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

Mental wellbeing a call to action for leaders

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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.

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Real leaders leave a legacy. They capture the hearts and minds of their teams. Their origin story puts the safety and 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?

Right. 

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 [email protected] 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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ABOUT THE GUEST

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:

www.michaelweston.com.au

www.cnbsafe.com.au

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In this episode, we have a heartfelt conversation with Bernie and his wife Sheila Inman as they recount the events that led to a tragic incident that left Bernie with burns in over 70% of his body and rendered a quadriplegic. They share their powerful message of “safety starts with awareness – awareness starts with you”, while Sheila shares her heartbreaking experience as a loved one confronted by her husband’s life-altering incident. Tune in to listen to their moving messages!

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Real leaders leave a legacy. They capture the hearts and minds of their teams. Their origin story puts the safety and 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, Bernie, and Sheila Inman. Bernie is a survivor 28 years ago of a critical workplace incident. He’s now turned into a critically acclaimed motivational speaker around safety. So, Bernie and Sheila, love to have you on the podcast. Love. If you could maybe share your story a little bit, we can start getting started there.

Well, thanks for having us, Eric. It’s a very much a privilege for both of us. 28 years ago, I was employed in the oil and gas sector as a production operator. And you know what started out like any other day, perfectly normal, ended up in a world of grief after an inadvertent Slipper trip resulted in a prolonged exposure to methanol or methyl alcohol as a product, a chemical that we injected into our pipelines, et cetera, for freeze protection. 

Right. Tell me a little bit because I understand you were out for a very long time. So, tell me a little bit about what happened and how that actually happened.

Because I’ve got no recollection of the entire incident or the ship leading up to this incident. All I can really speak about is in terms of contributing factors is what we’ve learned from the investigation process. And it starts with, in all likelihood, a slip or a trip which resulted in a fall, subsequent blow to the head, which I didn’t have a hard hat covering it because of complacency creeping into my day-to-day routine. That blow to the head. After I collapsed in this building, I came to be resting on top of a methanol injection pump. And the discharge end of this particular pump was in a lever style configuration. And unfortunately, the weight of my leg and boot was enough to crack that valve open. And from that point in time on, every stroke the pump was taking was discharging raw methanol not only onto the floor in this little building, but eventually onto my boots, my clothing, eventually skin contact. And that’s where they found me approximately 12 hours later.

Oh, my goodness. That’s a very long time. And how did they end up finding you at that point? Because normally you would expect for somebody working alone that there would have been some protocols to jump in and realize why is it that you haven’t called in?

Yeah. Unfortunately, in that time frame back in the 1990s, it wasn’t uncommon for us to be working alone for extended periods of time. There were no calling procedures or anything of that nature. My wife was the one who actually initiated the panic button. And that only occurred when she came home from work and found our home empty when I should have been there. I firmly believe in the value of keeping our coworkers or loved ones informed as to where we’re at, what we’re doing, and at any given time, roughly what time we’re going to be home. I always tried to do that. And when it didn’t happen that night, Sheila initiated the search. My co-worker went out looking at approximately twelve midnight. And unfortunately, it was the last location that he checked. Our field was fairly extensive. It included a central gas plant in approximately 75 km of pipelines and field locations feeding the site. And as it sometimes goes, it was the last location that he looked because it was the least one that you would expect something bad to happen. And to all of our horror, that’s the one that got me.

Sheila, maybe tell me from your standpoint you come home, and Bernie is not there. Tell me what your experience through this was.

Okay, I come home, and Bernie is not there. And it’s not unusual because he does work late sometimes. He didn’t have a phone back then. We didn’t even have cell phones. He just had a phone at the plant site. So of course, I came home. I waited a while. I called the plant site. At the time, he had an XJ radio. I tried calling that. I called his co-worker right away to say he wasn’t home. I did a phone search for Bernie. I called the hockey rink, I called his friends, I called his co-worker. And by midnight, when Bernie didn’t come home, I realized something was really wrong. And I encouraged all to go look for Bernie because he had to be out there somewhere, right?

And so that’s where all I think you said went out on a search. So, tell me what happens from here. 

Al locates me. He’s somewhat surprised to find my pickup parked on site. The vehicle was running, the door was open. He assumed that I would probably come out of that building and inquire as to what he was actually doing there. Obviously, that didn’t happen. And upon entry, he found me unconscious in the building. Check my vital signs, got me out of the toxic environment, called for emergency services and began got me into his pickup and met the ambulance part way to the hospital.

From your standpoint, Sheila, tell me about what’s the experience from an injury like this, from an incident that occurs like this. 

You know what? It’s just when something like this happens, it’s so unexpected as all injuries are. And it’s doubly hard when it’s a preventable workplace incident because it could be prevented. And Bernie could have been found a lot sooner. Definitely things that the company changed after Bernie was hurt to make the environment a better place. And we’re happy about that. We’re happy that things are better now, and that’s sometimes how it happens. An incident has to happen before you realize what needs to be changed.

Ideally, it doesn’t, right? Ideally, an organization is always looking at where could something go wrong. Like in this particular case, somebody who’s working alone have some form of a call out protocol check in protocol so that if it’s taking longer than it should, I proactively start taking steps.

Oh, absolutely. And unfortunately, at the time, there wasn’t even a work call in procedure for Bernie’s workplace. You know what? It was something I know Bernie had thought about and had talked about it in safety meetings, but it had never come about.

You mentioned it, and even that didn’t trigger a reflection to say, maybe we need to close the gap of this front.

Well, you know what? I think it was standard back then in the workplace industry. In the oil and gas industry, it was not common practice to have a call-in procedure. 

So, let’s get into some of the key contributing factors to this incident. Tell me a little bit about how it happened and some of the things that could be done to prevent this from occurring.

Maybe I should start with saying that we took about seven years in recovery before I was approached to talk about this. And when we agreed to do something of this nature, Sheila and I really sat back and tried to re-evaluate again for the uptight time because we’ve been down that path hundreds of times. When you wake up thinking you’re in the middle of a nightmare and you realize it’s absolutely true, four elements really came to the forefront, and it started with policy and procedure was aware of a hard hat. It’s a disregard to company policy. They spend millions of dollars on PPE for my benefit. I didn’t wear it. Obviously, safety equipment, personal protective equipment is key in any safe work environment. Communication or lack thereof obviously played a huge role in the severity of this incident. I was exposed to raw methyl alcohol. If I was out of that building in 2 hours or 3 hours, I probably still walk. I’m not a quadriplegic. I’m not burnt over 70% of my body. So, the breakdown in communication was paramount. And then probably the most critical one that I think crept into my world. And I think it’s very easy to creep into anybody’s world is this issue of complacency.

And it caught up with me because this was the simplest, ill-equipped facility we had in our fleet. In other words, there’s no heat generating devices, no electrical components. It’s sweet natural gas, and you perform the same tasks day in, day out, without suffering any adverse effects. And I got comfortable, let my guard down. And that’s the nature of complacency. I just don’t know if there’s anything more dangerous out there than complacency because it happens and you’re not even aware of it. 

Yeah, that’s exactly the case. So often that’s what I hear is I did it 100 times, maybe in a way. I knew it wasn’t the safest way. And then I started realizing that’s, okay, I can get away. Nothing’s happened. And then it became complacent to the risk of the hazard. So, what are some of the things that could have as an organization, as leaders could have helped from a complacency standpoint to help reduce the likelihood that people do become complacent around some of those hazards?

That’s the age-old question. And that’s why Sheila and I, when we do a live presentation, it’s entitled Safety Starts With Awareness. Awareness Starts with you because there are steps that an individual could take, the Corporation could take. We can all take because we’re all part of that team.

Exactly.

Yes. And it starts with learning from incidents, regardless of how menial they might appear to be. I mean, I bumped out of we never thought that that would end up being a life-threatening injury is the complacency. I don’t think the valve was, I think, walking into a building that I considered to not have any harmful contributing factors to it. That’s the scary part of it. So, complacency, you bring in outside workers, you bring in speakers, you train your staff, you bring in Propulo.com, you bring in corporations like this, and all of it is going to enhance the ability to keep people aware and not let that complacency factor come into play. It’s kind of like wearing a seat belt. We know it works and sometimes we don’t wear it and we know what the results can be.

I would think it’s similar to when you were talking about the PPE. You weren’t wearing a hard hat. How did that set in? Was that just the first time it had happened, or was that something you kind of felt you didn’t need to wear?

Wonderful question, Eric. This particular site where I was found, and this incident occurred was very quiet. There was no need for me to wear a hard hat that had hearing protection attached to it.

Sure.

And because of my belief that there was nonhazardous operation in this little building I just entered, didn’t even think twice. It was a long shift. I’ve been on callouts previously, but I take the opportunity to go home that direction that afternoon, ensure that this facility would produce in a normal, stable fashion not only because it’s productivity, but its accuracy of the product. It wasn’t flowing normally, and I just didn’t even think twice, just opened the door, saw things were unstable, entered the building and never made it out of there.

With taking five minutes, people take five, just reflect. Would that have made a difference? Right. If you had walked in, looked at what are the hazards like normally you’ve got a tailboard. If you’ve got a crew you’re working with, would that have helped kind of understand what hazards might be present before jumping in?

Oh, certainly, yes. I’m a firm believer that as individuals, we’re smart. Common sense goes a long way as well. I also think it’s very critical that the employee understands that it’s perfectly okay for them to take a step back. If it doesn’t look right and it doesn’t smell right, just take a step back, survey the situation, and then act accordingly. And that’s something that I didn’t do.

And I think it’s too often we jump in, assuming the task is as we had originally planned, and we show up and something’s changed. Right. So, it could be something as benign as it started raining and I done my tailboard. I prepare for the job before the rain came. But the rain might introduce a new hazard into the equation or whatever else might show up. And it doesn’t look the way it should.

Oh, absolutely. And it’s changing and evolving all the time from a process standpoint, from an environmental standpoint, from a managerial, logistical standpoint. There’s lots of factors, and I’m confident that people have the ability to manage those. And it takes an effort, and that’s an effort that’s absolutely necessary. And it demonstrates a commitment to the employees.

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 [email protected]

And so, both of you often go speak to organizations, to teams, to leaders around the incident and really sharing some ideas. What are some of the things that the key messages you really try to impart to team members to reduce the likelihood of them actually having an incident?

From a leader perspective, I think it’s so absolutely critical that the personal commitment to the workers is first, not last. And I believe that leaders and employees like they take it personally because it is personally. You can’t sustain an incident like this. Watch the ripple effect go through the Corporation, your co-workers, and your colleagues, those you become close with when you work side by side over time to achieve the goals put before you. It’s common to develop friendships and bonds, and something like this happens. And that ripple effect extends from a monetary perspective through increased WCB premiums, et cetera, to the human aspects, which is the horrible feeling that everybody had when I went down.

Right? Absolutely. What are some of the other lessons for leaders around it? Because I think in this particular case, you’ve talked about a few really, in terms of really as a leader, I can reinforce certain themes around complacency. I can drive a messaging around, take five. I can drive a messaging around, really assess the hazards that it’s okay not to jump in if something doesn’t feel right, doesn’t feel safe. I can start thinking about areas of potential failure points around what happens if I’ve got a loan worker who’s working alone, and something goes wrong. How do I make sure that I check in to know that something’s happened, not rely on a loved one to realize that somebody hasn’t shown up?

It is. It’s a broad spectrum out there. I think it’s critical, absolutely essential that the leaders understand the landscape of what Safety Excellence looks like and that they can reiterate that and clearly articulate that to their staff. Because sometimes actions speaker louder than words. And when it’s coming from your high-level leaders, I can only tell you from my perspective what it would have meant to me to have that feeling. And I can tell you honestly.

I didn’t have so the leaders didn’t reinforce at the time the messaging that safety was critical. It wasn’t something that was drilled in on a daily basis at the time.

We’re productivity based and costs are in check. Costs are controlled, costs are scrutinized. Unfortunately, at the time, Safety Excellence, then or now, it comes at a cost. This is something that needs to be talked about at the highest levels because this is where budgets are considered. This is where budgets are approved. And the day of a dividing line between productivity and safety that’s long gone. I mean, they go hand in hand together, and it needs to be like that. And its money well spent because it’s an investment in your employees and it demonstrates commitment. That’s huge.

Yeah. And I think that’s exactly the key message is even if at the C-suite level, I’m talking about safety, I’m reinforcing the importance as a value. This is how we do our work. That goes a long way. Budgets obviously matter, but the messaging and the consistency of that message from an executive to a front-line team member or frontline supervisor has to be there.

It has to be there. When you consider these corporations, organizations that we’re all one teams, we’re all working to obtain the same goal. And there’s nothing more disruptive, in my opinion, from a monetary perspective, from a human perspective, then being near achieving those goals collectively with the team and then watching it go away because of a preventable incident, it just takes the wind right out of your sales. From the most upper level, right down to the guys sweeping the floor, we’re all in this together.

Absolutely.

I’ll just quickly jump into it here quick. I can appreciate that I’m an important part of the puzzle when it comes to the Bernie inventory, because when injury happens, it doesn’t just affect the injured worker. Bernie got hurt that day, but it affected me. It affected our marriage. It affected our kids, our families, our friends. The ripple effect of injury is huge. And the decisions you make affect everybody around you. I usually when we talk at a presentation, I let everybody know this. So, I want everyone listening to your podcast to know this as well, that everybody listening is a VIP. And I guarantee there is somebody waiting for you to come home, because we are all sons and daughters. Maybe we’re mums and dads, grandmas, Grandpa’s, aunts, uncles, friends, pet owners, whatever. I guarantee that there’s somebody waiting for you to come home. And I really feel that it’s almost a responsibility to come home safely to your loved ones every time because they’re counting on you. I’m really shy by nature, and it’s really hard for me to talk about Bernie’s incident and basically the hardest time of our lives. So, what I did was I wrote up home, and it was just a way for me to express and get out there what I wanted to say.

And I’m going to share a portion of it with you right now.

Yes. Thank you.

Okay. It’s called The Importance of Safety. Safety starts with awareness. Awareness starts with you. It’s something we all have to learn. I’ll tell you a story that’s true. On the 24 January, my sweetie went to work with a kiss and a hug and a wave and a smirk. We had the world by the fuel. Your future so bright? Our carefully laid plans changed forever. That night, Bernie was found all alone, unconscious, he lay in a pool of methanol. What had happened that day from the stress of it all, I’m lucky to say my mind has played tricks. I don’t remember much from those days, but I remember the feeling. I remember it well. The heartache, the tears have I defended. Okay, so I’m going to stop there. But I just want to share the very last part of my poem, and it says, My soul is just fine. I want all to see it’s filled to the brim. I’m so lucky to be me. I guess I just want to share how we found happiness. And one of the most important things is to be grateful. And it’s easy, like in the ICU unit or the Bern unit or rehab, to look around and find someone worse off than us.

And I would say a little prayer of thankful for Bernie in my life. I’m thankful he made it. I’m thankful that he’s a great dad and he has the opportunity to do that. I’m thankful that we get to talk with you, Eric. And you know what? If you’re thankful, you can have an amazing life.

So, Sheila, thank you so much for sharing that. I think the power of this is really safety is something that’s very personal and that was incredibly powerful in terms of the story you shared and your experience through it. And I think it’s interesting because just a few hours ago, I was actually talking to some leaders exactly about this is making safety more personal. Sometimes it’s about procedures and thou shalt do this and books and stuff I need to tick boxes on. But at the end of the day, safety is something that impacts a person, a family, a loved one, like you said. And everybody’s got that. And it’s really thinking about how do I really make it personal? So, people choose to take part in it, realize their part in it, and also the company’s part in it. So, thank you so much for sharing that, Sheila.

Thank you.

I could sort of chime in on this, too. It’s raw experience from the family and the spousal perspective, and that sometimes doesn’t come to the forefront as workers and employees. When we make decisions, sometimes it’s easy to cut the corner, take the chance, and not even realize or recognize the type of impact you could have on your loved ones. And the original prognosis for me was a limited chance of survival and supposedly to be brain damaged. The point to being institutionalized and blind. This is horrible things that Sheila just stood before me eleven months prior to that and said in sickness and in health and good times.

Oh, wow.

So, this is going to reflect in the nature of what this incident meant to Sheila. Even though 28 years has passed, I always got to think of what it’s going to mean to those that are at home waiting for you to come home safe and sell.

And I think that’s an important message because sometimes even in companies, we don’t talk about it in that way. We talk about it in terms of rules and procedures as opposed to why this really matters. So, thank you both for sharing your story. You present together, share presentations around safety, around your story. How can somebody get in touch with you if they wanted to know more? And share your story within the organization?

You can reach out to us through our [email protected] There’s telephone contact information on there. And we’ve had the privilege, the honor of talking to different industries throughout North American, different parts of the world. Although my injury occurred in a different country than some in a different environment, different industry, the playing field levels itself when it comes to injury. And once the injuries happen, we learn from it the same way, regardless of the industry.

Sheila Bernie, thank you so much for joining me today on the podcast. Thank you for sharing your story. Thank you for bringing your story to a lot of other people to reflect on how can I stay safer, how as a leader, can I influence my organization to make sure this never happens to another family?

Thank you. 

Cheers. Thanks. 

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 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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ABOUT THE GUEST

Bernie Inman was 27 years old and working in the petroleum industry when he was critically injured, enduring burns in over 70% of his body and rendered a quadriplegic. Surviving a serious exposure to methanol while doing a routine task ten years ago, the incident happened in what appeared to be a harmless work situation.
Bernie and his wife Sheila Inman share the events surrounding this incident to prevent others from incurring a similar fate. Their lived experience provides the basis for two audiences: one of caution and safety, and one of overcoming unimaginable challenges.
Today, the Bonnyville, Alberta father of three is in a wheelchair and their story serves as inspiration for all of us. Their message is simple, “safety starts with awareness – awareness starts with you.” It is his goal to have everyone reconsider the importance of having and maintaining a “Positive Safety First” attitude.

For more information: http://bernieinman.com 

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Leadership Lessons from a CEO that Gets Safety with Brian Fielkow

Leadership lessons from a CEO that gets safety

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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!”

READ THIS EPISODE

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. 

Exactly. 

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.  

Great. 

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. 

Exactly. 

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. 

Yeah. 

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 www.propolo.com. 

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. 

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ABOUT THE GUEST

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.”

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Case Study: Engaging Front-Line Teams on Safety with Sheldon Primus

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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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 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, 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. 

Yeah. 

Interesting. 

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. 

This episode of the Safety Guru podcast is brought to you by Propulo Consulting, the leading safety and safety culture advisory firm. Whether you are looking to assess your safety culture, develop strategies to level up your safety performance, introduce human performance capabilities, re-energize your BBS program, enhance supervisory safety capabilities, or introduce unique safety leadership training and talent solutions. Propulo has you covered. Visit us at propolo.com. 

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. 

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

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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. 

Website: www.safetyconsultant.tv

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Safety is a CHOICE you make with James Wood

Safety is a choice you make.

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ABOUT THE EPISODE

I made some wrong CHOICES and I’ve been in a wheelchair ever since.” Risk is the neglect of personal pressure on safety. Both management and employees need to make safety a daily priority and encouragement, one that should be stressed beyond production pressures or time constraints. There is a multitude of incidents just waiting to happen that we don’t think could ever happen to us. But it is our decisions that make the difference between an incident and another day at work. James Wood shares his experience about the series of choices that led to his incident and the ways that we can all prevent workplace injuries and fatalities.

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Real leaders leave a legacy. They capture the hearts and minds of their teams. Their origin story puts the safety and 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 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 with me, James Wood, who’s a world-recognized safety motivational speaker. He has a great story he’s going to share with us. He went to work one day as a typical blue-collar worker, came back home nine months later. So, James, welcome to the show. Really happy to have you with me. 

Good morning, Eric from Australia. Nice and early over here. 

Indeed, indeed. So out of Melbourne in Victoria, Australia, enjoying summer while I’m enjoying winter. So maybe why don’t you start a little bit with your story and how you got started? Maybe talking about when you were going to work that day and some of the elements and we’ll take it from there?  

Sure. Okay. Well, Eric, I should go back a little bit further. I’m the oldest of six children. My dad worked in the mining industry, firstly initially in the UK, and then we emigrated to Australia. My grandfather was in mining his whole life and that sort of transitioned to me getting an apprenticeship as a diesel mechanic in the mining industry. I finished my apprenticeship and things were looking pretty good. I was working as a qualified diesel mechanic. Good job, a little bit of ambition. I was hoping one day to make it into maybe a supervisor or a manager’s role. 

One day I woke up and went to work. It was a Monday morning, just after a couple of days off. Now the first job for the day, I was given a job to go out and fix a truck. Now, I think the important thing to point out here is it was something that I’d probably done hundreds of times before. So, when the boss gave me the job this day, I didn’t really think too much about it. I thought I can do that. I’ve done that before. 

 The next thing that he said to me, he said, look, when you finish fixing that truck, take it up to a parking bay. Now I can see where I had to go. The parking Bay was only a short distance away, so I thought I was only going to be in the truck for a couple of minutes. So, I fixed the truck, jumped up into the cabin, ready to move it. Now, just as I got into the truck, I had a look at the time, and I noticed it was five to nine in the morning. 

Smoker or morning tea was at 09:00. So straight away, I thought, Beauty, if I can get back to the crib room, the lunchroom by 09:00, I can catch up with my workmates. So, I took off down the road in the truck in a bit of a hurry, pretty keen to get back to the parking Bay, back to the lunchroom. I put my foot down, gone a little bit too quick for the conditions. I lost control of the truck. Wet road. We’d had a bit of rain around that day. 

A wet, slippery road. I’m going too fast. I ended up rolling the truck down the side of a Hill three times. They worked out that I rolled the truck three complete times. 

I got thrown out and I broke my back, snapped my back, and damaged my spinal cord. And pretty much I’ve been using a wheelchair for the last 30 years. 

Wow, this is quite the event. 

Yeah, that was the event, but just leading on from there. And I suppose to answer your question, it was probably about five or six years after my accident. I managed to go through hospital and rehab, and I was rebuilding my life even five or six years after the event. I was still in that rebuilding process. But one of my mates rang me. One of my former workmates ring me, and he’d made it up into a supervisor’s role, and he asked me. He said, Look, Woody, he said, we’re having a safety day. 

He said I want you to come out and tell people what happened to you. And initially, I refused. I said, there’s no way that I’m going to sit in front of a group of people and talk about my accident. But he kept nagging me. Eric, he’s one of those annoying mates. One day we were having a couple of beers together, and he asked me the question. He said, well if someone had turned up at our workplace and talked about their incident or told their story, is that the sort of thing that you would have listened to? 

Great question. 

And something just clicked, and I thought, you know what? I would have liked to have heard it not from my management, not from my safety people, but from someone that I could relate to, and they could relate to me. So, I agreed to go out and have a bit of a yarn at his workplace, and it just snowballed from there. I kept getting phone calls saying, look, we heard you’re out at such and such a place. Can you come out to our workplace? 

Indeed. 

So that’s the way that I started telling my story. And I’ve been doing it for nearly 25 years now. 

So, tell me a little bit about the message that you convey when you speak to audiences. I think one of the things that struck me was really your message around responsibility. And we’ll get to a couple of other themes that you shared, but maybe tell me about some of the key messages that you conveyed. 

My story, Eric, is all about choices. When I started my apprenticeship, we were given, obviously training and a bit of guidance by the tradesmen and the managers of where I work. We were given training, job training and safety training. We had systems and procedures in place that were supposed to keep us safe or ways of doing our job that were meant to reduce risk. But I made some wrong choices. I stuffed up the three key points that I try and get across to people are to people. 

When I share my story, I didn’t take that little bit of time just to think about the job. I just jumped straight into it. I actually put pressure on myself. I thought that I had to get the truck fixed as quickly as possible. 

Right. 

And I think that’s a fairly common thing with a lot of people. We put this pressure on ourselves that we just have to get the job done, no matter what. The second part of me getting hurt is I took a risk. I was going down that road too quick for the conditions, management and safety. People are always saying drive to the condition. I’m a perfect example of not driving to the conditions. And I think the third part of me getting hurt is I didn’t protect myself. The truck that I was driving that day had seatbelts I didn’t have a seatbelt on. 

So that’s the reason I got thrown out of the truck. Yeah. Those three choices can be applied to any role or any task. It doesn’t matter what people do. Just take that little bit of time just to think about what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it. Don’t take a risk and protect yourself where the appropriate PPE and whatever you can do to protect yourself if something does go wrong. 

I think that’s a great point. I think the element you bring up around production pressure is something I hear quite often. And in some organizations, it’s legitimate. The organization is pushing, and they’re creating an environment where you’re more likely to create unsafe conditions because of that pressure. But what you bring up is an interesting point. There wasn’t a pressure from the organization, but you had imposed yourself on yourself a certain degree of pressure. How can organizations how leaders reduce that risk in terms of the messaging to make sure that somebody doesn’t put an undue pressure on themselves? 

Yeah. Look, I think it’s got to be that constant reinforcement that you can stop a job, or you can take a little bit of extra time to make sure what you’re doing is safe. A lot of workplaces that I visit. There’s no managers or supervisors saying right, get that done as quickly as possible. I hear the opposite. I hear if you need a little bit of extra time to make the job safer or to put some extra protection or things in place to be able to do the job safer, just do it. 

And that’s what I think management has to do. They have to constantly reinforce. Look, there’s no one yelling and screaming at you saying you’ve got to get the job done as quickly as possible, no matter what or you have to take a risk to get that job done. 

I think that’s a common theme because in many cases, people put pressure on themselves, and the leaders do have a significant impact or an ability to impact because of pressure that people can put on themselves. 

Yeah. Look, I see it a lot, Eric. I see a lot of people do put that it’s a perceived pressure they think to themselves. Well, if I don’t get this job done quickly, I’m going to get in trouble for it. I see a lot more where there’s some process work where they might be part of a bigger job. And if they fall behind in their area, it’s going to impact on the other areas to produce or to keep the job going. And in a lot of cases, you can just say, Look, I’m not comfortable with that. 

Let’s just stop until we can put some things in place to make me comfortable. Yeah. 

I love that one thing as well that I know when we connected, that struck me is you had a great quote. I’ll let you share it in terms of you really didn’t feel that anything was going to happen to you. Right. So, you’ve heard about other accidents and other people, but you didn’t think it was going to happen to you. And certain things like you said, you didn’t protect yourself with a seatbelt as an example. How does that happen? And how can you shift that? And first, I think you need to share your story on that front because it’s quite powerful. 

Yeah. I think it’s just a human nature thing. Nobody thinks that something bad is going to happen to them. It’s not until it happens to you that you think, hang on. This doesn’t happen to me. But the story that I shared with you when we chatted before Eric was, I can remember lying in hospital. And the doctor explained to me that I’d broken my back and damaged my spinal cord. And he said, look, you’re probably going to have to use a wheelchair for the rest of your life. 

And I looked straight at the doctor, and I said, Look, I think you must be mistaken. This doesn’t happen to me. I said that to the doctor, and I said, this doesn’t happen to me, right? And I think that we all don’t think that we’re going to get hurt. But look, unfortunately, if you do make some wrong choices, there’s a good chance that you increase that risk and you could get hurt. 

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 at propulo.com. 

And is there anything that a leader could do to help influence? So obviously you talked about your friend who brought you in to start conveying your story. But is there anything a leader could have done to help improve your chance of being safer on that day? 

Yeah. I think you need to keep in mind that I got hurt 30 years ago. So, we’ve come a long way with safety in 30 years. I see it in the time that I’ve been visiting workplaces. I see some of the improvements that we’ve made. I believe that 30 years ago, we almost and especially management teams, almost accepted the fact that some of their workers were going to get hurt and some of their workers were going to get killed. 

Sure. 

But we’ve had a complete turnaround over the last 30 years in that we now are at the point where we say, well, you know what? We don’t have to hurt people. We don’t have to kill people. So, a lot of that has come from management, and they’ve had to put extra resources into training and the things that they need to do to make their workplaces a safe place to work. But I think managers still have to maintain some sort of connectivity with their employees. And the reason I say that is the only time that we ever saw a manager, or a supervisor was when something went wrong. 

And I think that’s something that management have to do a little bit better. They have to make themselves visible to the shop for guys and girls and for no other reason. Just so the employees can see that management are aware of some of the conditions that they work under, some of the things that they have to do as part of their job. But I guess your question, Eric, my management and again, keeping the time frame in place, they didn’t really lead by example. They were quite comfortable to tell us that we should be doing this, and we should be doing that. 

But we would often see them doing something that wasn’t quite what they’re asking us to do. Sure, their credibility just goes right at the door. So, if you are in any sort of management or leadership role, if you’re willing to ask people to do something, you’ve got to be willing to do it yourself. And I think the other thing is we had some systems implemented over the time that I worked in the industry, and one of those systems was a system called Take Five. Now, I’m not sure if you’ve heard of that, Eric. 

Yeah, absolutely. The take five system. Now we were all given a little take-five booklet. It was a little pocket-sized notebook, and we were meant to carry it around with us. And before every job or every task, we were supposed to do a take five, I reckon the first probably twelve to 18 months. Our management and our leaders were pretty good. They were saying, look, have you done you take five, make sure you do your take fives now, after about two years, maybe two and a half years, that sort of died down a little bit. 

We didn’t get asked as often. Have you done your take fives? And I reckon probably three and a half years after they’d introduce that system. We very rarely got asked if we’d done take five, no incentive or encouragement or reinforcement for us to do them. And I had to take five books in my pocket the day that I got hurt and I didn’t do it. I just jumped right into that job without even thinking about it. Now, the strange thing about that I used to think that a take five was a waste of time. 

I thought it’s something to cover management. If something goes wrong, something happened to change that one of my workmates, he brought down some stuff from my locker in the workplace, and one of the things that he brought down with him was a whole pile of my old take five books, and I just grabbed them off him and I threw them in my bedside table in the hospital room. Now, one night I woke up about 03:00 in the morning and I couldn’t sleep. I was in a fair bit of pain, so I just reached over to my bedside table, and I grabbed one of those old take five books and I started flicking through old take fives that I’ve done over the years, and I came with some blank take five. 

And I don’t know why I did this, but I decided to do a take five for the job that I got hurt on. Now, had I taken five that day and done one properly, not just gone tick, tick, tick. But if I would have done one properly, I would have identified probably three or four different things that could have prevented me from getting hurt. So, we had the system in place that could have possibly stopped me from getting injured, but I didn’t use it. And if you were to say, well, why didn’t use it? 

I would say, well, there was no encouragement or no reinforcement to do it, I guess, for any managers or supervisors out there, if you do introduce a system or a procedure, you have to also be willing to constantly encourage or even reinforce people to use that system. 

I think that’s a really important point because I see it so often in organizations that you have a good system that gets implemented and people are looking for the next system to implement, but they haven’t necessarily embedded the tools that they have. Like you said, the good strategy is to embed in the first year, but eventually tapered off and attention went to something else. But some of these things, if they had been continuously reinforced, could continue to drive adoption. So, I think it’s a really good point. 

It’s not necessarily through what you’ve got out, but maybe even just look at how do I make sure what I’ve got gets implemented? It gets reinforced and gets really operationalized day in and day out. 

And I think the other thing is probably worth mentioning is I was working in the industry when we were starting to transition from bad culture to try and change some of those cultures. So, there was the time that I was in the workforce. There was quite a lot of changes made sure. And there was a lot of opposition to some of those changes, especially from some of the old school guys and girls saying, well, hang on. We’ve been doing this for 30 years. What do we have to change the way we absolutely? 

So, let’s transition. You do a lot of speaking to groups you’ve taken on recently a Covet project. Tell me a little bit about your project and a little bit of we’ll get to that after, but a little bit about how somebody could reach out to you if they wanted you to connect with a group and speak about some of your experience and also help shape people’s mindsets around it. 

Sure. Well, my little Covet project, I live in Victoria in Australia or Melbourne in Victoria. We have got the unenviable record of having been locked down for more days than any other place in the world. I think it was close to 300 days. We were in total lockdown where we weren’t allowed to leave the house apart from shopping, medical or work essential work. So, during that time, I decided to put together a little book. It’s called Twelve Reasons Not to Get Hurt at Work. And basically, Eric, it’s a lot of the ways that my incident changed my life. 

Sure, things that some of the topics are you can’t do some of the things that you used to be able to do. One of the things that I try and explain to people is I don’t think any of us realize just how much we take for granted. And it’s that old saying you don’t realize what you miss until you can’t do it anymore, right? So, things like that I cover the fact that because I use a wheelchair to get around. My difference is obvious, but I think some people, when they see someone that’s a little bit different, they straight away assume that they have to treat me differently. 

So, I get people that speak to me slowly so I can understand them. I get people shout at me as though I’m dead. I have a lot of fun with those ones. My book is just a short book just to give people a little bit of an insight into what it’s like to live with an injury. I think, Eric, you think about a lot of workplaces, especially large workplaces. If somebody has an incident or has an injury, that person gets taken to hospital, then they might have to have a bit of time off to recover and recuperate if they can’t come back to the workplace that they were working at previously. 

You know, a lot of people they don’t see some of the things that this person is trying to deal with and trying to cope with. So, I guess my job and the job of people like myself who share their stories is to just try and educate people on how an injury changes your life and how it affects a lot of the people around you as well. 

Thank you for the good work you’re doing on that side in terms of helping keep people safe and focus on really their personal choices that they can make and for leaders in terms of how they can influence others in terms of how they show up.  

Yeah. My sort of motivation to do these things, Eric, is purely to stop even one person from going through some of the things that I’ve had to deal with for the last 30 years, and we’ll probably have to try and deal with for the next 20 or 30 years as well. 

Absolutely. So, thank you very much for sharing your story. Anything you’d like to share about CNB Safe and your group? 

Yeah. Basically, if anyone does want to get in touch, I have got a website. It’s obviously CNB Safe, so C for Cat N for November B and then the word safe. Com au. Don’t forget that au at the end of it, us Australians are pretty proud of that au. 

Absolutely. So. Thank you so much for coming on the show and sharing your story. 

Thanks, Eric. I enjoy listening to your podcast and I’m happy to be part of one. 

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 teams and 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

More Episodes: https://thesafetyculture.guru/

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ABOUT THE GUEST

James Wood offers workplaces something different. You see James had the training & he had the rules in place, but he made some wrong choices, choices that meant he would never be able to walk again.

James will share his message of ‘choice’, which he hopes will help other people to avoid the same mistakes he has made. James Wood made the wrong safety decision once and now he has to live with it for the rest of his life.

As James puts it, ‘It was supposed to be a normal day, I got up, I went to work and went home 9 months later’.

At a time in James’ life when he should have been thinking about having the time of his life, he had to learn how to live again…. He had an accident that left him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

Workplace accidents always seem to happen to other people. We think we are indestructible, we tell ourselves ‘it will never happen to me.’

If James had made the right choices, his accident would never have occurred and his injury could have been prevented. The choices that we make have a wide reaching impact. Families, friends, work colleagues, supervisors and management are all impacted by what we do each and every day.

Everything that he used to be able to do became a new learning experience for him. Since then, James has been determined to live a full life and share his important safety message. The one choice you make could make all the difference for the rest of your life.

James’ safety presentation has a long lasting and significant impact on the choices you make.

Website: https://cnbsafe.com.au/james-wood/

James’ new book is out NOW: https://cnbsafe.com.au/12-reasons-not-to-get-hurt-at-work/

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