s fogging up and you’re going to get into workers for not wearing the eyewear and they’re telling you, I can’t see.
And now you’re trying to hold them to absolute when you don’t really know that it’s not practical for where they are. And therefore, you might have to look for another engineering control versus a PPE, or you may end up having to talk to your vendor and say, hey, this isn’t working. Let me get something for the workers that will work. And the flexibility of it is really probably a better way of working it out.
I love what you’re sharing there, because so often simple things, but really, it doesn’t matter. I’ve heard of examples where people are deemed people for not wearing their PPE in the cafeteria or places where it doesn’t make sense, or they can’t use it as you just described. So, another theme you talked about is and it’s a lot of buzz right now around the concept of learning teams. Tell me about how you leverage something like learning teams back in that role. And how did you make them effective?
Yeah, absolutely. Learning teams, especially if you’re doing the traditional learning team way where it’s coming from. The human and organization performance camp, the learning teams, you could do them for any number of items. So, what I would do is break it down into let’s learn about first, let’s learn about the task that we’re doing. Tell me today, how did it work today with your job safety analysis? Did we get all the steps in? Did we have all the controls identified for each step? And that could be its own learning team right there, just allowing the workers to talk and tell you what’s happening.
And then, of course, if there’s an incident, you could do a learning team for that and say, all right, we’ve got a root cause what can we do better? What did we miss? And that active learning helped. But the thing that I believe is really important for flexible learning teams is when it’s peer on peer, and you now are part of the teams, and I’ve always had my front-line supervisors show up as well and tell them, all right, we are all together learning. You’re not a boss right now.
Your part of the teams, like everyone else, with equal, say and manage it that way. And that really helps learning team when you get a good facilitator that can help people get through those moments where they don’t want to talk, like when they show up and they’re like, Well, what’s up with your department? What’s with your Department? And there’s no substance happening that’s not going to help you. You have to actually ask pointed questions. And then from there, even if you’re going to do word mapping or if you want to do mind mapping or any kind of tool to get people to talk.
And then after that, you have to do the actions.
Sure. I think those are really important components. How do you make sure that the actions come to life? It sounds like a basic question, but too often you hear lots of talking, but nothing actually comes out of it. I need to make sure they actually came to life.
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Yeah, with that, it’s practical as it sounds, but it’s also tenacity. So practical for getting things done is again putting in writing and saying, all right, we need this done at this time by this individual. And you can do that through a Raspy chart, which would be Raci, which is who is responsible for this, who’s accountable? The C part would be who needs to consult and then the I who has to be informed. So, in those cases, when you’re writing that out, it’s so you remember there as you right when you write math.
Yes, I do. When you write that out, and first, then you start your communication plan. Who needs to know what time, what venue, what method do they need to know? It is and you have to get some sort of consensus at that point. Hey, Bob, can you do this on Wednesday? Sorry, Sheldon, I got a whole bunch this week. I know that you said this is a risk analysis that is a low risk. Would you mind if I could do this on Friday? Okay. Sure. So, you have to quantify the risk and then get into some consensus between when can you get this done?
But then give all of the resources you can to the individual, call them back on Thursday and say, hey, how’s it going today? What can I do to get you this done? So, it’s timing it’s also making sure that you don’t let anything fall through the cracks. And that’s when you’re going to get the email or what I do is a nice little flag on the email if I need to. So anytime I go back, I can see the flag to remind me to go back.
Sometimes I just use an alert feature on my phone by calendar, and it’s practical in that way to make sure nothing falls through the cracks. And then you just call back the person you delegated and just say, how can I support you?
And I think that’s a big part of the role of the leader as well is to check in to make sure it gets executed to see if you need any help, because often what I see is good inertia and then certain things don’t get executed. But part of it is if you’re checking in as a leader to say, hey, how are you doing on your plans, then it does make sure that you either adapt the plan or help them execute on it.
Yeah, absolutely. And that’s what they’re looking for you to do, especially if they need resources such as, hey, Sheldon, this is going to cost 3000. I know our budget says that if it’s over 1000, I need three quotes and all right, give me a chance. Let me go call people, and I’ll follow up on the quotes, and the Avenue had to be open for them to feel comfortable enough to tell me if the task wasn’t happening, right? They didn’t feel like I was going to beat them down that.
Hey, why aren’t you doing this? But hey, Sheldon, I’m having some trouble here. Please help me go through this and manage through that. And that really worked well and then also rewarding as best as I could, too.
Yeah, it’s an important component. I want to transition to another theme, which is around personal accountability. How does that factor into the safety equation?
It’s a primary factor. I don’t want to go hyperbolic, but it’s the primary factor in holding your own personal credibility for yourself, but then also for the workers, when they see that you’re willing to admit when you’re wrong and I’ve had to do that and eat some Crow every time I was. And that helped. Also, I protected my workers from management that was above them, and even sometimes above me, that would pretty much go with you didn’t follow these rules and let’s go do something punitive. So, at that point, I was thinking, well, not all actions need to be you’re fired or you’re a couple of days off or whatever.
And I was that buffer between them and that part of the management. And that also helped with the accountability and help get some respect. But then it was holding me responsible for protecting them like I promised from day one when I showed up in the first meeting so that I would do that and that also garnered where the trust was there. And I was held accountable for myself and for my actions. And then when it was part of accountability for people in their actions, I was consistent, not like the Douglas McGregor or hot stove.
I was more flexible than that. Maybe the hot stove theory for those may not be familiar is the stove itself is going to give you a warning because of the color and it’s nice and red, telling you it’s hot, and if you touch it, it’s going to be pretty much burn everybody equally, no matter who you are, and it’s going to always be a burn if you touch it. So, I didn’t do that as much because to me, I was kind of more of the James Reason diminishing capability model, where you could see that if someone’s infraction was done because of sabotage, hold them more accountable than someone that may not have been trained properly.
Or the system may have induced some sort of latent condition that they activated. That’s the way that I would monitor it.
Yeah. I think the system factors or lack of training. Often people blame the employee, but it really is not the cause. If you blame the employee, you’re removing the fix from the actual source of the problem.
Correct. And that’s also a reason for the learning teams, too. Whenever you do those because first and foremost, you shouldn’t be looking for blame. It should be something where you’re actively together as a unified force. Organizational culture. I’m trying not to say safety culture anymore because it should be what you do. It should be everything you do as a community, as an organization. So, the organizational culture would demand that that’s honestly the best way. Right.
Right. Absolutely. So, Sheldon, I really appreciate you sharing some of your real-world experience from when you were managing a plant and how you made safety important across the organization, how you connected with workers, how you set a vision around safety, how you really started creating more of a learning organization in terms of building and learning example, learning teams, and how you handled personal accountability, all the really important themes for an operational leader to really think about to drive the right culture as you talked about in terms of right organizational culture.
So, thank you very much. I think, Sheldon, you won a prize for some of the work you did in safety in that space. If I’m not mistaken.
Yeah. Absolutely. The plant itself was acknowledged for operations on the state level. We got the highest state for operation of a plant of our size, and then also on a federal national level from our Environmental Protection Agency. The plan itself won an award for its operational side. And then, at the same time, we won awards and safety for our driving. We want awards for I’m not a big fan of the Lagging indicator, where it is X number of days without incident, but I like it when it’s organic and it occurs as opposed to looking to monetize or promote it.
Saying, when we get to a year, but we actually had it organically happen. And we got recognized within my time. It was with the Driving Awards and a few other recognition awards on safe activities. It turned out to be right around 13 awards in three years from when the culture change happened. So, it came hot and heavy when the first award came, then we got the next and we got the next and it was a snowball effect, and that became something that was lore for the organization and that strengthened the culture.
Sure. So, thank you for sharing this because I think it really is impressive in terms of the themes in terms of how you brought it to life and based on the awards had a meaningful impact in terms of the culture and safety performance of the phenomenal. Case study, an example. And now you dedicate yourself to helping other organizations around safety and hosting the podcast safety Consultant. So, tell me maybe a little bit about your podcast in case somebody wants to listen in.
Yeah. Thank you, Sheldon. I started answering the same questions from students that I would get throughout the years. I was teaching safety certification courses, and that led to the book, which led to a course. And then I was like, all right, I got to probably do this more often. And then that led to the podcast so I could help people who want to be safety consultants. And I was like, all right, let’s take you through my lessons and let’s do this step by step and let’s show you the business of running a safety business and then you know the hazards.
You know, the controls. You just may not know about insurance. You may not know about how to write a proposal, and that’s what I really started focusing on is mentoring those individuals. And currently, I’m doing that through the podcast and a safety consultant TV project.
Excellent. Well, thank you so much for coming on the show, Sheldon. Really appreciate your time.
Thank you. I appreciate you having me on, Eric.
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ABOUT THE GUEST
Sheldon Primus is a Certified Occupational Safety Specialist with a Master of Public Administration (MPA) with a concentration in Environmental Policy. He has been in the environmental and occupational safety field since 1994. Additionally, he is a trainer for the Certificate for Occupational Safety Managers (COSM) and Certified Occupational Safety Specialist (COSS) programs of the Alliance Safety Council-Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He is the author of “7 Steps to Starting A Profitable Safety Consulting Business” and host of the weekly podcast “Safety Consultant with Sheldon Primus.” He is also the creator of Safety Consultant TV, a subscription-based Video on Demand service to help those looking to be a safety consultant or grow their business. Sheldon is a guest columnist for the online publications of Treatment Plant Operator (TPO) and WaterOnline as well as conducts OSHA compliance webinars and speaker for a variety of organizations.