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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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ABOUT THE GUEST

Sheldon Primus is a Certified Occupational Safety Specialist with a Master of Public Administration (MPA) with a concentration in Environmental Policy. He has been in the environmental and occupational safety field since 1994. Additionally, he is a trainer for the Certificate for Occupational Safety Managers (COSM) and Certified Occupational Safety Specialist (COSS) programs of the Alliance Safety Council-Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He is the author of “7 Steps to Starting A Profitable Safety Consulting Business” and host of the weekly podcast “Safety Consultant with Sheldon Primus.” He is also the creator of Safety Consultant TV, a subscription-based Video on Demand service to help those looking to be a safety consultant or grow their business. Sheldon is a guest columnist for the online publications of Treatment Plant Operator (TPO) and WaterOnline as well as conducts OSHA compliance webinars and speaker for a variety of organizations. 

Website: www.safetyconsultant.tv

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RELATED EPISODE

Safety is a CHOICE you make with James Wood

Safety is a choice you make.

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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.

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 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

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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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RELATED EPISODE

Communicating your Safety Business Case with Dr. Georgi Popov

Communicating your Safety Business Case with Dr. Georgi Popov

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ABOUT THE EPISODE

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

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 option safety guru, public speaker, and author. Are you ready to leave a safety legacy? Your legacy success story begins now. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sure. 

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

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

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

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

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

That would be good. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 propulo.com. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, thank you. I really appreciate the opportunity. 

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. 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

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

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

Professor, GPS Chair (Interim)
Safety Sciences

University of Central Missouri
Humphreys 327A
[email protected]
(660) 543-4208

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Moving Safety from the Head to the Heart with Russ and Laurel Youngstrom

The Safety Guru_Russ & Laurel Yongstrom_Moving Safety from the Head to the Heart

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A special episode in honor of December Family Month features an excellent conversation with Russ and his wife Laurel. Their message is a strong warning that one split-second decision can change many lives forever. Russ is a work-related paraplegic, and he touches on the dangers of an “it won’t happen to me” attitude in the workplace. He reminds the listeners that accidents can happen to any of us, especially when carelessly ignoring safety precautions. Laurel discusses how one careless act has affected every aspect of their lives. Listen to a truly inspirational story about the importance of safety ownership from Russ and Laurel.

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 option 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 Russ and Laurel Youngstrom, both are safety advocates and keynote speakers. They do a phenomenal job at sharing their journey as a couple and really speaking to move safety from the head to the heart. I love that quote. So maybe if you can start a little bit about telling me about your journey and what happened on that day and then we’ll take it from there. 

Yeah. I used to be a commercial painter. I woke up that morning, gave Laura Let his goodbye, looked in on our son, Spencer. He was sound asleep in his little bed. He was two and went to work, stopped off, got my four shots of Espresso and a Maple bar, and I was the first one to work that day. But I saw the clipboard. I signed it immediately, and then we had a quick safety meeting. I don’t remember. And then our goal was to power wash the outside of the paper mill. 

And I always work with a really good friend of mine. We had a new guy with this, so we got all our rigging set up for a swing staging scaffolding. We started off at 180ft supervisors, Foreman. They all came up and inspected everything. So, we started power washing, and I unlocked my arms almost immediately. That’s just me. 

Okay. Next thing, somebody got our attention and it was time for lunch. The weather was really bad, really terrible. So, we wouldn’t have lunch. We got ready to go back to work. And the paper mill stopped nine of us and said, you have to come to our safety meeting. It’s like, okay. So, I walked up a flight of stairs, got a Snickers, bark up a coffee, turned the chair in front of me around and put my feet on it and listened to some guy with a laser pointer and completely ignored it. 

We went back to work, started power washing, and I had that funny idea. We’re being watched. I looked and our safety guy drove a little too far on the back side of the building where we can see the front of his truck. So immediately I hooked up and we never got caught. He was there for about 20 minutes and finally left. And then we started hard watching again. And it was time for the end of the day. And I took it up on myself to say let’s put it on a 30-foot platform and try it off overnight to the handrail. 

Okay. A friend of mine agreed. So, we came up with my little plan. I did have my harness on at the time, and my safety line was in a bad angle that I didn’t like. Sure, my safety line went right by the friend of mine. He put his hands up and said, no, I told him to F off. So, we both climbed up on the handrail. 

And right. When I climbed up, I looked down. I could catch myself. I wasn’t worried at all. And then I got a signal from somebody. The chills, the goosebumps down the back of my neck. Like, don’t do this. And by the time we picked up the scaffolding and by the time I get even blank, swung back and hit me in the chest and threw me back about 10ft. 

Oh, my goodness. 

Our hat comes off. Safety glasses come off, and it does go in slow motion. And my first instinct immediately from the gentleman that hired me years ago. He said, never land on your feet. You’ll blow your feet, your knees, your hips. That’s the first thing that came to mind. It’s like, okay, what just happened? I couldn’t find my legs at first, and then finally, I can see my legs. Okay, I’m going to land on my right side, hit roll and walk it off. Okay. I got this. 

And right before I was going to hit all of a sudden, my right leg got stuck in some Airlines and then stopped me, then budgeted me back up. And that point, I was completely lost. And the first thing I felt has young kids, watermelons, pumpkins that would never take off porches. It drove on the ground, and you hear that explosion noise? That’s what I felt in my head. The first thing that hit and then a snap. It’s like, okay, walk this off. Okay, walk it off. 

It couldn’t get up. And I tried breathing. It’s like, I can’t breathe. I tried to breathe in again. I took one last try to breathe and kept my eyes were closed and I just got warm. The pain went away. I don’t know what you call that transition, but it was okay. I was just there. Then all of a sudden, I felt someone grabbed my hands and I looked up. And it was a friend of mine. And the first thing I asked him was, how come my feet are touching my head? 

He’s like, what are you talking about? I go, my feet are touching the back of my head. He goes, your legs are straight. And then he said, I’ll be right back. I’ll get help. And so, I could hear in the background, fire trucks, ambulances people started to show up and Foreman and supervisor walked up to me, looked down on the ground and said, there goes your F and safety record or hard. 

Great way to show compassion. 

And then the paramedics were getting me stabilized. One of them said to call Airvac, and then the whole mood changed. But I didn’t realize that I landed less than 2ft from my safety line. It wasn’t at a bad angle. I didn’t care. It won’t happen to me. 

Right? 

So, it took me to the nearest hospital. I started puncturing the lungs, so I came out the other side of this machine, and this female Ninja trauma nurse lady leaned over, gets about two inches from my face and says, you broke your back in three places, served your spawn cord. You’re confined to a wheelchair. No, it doesn’t happen to a person like me. It happens to the other person. One doctor was saying how many fingers he could put in the back of my head. One was working on the punctured lungs, and the other one was doing a catheter, which is convenient now. 

And the other one was drying my blood. They don’t give you anything for discomfort in Washington until they dry your blood. And so, my blood came back fine. I made a comment. My blood came back stupid. They took me to my little private room, and then it happened. Laura walks into the room. I don’t know what to say. So, I told her what the female doctor said, and she thought I was joking because I’m a jokester you can’t tell. But Laurel didn’t believe me when I told her what happened. 

So, she pulled over. A friend of mine just never left. He’s been with me the whole time. And so, he pulled her aside in the room, and they started to cry. I started to cry. I was so thankful I didn’t hurt anybody else. But I found out later people had to go to counseling that saw the fall, right? 

Yeah. I don’t want to get too involved in certain things, but the one thing I have to admit to is that last safety meeting they made us go to where I had my Snickers bar, walked up to the fly of stairs. It was a full protection safety meeting an hour and a half before I fell. And you didn’t even pay attention to that one? 

No. I signed the clipboard. Right. 

And Laurel, tell me about your journey through this, because it must be shocking when you get the phone call. Yeah. 

Something that you never want to happen to anyone you care about. I was at a nursing home where I was working, and my supervisor came to me, and she said, you have a phone call. I thought that’s weird because I don’t get phone calls at work. And all they could tell me on the other end of the phone was that Russ had been in a serious accident, and then I had to get to the hospital right away, rehearse for things like that just react. And so, I drove. 

But I don’t know how I made it I didn’t even really know if I was already a widow by the time I got there. 

So, Russ, you knew that you should wear the harness. You knew you need to tie it in. You tied it when somebody was there. 

Right. So, when somebody was watching, you knew that you had to put it in. How come you took it out as soon as somebody leaves? Was it just for show for that supervisor? Because that happens often, right? Somebody’s watching. There’s an observation. Everything looks good. And then the person walks away and it’s a different scenario. 

I didn’t care. One of my problems is it won’t happen to me. I’m 30 years old, Mr. Tough guy. I don’t need to follow the rules. It’s going to slow me down. I would come up with excuses all the time. It’s like we’re in a seat belt. I always came up with the excuse that it’s more dangerous to unhook a hook all the time, but it was just an excuse. Yeah, I can’t say anything, except it was just my mentality. 

When we talked about it. This before you talked about risk-taking and comfort risk-taking. So, supervisor is there sees everything looks good. How do you recognize somebody like that who’s more likely to be comfortable taking more risks? Who might be more comfortable taking something off when nobody’s watching? 

I think Dyslexia has one thing to do with it being criticized by your dad or family members that you’re not smart enough or tough enough to go to college. And so, it’s almost a program to work extra hard as much as you can to make yourself feel better, that you are somebody. 

And so, what can a supervisor do when they see somebody who’s more of a risk-taker? What would be some of the guidance you’d give them to? Make sure something like this doesn’t happen to make sure that more of a risk-taker pays attention in a safety meeting. 

To spot a person like me. Always early to work. Anger issues doesn’t work well with others, except for a certain group and a person who likes to go out after work and drink. And this is just my opinion. Sure, that’s one way I look in the audience when I’m talking and I can see me after the talk, the management come up. How did you know it was him? Because I can see me in these people. And then they ask me, what can you do? What can we do to help them and you have to fire them? 

You have to let them go. You can’t fix broken extreme sports these days. Peer pressure is much worse now than it was back in my day, right. 

I think the safety programs have improved quite a bit, though, but I think that making sure that your employees know that you care. They’re not going to care about how much you know until they know how much you care and be genuine about it. Get to know people and create relationships between yourself and your employees and between your employees and each other. Encourage them to get to know each other and so that they feel comfortable telling someone if they feel like something is unsafe and the other person feels comfortable accepting that, too. That’s a big thing. 

Respond even maybe. How do you give the feedback in that particular? How does peer-to-peer feedback happen? Russ, would you mentioned before that it won’t happen to me. I’ve heard so many times. I’ve heard so many times that somebody says, you know what? I know how to do my job. It’s somebody else. The person who got injured is the one who didn’t know how to do it. They weren’t as tough. They weren’t as whatever. And these rules, whatever, don’t apply to me. How can you shift somebody’s mindset around it to say, yeah, I should do this? It matters. 

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 BDS program, enhance supervisory safety capabilities, or introduce unique safety leadership training and talent solutions. Propulo has you covered. Visit us at propulo.com. 

I don’t have the answer. I got the consequence, but try to bring family into it if they have kids, but you can’t fix them. I feel bad for saying that, but most people need to be let go and make an example. And the tough part about all this was a friend of mine who witnessed this whole entire thing. He got fired four years later for not using proper fall protection. But he witnessed this whole entire thing and he still went back to old behavior. I don’t have the answer. I really don’t. 

The more you can make safety relationship. If they trust you, and if they trust each other, then they’re going to be more comfortable taking advice and following the safety rules. And if they’re thinking about why they’re there, they’re thinking about the reason that they’re at work because they want to make a better life for their family. Well, they’re not going to have a better life if something happens to them. I mean, create a positive safety program, maybe some mentorship with the new guys and the veterans and create an open-door policy, make the meetings engaging and maybe let them know what it’s going to be like if they get hurt. 

What were you talking about? 

Put like, an eye patch on somebody for a half a day, making these crutches tie an arm behind their back. 

Sure, they know what it’s going to be like if they would lose a limb or lose their sight or something like that. And it’s really tough love. If you care about your employees, then you do everything you can to make sure that they want to be safe because they’re not going to be safe if they don’t want to rest is a plain example of that. 

No, go ahead. One of the tough things for me is Spencer asked me. He was about seven years old. He asked me, what do you do at these meetings? And I told Spence I go, I just tell him my story, how I got hurt. If you don’t think of yourself, think of your family. He said, how come you didn’t think of me? 

Wow. 

You just blamed up on my lap. And I held him and said, Sorry, that’s all I could come up with. But haven’t put pictures of their family, their dog, something that means a lot in their hard hat or a family board. But something that another thing, too, that we’ve been hearing that works well is sending a letter home to the family member, to the wife or to the husband. Hey, your husband been working unsafely. This is his last warning. If he gets caught again, working unsafely, he will be fired. 

And we’re all afraid of our wives. Something really simple like that. I think it’s a good idea, right? 

I think these are cool ideas. Cool messages. Really making safety personal. I love that when you talk, you often talk together, share your story from the two sides, the perspective, because I think that element, like you said in teams of your journey, but also your journey together in teams of what it means for loved ones. I think it’s a very important message for people to hear as well, right? 

Yeah. 

With all the 32 surgeries who was in the waiting room and you took care of them after they got home, you don’t think about those kinds of things until it’s too late. 

When you are on board. When you started the work, what was the experience that you got from onboarding, from setting the tone, from addressing kind of some of the expectations of how you work here and what could have been better? 

Had a really good safety program, actually. 

Yeah. One of the people I hurt the most was our safety guy. He did everything possible. We had forklift training, respirator, fall protection. We went through all the safety. There wasn’t anything that they could have done unless I got caught and fired me. And they fired me. 

He just never got caught. 

People ask me, did your fault protection fail? I go, no, I did. Our safety guy was there that day. I had two safety meetings that day. I don’t know what to say, but I feel really bad for the safety guru. After I got hurt, he snuck under the caution tape the next day and grabbed all my clothes that was cut off, and he grabbed my safety harness buckle that the fireman cut off. He put that on his desk for 21 years. 

Oh, my goodness. 

And it’s like, get rid of it, and we still argue he thinks it’s his fault. It’s like, no, it’s my fault. But there’s nothing they could have done except fire me. 

They actually had a very advanced safety program for that year for 19, 95, 25 years ago. It was comparable to the ones that they have. Now, there was a lot less safety back then, but that particular company did that comment about there goes our effort safety record. That was one individual that was the only person that was negative during that time. The company was very supportive and the owners were supportive. And the safety guru, we still meet with him, but he teams up every time he sees it. 

And I had to ask, was it cool or neat watching me fall? No, the fall wasn’t bad, but the sound of your body hitting the concrete is what got to him. 

Your friend tried to stop you. Is there anything that he could have done to convince you to wear the harness? 

No. You are not going to wear it no matter what. Even if he says, get off this job or wear the harness. 

Yeah, I had all my fault protection on me. I had buckled everything, but I just chose not to use it, right? I didn’t get scared too often, but a couple of times I didn’t feel like close to an edge and gave me a little queasy, and I would hook up. But besides that, I wouldn’t. 

You put your harness on. Why would you put your harness on? Because I’ve heard these many times as well. Somebody has it on but won’t clip it in. 

I think, probably just because it’s required and they have to get it inspected at the beginning of the job. 

Sure. 

So, at the end of the day, but also, I think if I’m hearing correctly when the supervisor was there, it’s easier to show I’ve gotten tied in. I’m okay. 

Yeah. 

I wish I could help you more or say something that would fix people. But I do believe if I would have been in that last safety meeting and had a crippled person like me come up, talk about messing his pants, peanuts, pants falling out of beds, falling out of the wheelchair in your face type person. I do believe that that would have made me think a little bit more that I don’t want to go through this. Sure, because I thought if you break your back, the one thing that happens is you can’t walk and you save money on shoes. 

That’s all I thought was. But I didn’t realize about the bladder infections, yeast infection, shoulder joints, wrist, back surgeries. I’m going to die ten to 15 years earlier than most. At the rate I’m going, I have not owned a left shoulder for almost two years. Three years. But I’m still functioning in a wheelchair. Only one person has that answer. How can I function without a shoulder? But that day everything was just right for me to fall. Everything lined up. 

I really appreciate you sharing a story. I think sharing that message just like you said, Russ, in teams of getting people to reflect it could happen to me. The same could happen to me, hopefully makes more people rethink pause and choose to take that extra step to stay safe. So, I really appreciate all that you do in this space. Russell. Laurel, if somebody is interested in hearing your story, sharing that story with their teams, how can they get in touch with you? 

YoungstromSafety.Com. Also. We have a Youngstrom Safety Facebook page and Laurel Youngstrom on LinkedIn. Also, Youngstrom Safety on LinkedIn. 

Excellent. 

Well, it’s easy. Actually, you can probably just Google us. I think we’re the only. 

And there’s videos and so forth. So, I really appreciate you sharing your story. I know it’s a tough story to share. It’s a very hard, wrenching story to listen to hear, but I appreciate what you’re doing to try to make a difference in other people’s lives as well. So, thank you. 

The day before yesterday is getting tailgated and I’m like so I pulled over and let the truck go around me and started driving. And then I got cut off by a lady. And then it was my breaking point until I saw a sign that said Baby on board and I backed off immediately. 

Sometimes thinking about somebody else’s family can help you too, to maybe be safer driving or otherwise. 

Absolutely. 

Thank you. I really appreciate you sharing your story and really sharing from the heart in teams of what happened, what transpired? Because the story you shared. I’ve heard so many times in teams of it’s not going to happen to me. I can do it. I’ll be okay. And we’re in the hardness, but not tying down all things I’ve heard unless the supervisor shows up and then magically, it’s all tied in. So, appreciate you sharing that story. It’s unfortunately not the first time I’ve heard it something similar like that, but working at heights is really dangerous. 

I really appreciate you sharing your story and it’s a very heart-wrenching story to listen. Really appreciate it. Thank you. 

Thank you. And also, too is you doing a really good job interviewing this just to let you know. Seriously good. 

I appreciate it. 

Thank you so much for having me here. 

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. Fuel your future. Come back in two weeks for the next episode. 

The Safety Guru with Eric Michrowski

More Episodes: https://thesafetyculture.guru/

C-Suite Radio: https://c-suitenetwork.com/radio/shows/the-safety-guru/

Powered By Propulo Consulting: https://propulo.com/

Eric Michrowski: https://ericmichrowski.com

ABOUT THE GUEST

Laurel and Russ are the husband-and-wife founders of Youngstrom Safety. For over twenty years they have been reaching out to audiences of all industries, moving safety from their heads to their hearts. They do this by encouraging listeners to think about how an accident would impact their loved ones. Russ (a work-related paraplegic) and Laurel are safety advocates and keynote speakers. They are available to share their powerful story (two different perspectives) about personal accountability in safety at meetings, conferences, trainings, and job sites throughout the country (in-person and virtually). They have spoken to tens of thousands of workers in 29 states. From onsite, in the back of a pickup truck, to huge conference centers, their message is always the same – being unsafe is selfish! You can find them at www.youngstromsafety.com

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Positive safety climate has an impact on safety performance and safety outcomes. In this episode, Dr. Robert Sinclair, a Professor of Industrial/Organizational Psychology at Clemson University and Editor in Chief at Occupational Health Science, explains the link between safety climate and behavior and how to prioritize safety in the workplace with a reward system. He also touches on the importance of safety training and the critical role of supervisory and safety leadership. Learn how to increase employee engagement and improve safety performance!

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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 option 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, Bob Sinclair. He’s a professor in industrial organizational psychology at Clemson College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences, where they have a huge emphasis around occupational health and safety and the links to psychology. He’s a founding member and past President of the Society for Occupational Health Psychology, founding editor in chief for the Occupational Health Science publication, as well as that contributed to many other publications. Bob, welcome to the show. Really excited to have you with me. 

Well, thank you very much for having me. This is a great opportunity to talk about what’s going on in my field and connected to the important work that you’re doing with this podcast. 

Excellent. So maybe why don’t we get started with a little bit about your background and how you got interested and passionate about this topic from an industrial organizational psychology and applying it to safety? 

Yeah, sure. So, I went into the Marine Corps straight out of high school at age 17 because I was in no academic shape to go to college at that time. But I think during that time, I became interested in just this whole kind of experience of working conditions. Right. And so that how employers make decisions that affect their employees work lives. And when I went to college, my last year of school is majoring in psychology at a small school called the University of Maine Farmington. And my department chair basically said, hey, I think you can write you have to think about going to grad school. 

And he said, what are you thinking about doing? I said, I don’t really know. I want to do something maybe with work. And he said, well, that’s called industrial psychology. So, I applied to industrial psychology programs, and I wound up getting accepted to one at Wayne State University in Detroit, where there’s a heavy emphasis on labor and the role of unions in protecting worker safety, health and wellbeing. And a lot of the people I knew there were doing research with unions. And so, it naturally bled into kind of an emphasis on working conditions as an important topic. 

Right. And particularly with the fact that really, we spend sizable chunk of our lives working and sleeping most activity. So, it has this great potential to impact what people are doing. And so around that time, the field of occupation, whole psychology was starting to emerge and I really got interested in it in graduate school because of the professors I was working with. And so, one slice of that research was just looking at safety issues, right? And so that safety is behavior at work. And so, behaviors with psychologists are interested in studying. 

So, we got interested in this research and just over time and did more and more of it and had some opportunities to work with people up at Liberty Mutual and others looking at safety issues and from this kind of psychological perspective, and really looking at what qualities of people and what qualities of work situations affect their safety behavior. Our topic that safety climate is one of the most heavily studied concepts in that literature, something that we’ve been working on. 

So, tell me a great segue. Tell me a little bit about your work around safety climate and the linkage between safety, climate and behaviors ultimately. 

Sure. So, there’s a standard idea in psychology that’s not that far from common sense. What people believe they’re going to get rewarded for is what gets done. That’s the behavior they’re going to engage in. And people talk about safety climate. It’s really the organization’s, their sense of the organization’s priority for safety at work. One way that people talk about that is, do you feel like you’re going to get rewarded for engaging in safe behavior, or do you feel like it’s something that’s discouraged in favor of productivity at all costs? 

So, people talk about safety climate as a person’s perception that the organization prioritizes safety. And then it’s a little academic. But some people talk about that as a shared perception. So, it has to be something that there’s consensus on in the organization, and that’s what makes a climate. Other people talk about it as just your own individual sense of what you feel like is important. And so, the idea is that when people feel like that’s a priority, it signals to them that they’re valued by the organization and they should be prioritizing safety. 

So, a lot of the research looks at how safety climate links to people’s motivation to work safely, to whether they feel like safety is important to them. And it’s part of how they identify with their work. And as you might expect, then there’s a good deal of research to suggest that we see higher levels of safety performance and fewer accidents and injuries in organizations that have this strong, positive safety climate where it’s something that people believe is important. And it’s something where there’s a lot of consensuses in the organization. 

So that when you feel like everyone around you all have a sense that this is something that is who we are and what we do that people are going to engage in the safe behaviors. Yeah. 

I think it’s a great way to summarize it. You touched on the topic of how people prioritize it. You touched on the element of rewards. Rewards is ultimately an incredibly complex topic to look at when it comes to safety. What are some of the guiding principles that organizations should look at in teams of what they should reward and maybe what they shouldn’t be rewarding? 

Yes. It’s a great question. And I think was just lecturing about this in my class the other day. The whole idea is I think if you’re trying to reward a challenge with reward systems, I think is when you’re trying to set up a reward system to incentivize one small part of the job rather than the whole job, so that if you’re incentivizing just a particular set of safe behavior, a former student might email me the other day and saying that her organization tried to incentivize safety by creating these reward cards where the gimmick was that you need to nudge other people to be safe, like wear your mask is health care. 

So, every time you did that, you made a check on the reward card, and when you got to ten of them, you get three Starbucks. And this person then said she kind of took this to heart and really tried to go around nudging everybody to the point that when the nurses saw her coming, they go in the opposite direction. And then she said the other part of it was that it kind of fell apart because the employees perceived it as the company sort of encouraging them to kind of snitch on each other. 

It’s good example. And there are lots of others about problems with trying to just specifically set up financial incentives for safety through bonuses. And that kind of thing. The classic one that people talk about is that they try to do it at the group level and say that we’re going to reward the group with a bonus if you go 30 days or how many days about an accident, and the problem becomes that may incentivize people for not reporting a small injury or a small accident. That then becomes something worse over time because they don’t want to threaten the bonus of the whole group. 

Yeah. We had this conversation. I think it’s the basic notion, I think, is to proceed cautiously with those kinds of incentives. And I think to really talk to employees about how those reward systems are designed and to try to get a sense of by talking to people that are there some unintended consequences that we’re going to be rewarding if we do this? Yeah. I think that two pieces of it. One is I think the reward systems, as I said, I think it’s challenging to pull out one small part of a larger job and just reward that because that’s what people will focus on. 

The other thing, I think I don’t have evidence to say this, but I think my sense of what you can reward that’s not going to be counterproductive is safety skill development, participation, safety training, learning, knowledge about safety on the job, those sorts of behaviors. But I think it’s a really challenging issue, and I think that the way people talk about it is you can have spectacular successes when it works well and spectacular failures when it doesn’t. From my perspective, that whole idea of employee participation in the system design is really essential, and it’s frequently not used. 

Organizations have these consequences because they don’t talk to the people and say, hey, how would this kind of system work for you in this particular site? 

I think your point around really what could be the counterproductive impact, I think, is a really important one. Is there something as well in teams of what level in the organizations? Some of those rewards may be. What I mean by this is we’ve probably all heard of the examples where somebody rewards observations at the supervisory level as an example, and then you end up with people mailing it and just doing a quota system. But if that quota was at a higher level within the organization, say, at the VP level, could they perhaps drive the VP to talk about it reinforce I want quality observations without creating that undue pressure if it’s properly characterized and explained at other levels. 

Is there any research on that side? 

Not that I’m familiar with, but I think certainly I think you speak to an important issue about if safety is not incentivized at a higher level, if the top leadership in an organization doesn’t have that as a priority, if they’re concerned about what’s on the return sheet at the end of the quarter, in teams of fiscal performance, that’s what they’re going to lead to. Right. And those are the messages that they may say. You can look in all sorts of company mission statements about the importance of safety. 

I like to show my students the British Petroleum’s mission statement before the Deep Horizon accident in the Gulf, about how important safety and all that is. And then you can actually go and look at what was actually happening on the ground and that’s I think failure of leadership in a lot of ways. And I think it does go to I think if there’s a genuine incentive for top leadership in teams of safety outcomes, that’s certainly going to benefit your improve safety. But I think it’s not just in teams of the reward system. 

But I think you got to really have this as kind of deeper values that are important to the company, because that’s what’s going to be communicated. And supervisors are going to get messages from top leadership about what really is truly important here, irrespective of what we say. And I really do think we do have some research. I should say that looks at top down, where you look at perceptions of safety climate at the very broadest level of the organization that influences supervisor’s behavior and supervisor’s sense of what the priorities are and then that affects subsequently employee’s behavior. 

So, I think it is definitely kind of information flowing from the top of the organization down to the front lines. So yeah, I think absolutely anything an organization can do to prioritize safety among top leadership is, I think, going to be valuable. Yeah. 

And I’ve seen definitely both sides of the equation from leadership teams that very clearly speak about it as it’s the number one value that we have, and then priorities will never overcome it. They talk about it on a very regular basis. They bring all their senior executives across the organizations together to talk about how we’re going to drive improvements versus the other ones where it’s a priority. And maybe they’ll say it’s a top priority, but priorities can be changed, and sometimes that message will get mixed in. 

You touched on supervisory, and I think in my opinion, it’s probably one of the most critical parts around safety is really how the supervisor reinforces, because a lot of front-line team’s members. When you ask them, who are you listening to, they interact with the most with a supervisor. In some cases, supervisor is more important than the CEO in teams of their day-to-day choices and decisions. Tell me a little bit more about what you’ve seen around the importance of that supervisory role and how you can shape it to be more impactful in an organization. 

Well, certainly, I think the research is consistent with the idea that the supervisor is kind of the first line of defense and really the most important influence on safety. You can have all the wonderful value statements and missions and visions and all that. You can have all the policies and practices in place that you should have. But supervisors are going to be the ones that determine whether those actually get implemented, whether they get communicated to employees, so that I think they really are vital to building climate, and they have to believe that this truly is something that’s important here. 

And that’s where a lot of the intervention research, where people do studies where they try to make changes in organizations and see if it affects safety. Most of those interventions target supervisors, and it’s through things like communication training, through getting supervisors to monitor and set goals around safety behaviors, to seek out feedback from employees. Leadership development around safety issues. Some interventions will actually use coaching. We’ll kind of do more one on one kinds of things with leaders. But yeah, I think that really that’s been the main focus of the intervention literature is to really try to change what supervisors are doing, and if you don’t do that, you’re probably not going to have much of an effect. 

So, I think it really is a critical piece. 

And I think that it’s also one of the groups that often has a lease investment day in and day out because you see a lot of the leaders will typically have budgets around leadership development. But I’ve seen too often the supervisor gets promoted, and here’s a checklist. This is what you need to do. Or here is a handbook. Good luck with it. 

Yet. 

That’s probably the place that needs the most investment in teams of what does it mean to lead around safety? Love your comments around how you monitor how you set goals, how you coach all really critical components. Thank you for sharing some of those ideas. We’re in the midst of the covert pandemic that has brought up a lot of new challenges to organizations around safety. Can you maybe tell me about some of the challenges that you’ve seen and what organizations can do, particularly now that we’re definitely into the pandemic, but not yet.

At the end of it. 

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 BDS program, enhance supervisory safety capabilities, or introduce unique safety leadership training and talent solutions, Propulo has you covered? Visit us at propulo.com 

Sure. So, yeah. I’ve been just really troubled by what I see in the news or kind of flipping through on the Internet about all the safety issues. Right. So, I think maybe it’s a good outcome. At least, I think that safety is a little bit more at the forefront of people’s minds now. Sure, whether it will be once the pan damage is over is a different question. But we’re thinking about safety in jobs where we never thought about it before. If it’s like at a Home Depot or it’s a cashier or the grocery store, there are many more safety issues now around personal protective equipment, and all of that. 

What I’ve been fascinated by is kind of the opposite side of this of where you see employers that are going out of their way to discourage people from being safe. Right. I’ve seen examples of companies that actively discourage or even will threaten fire employees for wearing masks. We were talking before the recording, but there’s an incident I was reading about just the other day where a couple were asked to leave a restaurant because they were wearing masks, they refused to be served. So, there’s that I’ve also seen with flying that just really troubling numbers of stories of violence toward flight attendants around safety issues now. 

And it’s kind of created kind of a disturbing environment for people, I think. But again, I think it’s an organizational leadership question, right. I think there’s always going to be small businesses that have sort of odd ideas about the causes and solutions to the pandemic. But I think the large corporations are really going to be important safety leaders here, and in a way that the government can’t really, I’m a big basketball fans of interest tracking the National Basketball Association’s efforts to mandate vaccines and some of the pushback they’re getting from players. 

But it’s an organizational leadership thing. And I think that those organizations are going to play a really critical role in helping us get out of this pandemic. Absolutely. 

It also brings the entire question if you start saying don’t do certain things around PPE, could there be a lasting effect prior to the pandemic? If a supervisor would ignore somebody wearing a piece of PP, like a hard hat or gloves or whatever was required to do the job? We knew that the effect was going to be a spin off. Where is it? I draw the line in teams of what’s acceptable, what’s not acceptable. And when you start putting a messaging that safety isn’t the number one priority focus, then that’s not where I’m going to start investing. 

I would imagine that would have long-term effect, although we probably don’t know yet. 

Yeah. One general thing with safety with accidents and injuries. I think one of the big management challenges is that accidents are relatively low base rate phenomena. Right. So that even in very dangerous environments, they’re not happening on a daily basis for the most part. And then if you talk about moderately safe environments like hospitals, it’s just you’re trying to manage in a way to avoid something that has a low likelihood of happening. But when it does happen, it could have potentially severe consequences. And I think it’s hard for people to Orient their behavior around things that don’t seem very likely to happen. 

A lot of the whole conversation around phobia is that some people say, well, I have no chance of getting this or a very low chance. And even if I do get it as a pretty high survival rate. So why should I be talking about the whole transmitting to other people all the stuff, right? Yeah. I think that. 

As you said. 

Then you add in an environment where people haven’t been really closely attending to the stuff in the past, it’s going to take a lot of effort to make a transition, I think, to get people to behave safely. And I don’t think from a scientific perspective, we have great evidence to say these are the five things that you need to do. But I think we can say that supervisors are going to play a critical role. Top leadership is going to drive that certainly the dynamics of employees in a group. 

If you look at how groups change, it’s, probably if you can get a couple of people to start wearing masks and environment, maybe that will be the catalyst that gets other people to behave more safely, too. So, I just think it’s one of these problems that you have to attack from lots of different directions in a lasting way. I think that one of the challenges with safety, as an example is that it’s conceptualized as in some cases, as the mandatory 1 hour of training you need to do each year for my own organization, we do fire extinguisher safety training right. 

And it’s 20 minutes Internet thing each year on the different types of fire extinguishers, and within ten minutes of completing it, I’ve forgotten what was in the training, and then I have to do it again the next year. So, I think that the true commitment to safety is something that’s more of a daily week to week, month to month kind of focus. 

It almost becomes a lifestyle choice in teams of recognizing how do I remove risks out of my day? And the more like I’m sure you’ve talked to I’ve talked to a lot of people who’ve had serious injuries and how it was life changing. You realize that you may have never thought it was going to happen to you because you thought you were safe, but it doesn’t take much for one thing to go horribly wrong and to have a catastrophic impact. And that can wake some people up to say, I need to live my life where I factor that in because of those I love. 

Yeah. I think you hit on really important point is that people have this kind of invulnerability thing. This isn’t going to happen to me. It’s the kind of thing that happens to other people, right? Unfortunately, with safety is kind of classic examples. Kovit is another classic example that by the time it happens and you wake up and realize it’s too late in a lot of cases so that it’s definitely I think an interesting area psychologically to try to shift people’s sense of priorities around safety. That’s why I think this whole area of climate is so important is it’s got to become something that kind of filters through the whole organization. 

The other thing I say about it is that there are secondary benefits, too, that now we’re beginning to look at research on climate and as it relates to issues like employee engagement. I think signaling that safety is a priority signals to employees that they are valued by the organization. And we have tons of research on retention and job performance and job engagement and job stress. The sense that the company values you and cares about you as a person is a pretty critical factor in lots of positive outcomes that organizations want, right? 

I think it’s not just about preventing accidents, but it’s about really building. We now talk about total worker health is kind of a term we refer to. And that idea of total worker health is something that doesn’t just benefit the employee. It benefits the organization in the long run as well. Yeah. Absolutely. 

There was actually a gentleman I was talking to a while back and he was running a construction project at a refinery site, and they had done some amazing things around safety leadership, really creating an incredibly caring culture. And the part that’s astronomical. It was not just the injury rate that was different. Absenteeism rates were totally different by I think it was like 2030 points difference between this side versus other sites. Turnover was basically almost nonexistent. It was people who chose to go somewhere else because they had a family emergency to go back in a different state. 

So very different experience would also reduce some of the operating costs because turnover is expensive, absenteeism is expensive and so forth. So really showing the linkage between creating that great climate that you want to stay safe and other outcomes. 

Yeah, you touched on. I think one of the challenges with safety is and I’m certainly not an expert in this part, but I just read a little bit about organizational accounting around safety issues, and so the safety of the cost is accounted for kind of separately from business units. So, I can’t say in my Department of Psychology that we spend X amount of safety issues, accidents cost X amount in our budget. It’s a separate budget item so that it becomes harder to link it. I think fiscally to become hard to manage around the fiscal side. 

I think that’s a big factor in why often doesn’t get as much priority as it maybe should. 

Really appreciate upcoming on the show. Sharing some Thoughts we’ve covered a great number of really important topics, from linking safety climate to behaviors. Talking about some of the elements around safety rewards, the importance of supervisory skills, and really some of the themes that are prevalent now in teams of some of the new challenges that exist around the Kova case. But I can certainly see I’ve talked to organizations that have done magically in this. They’ve really done a huge step forward for the organizations because they demonstrate that safety came first and they use it as a catalyst to move probably one person shared, they move six years’ worth of progress around safety climate in six weeks just because of the perception, the emphasis. 

So, if you do the right things, the impact, I believe, will be lasting because you’ve demonstrated active care to level that nobody else had been able to proceed before. So really appreciate you coming on the show and sharing some of your thoughts. 

Yeah. Well, I really appreciate the opportunity to talk to you about this. It’s a really important topic. And anybody out there that’s looking to talk about safety research and shoot me a note at Clemson. My email address is Sinclair at Clemson.edu and happy to chat about this or point you to an expert that can help you with a problem or anything else. And again, thank you for having me on and I hope you have a great rest of your day. 

Thank you, Bob. 

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, 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

Bob Sinclair is a Professor of Industrial/Organizational Psychology, having previously held faculty positions at Portland State University (2000-2008) and the University of Tulsa (1995-1999). He currently serves as the graduate program coordinator for the Department of Psychology’s Ph.D. and MS programs. Dr. Sinclair is a founding member and past-president of the Society for Occupational Health Psychology and a Fellow of the Society for Industrial-Organizational Psychology and American Psychological Association. He is the founding Editor-in-Chief for Occupational Health Science as well as an Associate Editor of the Journal of Business and Psychology and an editorial board member of the Journal of Applied Psychology, Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, and Group and Organization Management. His published work includes over 80 book chapters and peer reviewed journals such as the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, Journal of Applied Psychology, and Journal of Organizational Behavior. He also is the editor of four volumes including Building Psychological Resilience in Military Personnel: Theory and Practice (2013, with Tom Britt), Research Methods in Occupational Health Psychology: Measurement, Design, and Data Analysis (2012, with Mo Wang and Lois Tetrick), Contemporary Occupational Health Psychology: Global Perspectives on Research and Practice, Vol. 2 (2012 with Jonathan Houdmont and Stavroula Leka) and Vol. 3 (2014 with Stavroula Leka). His research interests focus on Occupational Health Psychology – the application of theories and methods of psychology to the study of worker safety, health, and well-being. His current research focuses on (1) economic stressors (such as job insecurity and perceived income inadequacy) and health, (2) building organizational climates that enhance worker safety, health, and well-being, and (3) occupational health risks in special populations such as healthcare (physicians/nurses) and military personnel.

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