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The Importance of Not Letting Complacency Set In with Alan Newey

The importance of not letting complacency set in

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“We’ll never realize the accidents we prevent, but we sure will know the ones we don’t.” In this episode, Alan Newey details the sequence of events that led to a devastating workplace incident in September of 1999. The plant where he had been employed for 15 years had placed production over safety, and the voice in his head knew he hadn’t received the necessary training to do his job safely. Alan highlights the role that complacency and comfortability play in workplace incidents and the need to speak up to work together to send every team member home safely.

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Real leaders leave a legacy. They capture the hearts and minds of their teams. Their origin story puts the safety and wellbeing of their people first. Great companies, ubiquitously have safe yet productive operations. For those companies, safety is an investment, not a cost. For the C-suite. It’s a real topic of daily focus. This is The Safety Guru with your host, Eric Michrowski, a globally recognized Ops and safety guru, public speaker, and author. Are you ready to leave a safety legacy? Your legacy success story begins now.

Hi, and welcome to The Safety Guru today. I’m very excited to have with me Alan Newey. He’s a safety motivational speaker with CNBC Safe in Australia. He’s been unfortunately part of a workplace accident, lost his dominant arm in a conveyor accident. So, Alan, welcome to the show. Love to hear your story, really in terms of what happened in that role and some of the core themes around that you talked about when you speak to different organizations.

Yeah. Thanks for having me here. This is really important to me for people to hear the message because I don’t want people to go through what I did, especially my better half. Kathy doesn’t want the families to go through at all. And I’ll get into that. But a little background on it. I’d actually been working for the company for 15 years and I’ve done the role that I’m going to describe 4586 times before my actual accident over 15 years. The accident was September 30, 1999. And I can tell you exactly what time 735. It doesn’t matter what the press says. They said 747, 35. I was there. I should know. But no, I just left the home in the morning. This is a kiss goodbye roll up to my website a little mate that I’ve been working with for 15 years. He started work at the same place about two weeks before I did. And we’re just joking around like normal. He was a little short guy, five foot six. And I make Snow White and Seven Dwarfs jokes about him every single day. I was a heavier set guy, so he’d make set jokes about me. 

And we had a great working relationship. And we got down to this place, the plant that I was working, which would load 112 trucks a day on average, 34 times to a truck, eight minutes to a load 100 trucks a day. And he’s only five foot six for a little mate. And I’m six, too. And he wasn’t feeling well. And it was his job this day to drive cranes and operate the conveyors up high. And I was supposed to control room downstairs. Well, he wasn’t feeling well, so we swapped roles and we’ve done that before. We look after each other. I went up and started to adjust the conveyors and make my way up to the crane. And as one of the incubators is always tracked out to the side due to moisture from product or urea. It’s a fertilizer. And we have to dry the belt down and track it back into place. And the training I was showing, and he was showing was to grab this little green bucket with some drying dust inside it, reach inside the moving conveyor, throw the dust on by hand, and then once the track back into place, start the next section goes to the crane.

When I was blowing, this drawing dust belt didn’t come back far enough. So, I threw one extra handful of dust, which normally an extra handful from the normal amount. And I heard it bang. And I thought nothing of it. And I went up and looking up and down the conveyor looking for this noise that was in the machine. And I went to scratch my head, but there was nothing there to scratch my head with. That noise was my arm going around the machine and I felt nothing. No pain, nothing. 

Wow. 

Nothing at all. So, you could say I said a few explosives is I climbed down a 30-foot ladder running out to the front. My little workmate with a shock horror in his eyes has come over and jumped onto a stunt to try and stop the bleeding, which he couldn’t because what we didn’t know at the same time, it actually torn the chest on the inside at right angles. The chest was pointing at right angles on the inside. Now this is where my little mate owes me for beers. And I’m getting delayed because of the way it affects people. He owes me a few beers for this because he passed out. But he was hanging off there. He kept his strength on there. So, he’s still hanging on. So, I picked up my good. I’m not carrying that little high in the first place. So, then it all started from there. I played a high grade of tennis. I dumped Australian Open on the lines and all that beforehand. And the police officer who showed up to the accident. This is where it affects different people that people don’t think about. The police officer who showed up to my accident was a man of mine who I played in a tennis tournament three days before. 

And he just happened to be the police officer. He was sent to my accident. When he walked in the room, he’s gone into like a shot because he knew who it was. And down the track a little bit, he challenges me for a rematch because I haven’t got a double handed backhand anymore. But he’s not getting it, I can tell you now. And then it all went from there. Five reattachments on my arm to try and save it, which I couldn’t. In the hospital, they told my better half they only had 2 hours to live, and she had to make plans after its reattachment. So, she was trying to get through and with my family. So, I can’t only imagine what she’s going through. They took me back into the surgery and they gave her an. A four piece of paper, would you believe? And she had to sign for this. We’re going to pack Ellen back into surgery. Police sign here. And it was removed all of them permanently. Sign and date here to cover the backsides. Legally, they removed it. One of the doctors made a little clamp about that big about 50 cent coin type thing in Australia.

And it was lifesaving, that little clamp they put inside the chest with the 300 staples of stitches already holding me together. Saved my life. 2 hours later, I was watching television and then everything really started, really started with the rehabs and the things and wife goes through and everybody else. And it’s still going on today, 20 years later, and it hasn’t stopped.

So, tell me a little bit about some of the follow-on effects. You talked about your significant other at the time when you have an injury, the effect is significant on everybody. You talked about the police officer telling me about some of the following effects because it’s your injury and what happens to you. But there’s also a significant effect, everybody that you care, and you love. 

Yes. And I think myself, the impact on the others after my incident is actually greater than mine. It’s even greater. You’ll find out who your friends are and who can’t deal with it and people you’ll never see again. My mother-in-law rested us off. I’m still alive, mind you. And she put on the black outfit like I did the Greek. So, I was meaning to a Greek family, and she put on all the Greek outfit, all in black, and she’s doing all the things and everything. My mother went quiet. My father, he worked at the same company for 47 years and retired three years before my accident. The culture was they never spoke about safety. Safety was never mentioned, really on that site and never, ever mentioned on that site. It was always production ahead of safety. So, we all pick our jobs and all that type of thing and the profits up, I guess. So, he was kicking himself. But that’s an even older culture than me. Can understand that because the culture built up over 100 years like that. A father-in-law, he reacted differently where he actually came up to the bedside with his worry teams. 

Clicking them in my ear drove me crazy. And he still got that thick European accent. And he’s gone to me, Ellen, you know, die. If you’ll die, this is no good for me. You sign contract. Kathy your problem. She must stay with you. And that actually helped a lot. Believe it or not, they actually helped a lot. Because if you’re saying that’s not good for me, this is my father-in-law, right. But the biggest flow on effect was my little work mate. He was with me that day in the accident. And that’s the saddest one of all. And the one that can really today get me upset. And that’s over 20 years ago. He passed away about eight years after my accident. The stress he put himself under caused medical issues. A cancer formed in his stomach and he’s no longer with us. The doctors say maybe it wasn’t that. I know differently. In my heart, I know differently the stress he put himself under because he never accepted the fact that I got hurt and he didn’t. I was doing his job that day and I couldn’t get into his head because I’m 62, he’s five, six.

I miss being pulled into that machine by two inches, less than two inches. And I would have been pulled into that machine and made miss me. So, if he did that job that day was in that particular spot, he would have reached past that point and he would have been to that machine. 

Wow.

So, this is bad, but it’s the better of the two Eagles, if you can understand that. But he couldn’t accept it. He couldn’t accept that I got hurt and he didn’t. And that was the biggest flowing effect of the whole incident. 

So, you worked there for many years. Safety was never talked about. It was about getting the job done, getting it faster, improving profits. You had a voice inside of you. Tell me a little bit about what that was. 

When I first started there in September October 1999. Sorry, 80, 415 years before my accident, I was showing that plant where I had my accident. And this little voice inside me said, and when I showed me how to do the drying of the conveyors and all that type of thing, because I had all the front hand load of crane operation licenses, no problem. But the training was five minutes of this is how we do the job. This is how we drive the plant. End of the story. Five minutes. Five minutes is awesome. And if somebody came under that plant, that’s what I’d show you. And I’ll be putting data. Sure, because that’s all I knew. And the voice insider said, you don’t do this. This is dangerous. And they did tell me it was dangerous. And to be careful.

That’s not very helpful.

Right? No, there’s no guarding on his conveyor or anything like that. And it could mean the accident could be prevented for less than $800. But I sent a quarter of a million dollars in reacting to it. That’s the sad part about it. The money was there. But the voice was, you don’t do this job. This is too dangerous. Don’t do it this way. Speak up. But you wanted to keep this job because you got your mortgage, you got your bills, you got everything else. So, you didn’t speak up. And as time went on, the voice got less and less because you became more confident in the area, and it became second nature. So, all of a sudden you stopped listening to that voice and knew yourself, put yourself in danger with your complacency and just pushing forward. You didn’t listen to that voice anymore. You’d become part of the environment and you didn’t see the whole picture. 

So that is a really important theme because really we start getting complacent when we start doing it too often you talked about how you did it 4000 sometimes and nothing had gone wrong and present in those 4000 sometimes your voice starts going slower and less and less and you start accepting, what are some of the signs that people should be looking for to say, Am I getting complacent with this and really reflect in terms of how do I relook at the hazard in front of me? 

One of the big signs I reckon in that is when I start and I said it to myself many, many times, I’m used to this job, I know what I’m doing, I know what I’m doing, I’m bulletproof, I know what I’m doing. Don’t tell me what to do if somebody actually came past, but nobody ever did that. Anyway, if you stop listening, if you start hearing or you stop hearing that voice, that’s time to take five and get a fresh set of eyes in to look at where you’re working, and you can go do the same for their spot. Okay, swap for that thing, that’s the tower power sign. But the idea is once you become complacent and you hear and you don’t get anybody in and you just keep going, it’s hard, it really is hard. But what I should have done is step back. I did realize that I was getting easier, and the job was getting easier. If you start saying to yourself, I’ve been doing this job a long time, I know what I’m doing and then you start repeating it to other people, that’s the sign, you should be stepping back. 

You’re complacent with what you’re doing. That’s the big red flag. If you start paying for people, I know what I’m doing, I’ve done this job a million times. That’s the big red flag. You’re actually putting yourself in danger and heading towards a major incident without knowing it.

I think that’s a really important point. Listen to that voice, look for the signs that I’m getting comfortable with it, too comfortable with it, too comfortable and then kind of pull yourself. I think one of the things I was recently looking at is in aviation, they’ll go so far in many cases to make sure you’re not flying with the same crew, you’re not doing the same route all the time. So, you’re not flying Sydney to La or New York to London. Every time that we switch it up a little bit, so you have less chance of it becomes routine in many cases, not Airlines, but really trying to drive that switching of roles to same as takeoff and landing. There’s an alternating who’s responsible? Is it the captain of the first officer that’s going to be responsible for it? 

No, that’s right. That scenario sort of happened after my incident. People started doing different roles and changed around into different places. The culture of where I was. That person like Alan, knows that crane back to front. He knows that conveyor system back to front. We keep him there because we know we don’t have to watch him. He knows the job. And then the person in the maintenance hall that does something. And there was one guy who had an accident that I was working with, and he’s been in the maintenance hold for 37 years doing exactly the same role every day.

Steps in, you get completed. 

Right. And he had a major accident at our same site and went home nine months later. 

You talked about the other accident. What was interesting is there were no reports. When we first talked, there were no reports, no recordables. I think you said 463 days, is that correct? 

That’s correct. We went 463 days of no lost time injuries and no recordables because nobody reported it. Nobody reported them. Okay. After that 460-day bracket, and that was a big red flag in itself. We’re heading towards an incident without going. We had four majors in 18 months. Four majors in 18 months. And I think the average is 860,000 reportable a day. That’s ten every second. 

Somebody actually does say something which is not common. 

You’re getting over. What is it? 15,000 unrecorded incidences per minute. And they’re the ones leading to the major actions. There’s 5000 /minute that are recorded. Well, they’re doing something about it. They’re recording them. If you’re not recording them, you’re in that 15,000 bracket, which is where I was and my whole work crew was. It led to major accidents. It’s the amount of people getting hurt just because they’re not reporting very simple communication in it. If they reported things, they could do things about it. But if you don’t, you can’t. Nobody knows. 

But also, a lot of leaders start reflecting. I’ve had 463 days. We must be doing something right here. Things are safe. You see it as a leading indicator. I fixed the problem, but obviously it wasn’t. 

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No, because what it was with where I was working, they had the 463 days, and they had all this. After we passed one year, there’s this big celebration, I can tell you now, they put on drinks in a barbecue type of thing for everybody. And that type of stuff. And it was down to the fact that even when somebody did come to inspect the place, they knew they were coming. So, the place was cleaned down to make it look good or they inspected, and they always pass the test. But nobody ever picked up no guards. And I asked for a guard for that belt, and I was told it was too expensive and the guard would have cost less than $800. And they went a quarter of a million dollars’ worth of guards after the accident, in reaction. And if you could have seen the guard they put onto it, that actually caused my workmates risk than putting them at risk with the guard they put on there. It was so big and so massive you couldn’t move it. The safety system to protect them was on the inside of the guard and they couldn’t reach it. 

What solution is that? Because everybody got scared with my accident, I think being the fourth one in the list. And when they got scared, that’s when everybody was running and ducking for cover, that type of thing, they’re getting wrong legal advice. That’s where all the legal people come in and then really make the waters muddy and murky because everybody’s trying to think, what do I do now to cover my backside? And that’s what it got me. They got through it all, but it was years. It wasn’t just done overnight. The plant closed down. Five years later after the 2012, I think it closed down. Why? Because it was unsafe. 

Oh, it was shut down for being unsafe.

Yes. Not because it was unstoppable profitable. Not profitable. They were making millions and millions of dollars every week. They had to do all these improvements for safety. And they reckon it was better for them just to move the plans to another C-suite and rebuild the whole structure. So, where safety was, they were told production would keep their jobs. It’s not true safety would have caused their jobs. 

But too often people don’t look at that way. When you speak to audiences around your experience and some of your learnings, one of the themes I know you talk about is around regret. Tell me a little bit more about how you impact that theme and the stories there. 

The regret I have personally is one thing I can listen to my wife when she drove past that plant one day and she’d never been on site, never looked inside the four walls, and she came home and told me, leave the company, there’s going to be an accident there. She just had this feeling.

You just had this feeling? Yeah. And me being the mail and everything else and headed about it because I actually did love what I was doing. I turned around and said, I’ve been here for almost 15 years. I know what I’m doing. Don’t worry about it. Everything’s fine. Four weeks later or six weeks later, I had the accident. 

So, I regretted not listening to her, putting her through all the stuff that she went through, all the house she must have had gone through. And she kept a lot of things to herself during that process to try and protect me. And I did the same thing. And then almost causes a family element breakdown post thing. I walked past thousands of times on that plan, thousands of times. And I saw things and I had closures and all that. And I did the same thing, not reporting them. Same with my little Workman bosses walked past the whole thing. Nobody ever spoke up. And everybody knew was dangerous. Everybody knew it was dangerous. And when the accident happened, the big word that came out of everybody, why didn’t I do something about it? Why didn’t I speak up? I’m going to regret this for the rest of my life. 

And now they all live with it. And I see some of them 20 years down the track and run into them because we all live in the same areas. Yeah. And they say the same thing to me. Why didn’t we speak up? We had four people seriously heard at sight because we didn’t do anything about it and we all lost our jobs anyway. So, what was the point? If we spoke up for our workmates, we all have our jobs. We’d all be playing tricks on each other and having the fun that we were having and going home to our families. 

Speaking up is not that straightforward. It takes a climate and environment where people create an environment. The leaders create an environment where you’re comfortable speaking up. Everybody, yes, does have that responsibility to speak up when they see something that’s unsafe. But also, I’d say there’s a leadership responsibility to say, am I creating this at all my sites, all my locations? Are people comfortable speaking up? Am I seeing near misses being reported? Am I seeing people talking about concerns and are those being addressed? 

They weren’t people as they just walk past. They lived with the regret of not acting up. And they just keep wishing they did act up and speak up about it. Because when I actually got around to the plan after my accident and spoke up, other people started to speak. They started to talk to each other. They started to communicate with each other, realized that they all wanted the same thing and that’s for people to go home and enjoy life. And if they were on that wave plan, even just, hey, Eric, if we could fix that, we’re going to possibly save an incident from happening. And it all moved on from that. Because the thing is, what they all realized too late is we’ll never realize the accidents we prevent. But we are sure as we’ll know the ones we don’t. 

Right? Absolutely. Well said. But I think your message as well around focus on the bottom line won’t get you there because the cost of serious injuries are expensive. 

And not just the legal costs, not just the insurance costs, but the toll on everybody else that’s involved. 

You can’t replace him with me. You can’t replace what your wife, your significant other goes through your family and all that. But to give you an idea, just an idea. The accent was preventable for less than $800. There was an airline in this shed that I work which could have been produced for under $100. It would have prevented the accident. Now that I’m missing the right arm and it makes it blunt, that little Bolt that’s sticking out at the end is $14,000. Okay. This is $0.50 from a hardware store, which stops me from ripping the shirts and T shirts. If I don’t put it on, I’ll rip the shirt with a Bolt. But I’ve been through four leagues so far. This is a robotic limb and it’s controlled by brainwaves, so I can open and close it with my hand and operate to have a drink. I don’t even write a sentence with it, but it doesn’t replace the real thing. It’s just an A, but it’s a quarter of a million dollars. Australia in a survey about 170,000 US. I don’t want it. I would love to throw it out the window, no doubt, but it’s something I have to use because it straightens my spine up and stops future medical issues.

It keeps you in shape because I’ve no longer have the weight there. So, the spine starts to move. So, then you get back pain and it causes other issues down the track. 

All these following effects. 

Yes. You’re always living with going to the doctors, putting in a request for something else because of the incident. And then you’ve got to jump through all the medical boards and all the hurdles and all that other stuff. One thing that I love to talk just mentioned to you, that was a flowing effect of my wife. She got a letter just in, a little letter sent to her in the mail, and she could have got this day one and it was to look after her because all the people looking after me when I’m in boys looking after me, she just sits there. But she could have got somebody to talk to or counseling or something to help her. She received a letter stating that fact. There’s people there to help her, but she got the letter ten years after the accident, ten years, ten years later. 

Unbelievable.

On this, because if I had a right arm, I swear on the Bible and all those things there. But my doctor got a letter about me, and I was getting interviewed every three months for three years. So, there’s three years of my life lost being interviewed every three months by investigators. And you couldn’t forget the accident if you wanted to. My doctor was getting the same 22 questions but had to answer from a medical perspective. Okay, so this time we got 23 questions. Now, if I was to ask you what the 23rd question was because it upset Kathy so much, she wanted to go down in the head office and go postal with everybody, and I had to laugh it off, what do you reckon the question would have been? 

Okay. What was the likelihood of Mr. Newest condition to be proved and the prognosis towards the limb growing back? 

Got to be kidding.

I’m not somebody one of their officers actually asked, would the arm go back?

But cutting was not impressive. 

I’m sure she wasn’t. So, I think that the message here is it’s more than financial like, as you said. But I think organizations also need to look at it in terms of how do I drive safety? If I drive safety, I’m also driving. Like you said, the plant would have probably still been operating. All these following effects. It looks like a cost benefit analysis, but it’s so. 

And also, a good business is a business that’s safe. 

And a good business that’s safe is also going to be a productive and a successful business it is because part of the flow and effective they’re closing the plant was 54 of us lose their jobs, permanents 112 part time and casuals lose their jobs. The little shops where you buy your teams next door, we’re gone. 

Because we’re gone. The flow on effect from an incident like mine was not affecting just me, my family, workmates, friends, and all that type of thing. But the little people that you’ve built up relationships in the little shops around you for 15 years and you never see them again. It was like a little village if you wanted to say it and it’s all gone. 

It’s horrible.

All because safety wasn’t taken seriously. 

Alan, I really appreciate you sharing a story. I think it’s an important message for a lot of organizations. You speak a lot about safety motivated organizations and team members around safety. Somebody would like to share your story, bring your story. How can they get in touch with you? Is it through CNB Safe? 

Yeah, cnbsafe.com James Woods runs it and he’s a very good friend of mine. And we were in our apartment. We are both involved in major accidents now. We compare who’s got the worst one. The ball plays in a wheelchair and I go, I can push you in circles. And he goes, well, I can swim straight. You can’t. I can find my shoelaces up. You can’t. So that’s the flow on effect. Tie my shoelaces, one hand, put on your pants. And to everybody I’d say this, go home, drop your pants. I mean that in a nice way. Drop your pants, grab an Apple, and put it in your dominant hand. Then try and put your pants on with your other hand. 

Right. 

And that will give you an idea of straight away. What’s like with one arm?

Wow.

It’s just a simple test for CNB Safe. I go anywhere and I’ve one of the few people that can tell the CEO of the company and I’ve done it to some major companies. If they don’t pick up their ass and they gain you’re going to jail, and I’ve said it in front of the workers and everything and that’s not it. I’m not here for that. I’m here to make sure he does his job. You do your job, and you all go home safely.

Ultimately, everybody has to come home safe.

That’s right. And everybody’s going to work together. That’s it. 

Alan, thank you so much for coming on the show. Really appreciate you sharing a story and have a wonderful rest of your day or morning for you. 

Thank you very much.

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.

The Safety Guru with Eric Michrowski

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ABOUT THE GUEST

Alan Newey is a survivor of a workplace incident. He lost his right dominant arm to a conveyor belt in September 1999. For over 13 years, Alan has been presenting to various groups around Australia on the effects of his workplace incident and the impact that it’s had on himself and his family. Alan speaks from the point of view of an injured worker and gives a real insight into what happens to you during and after such a life-changing experience. Alan is extremely confronting on the issues and effects of a workplace incident and his presentation not only addresses the sequence of events leading up to his incident, but the flow-on effects such a life-changing experience entails.
For more information: https://cnbsafe.com.au

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I eat a lot. Food is the fuel. I’m not sure I’ve left a legacy, but I have an engine inside that somehow keeps driving me. And I think so do you. I should go to you. You’re the Safety Guru so I could ask you the same question. I love ideas. I think ideas are the oil of the world and it’s fun to shape and discover ideas. And I want to learn with you today. Eric, this is going to be a great discussion. 

Excellent. So, Dave, you’re widely known in HR circles. Everybody that I’ve connected to an HR thinks of you in really high regards. Somebody could wonder why I’m inviting you to this podcast that’s focused on safety and leaders focus on safety. And I think it’s really simple. You’ve had such a tremendous impact on transforming the role of HR many organizations, and I think it really could serve the blueprint for how safety organizations that have very similar corporate roles have an equally impact on team members. And so, in my experience, many safety organizations haven’t yet elevated their role to be a strategic partner in the same way that HR has done over the last few years. So, if you could share a little bit about some of your insights around elevating the role of HR and turning into a very powerful engine towards strategy.  

Again, HR is not all the way there yet, but let me try to do that with an example. In the last three weeks, we were teaching a course at the University of Michigan where I’m privileged to teach, and about 25 people came in for a two-week course. And we said, what do you want to learn? And they mentioned the HR issues. I want to learn about leadership development, executive compensation, changing a culture, Dei, big issue, hybrid work. And then at the end of the week, the two weeks, they said, good, I’ve got a template. I’m going to go back to my business leader and show them the work plan for name one of those diversity culture, leadership. And I’m going to show them the plan. And I said, wrong. When you go back to your business leader, you do not start with your plan. You start with the question, what’s the business issue our company is wrestling with. What’s the business issue? The business issue may be cost, it may be innovation, it may be global distribution, it may be digital, it may be technology. What’s the business issue we as a member of the business team are wrestling with and then show how what you know and do in HR will enable that business issue. 

That mindset is a different shift. So, culture, leadership, executive, comp. Yeah, they’re all critical, but you start with the business. The other thing that might be helpful for your audience, our audience for the next few minutes is two words so that people came in, they wrote on a flip chart. Because I’m old and we still use flip charts in person classes. I want to learn about hybrid work. I want to learn about culture, the great resignation. And I said, go to the flip chart and write two words so that that’s it. So that and unless the so that leads to a business outcome, you’re not going to have the impact. Business leaders don’t care as much about some of the technical issues in HR. And every time I say HR, in my mind, I’ve seen Eric is replacing the word safety. They don’t care as much about the technical issues in HR, but they do care about the outcome of those issues. That’s the headline. My headline is HR is not about HR. It’s about helping the business succeed in the marketplace. Safety is not about safety alone. It’s about helping our business be successful in the marketplace where we have to be successful. 

I think that’s a really important point. The other element is the role of elevating. Safety is much bigger than just having rules. It’s also getting into the culture space. It’s thinking about how to elevate the role of leaders. But we also know from organizations that have done safety very well that you actually create a great learning organization because safety is really about learning, understanding events that happen, making sure they don’t happen again, disseminating that information. So, shifting as well the conversation and not just be about an injury rate. If I’m hearing you correct, it’s also so that we can connect to some of the other business priorities. 

Yeah. I mean, let’s play that out. I’ll play it out with you. We want to manage our injury rate, which is critical. Right. So that what! let me play it with you. I want to manage the injury rate. That’s the data that I see. So that what. 

So that our team members are happy to come here, feel safe, and know that they’ll come home to their loved one’s day in and day out. 

And I’m going to keep going. That’s still inside the company. 

So that we have a better employee experience and that’s teams, members, safety and et cetera. 

So that what? So that when you think about what you were just talking about, the great resignation, that we can keep the best talent within the organization.  

By the way, I’m being obnoxious.  

I love obnoxious.  

Let me tell you where I’m going. I think until the soldier gets to a stakeholder outside the company, we’re not fully engaged. For example, I want to do safety incidents so that our employees have a better experience and they can return home safely with their loved ones so that our customers have a better experience. And the correlation between employee experience and customer experience is very high. And I want a customer experience so that our investors have a better experience. If we get a higher customer valuation, the investor value goes up. And suddenly I’ve created a value chain, and the Soviet forces me to get outside the company to not just say it’s about safety and wearing harnesses. Those are events. But so that gets me outside. By the way, the other place is fun to start is to say to the business leader, what is it you’re worried about today? What is she or he worried about? I’m worried about innovation. Then you say, because of what’s going to drive innovation in my company because of financial resources. Great. Because of employees, because of their safety and their wellbeing. 

And I can go so that or because of and starting with either the safety or HR activity or the outcome. And suddenly I’m building a bridge, and it’s that bridge. And by the way, I didn’t mean to be rude to you, but I think that so that really pushes the assumption. It pushes the assumption. And eventually the so that should almost always be customer. My headline is, I’ll give an example I use in HR, and you can translate the safety.   

Sure.   

What’s the most important thing that HR can give an employee belief, meaning become growth, belong, community, or all the above or none of the above, and everybody votes all the above.  

Right. 

And it’s wrong. The most important thing you can give an employee is a company that succeeds in the marketplace, because unless and until you succeed in the marketplace, there is no workplace. By the way, you’re lucky to have not worked with me in the company that I’ve often worked with. I’ve worked in towards our Circuit City, Eastman Kodak. I’ve worked in so many great companies that don’t exist anymore. And you know what? They had great internal practices, but they weren’t connected to the customer. And unless we succeed in that marketplace, there is no workplace. And I find HR people get really offended. Well, I’m here to make people feel good. No, you’re not. You’re here to help succeed in the marketplace, because if you fell in the marketplace, that’s the most dehuman. Well, I’m here to humanize the workplace. No, the most dehumanizing thing you can have is 100,000 employees out of work.  

Right.  

That’s dehumanizing. You go out and you build your system so that you succeed in the marketplace. By the way, I got passionate on that. I probably should be more temperate, but I just think sometimes we get so enamored with our activities and what we do. Now, the second point you raised, which I love, HR is often seen as an event. It’s a pay event. It’s a training event. It’s a hiring or promotion event. You got to change the event into a pattern. And the pattern is the culture. There’s a lot of isolated events. Safety is an event, but the culture is when that event becomes a sustainable pattern. And that pattern is embedded in how we think and act and feel, and it drives the events. It’s not about an event. It’s about a pattern that allows us to be successful over time. And I’m assuming you’ve been in companies. Well, I’d love to ask you, because I want to learn from you. Can you think of a company where safety is an event or a pattern? What’s the difference in those companies?  

I think the organizations where safety is an event is everything is geared and act. Everything is around. Somebody had an injury, and we mobilized to understand how to resolve it. Right. So, it’s very incident driven. A pattern is where it’s a true learning organization. We’re learning from events before anything actually happens. We may have had a near miss. We may have seen something that could have gone wrong, and we start thinking about how do I prevent it from happening before something more serious happened?  

I love it. So, an event is almost an afterthought. A pattern is an anticipation that I can predict. That’s really helpful, Eric, because I see that in HR as well. And we have a whole lot of events, but they get strung together with a string of pearls to create a pattern. And I think that’s where HR suddenly gets helpful. Is that it becomes an ongoing pattern of how we think about treating our people. It’s not an event. Gee, on Tuesday, I’m going to call Jody and tell her she’s great. No, that’s an event or we’re going to have a succession planning day at the board. No, it’s a pattern of treating people with respect. And I assume that same pattern has to occur within safety. You got to get a safety pattern. Now what does that require? A lot of things. I mean, we’ve looked at how do you sustain initiatives? I just got asked. We’re doing some work-on-work tasks. And how do you change the nature of work? Do not focus on the job or the person, but the task. And there are some lessons we’ve learned about making change a sustainable pattern. 

Happy to share those. But, boy, this has been great. Number one, safety is not about safety. It’s about helping our company succeed in the marketplace, too. We do that by creating a pattern, not a set of discrete, isolated events. That’s really helpful.  

Absolutely. And I think that’s the same element where you’re advocating is really bring the role of HR. I would argue safety is the same. Elevate it think more strategic, connect with the executives to have access to that C-suite because we’re solving the issues that matter there. How does an organization transform towards it? How has successful organizations shifted the pattern from more administrative practices to strategic?  

There’s a lot of initiatives in a company, dozens of administrative initiatives. Safety ESG, lots of initiatives we’ve studied. How do you make sure that those initiatives become sustainable changes? We’ve identified seven things. Now going through seven is going to bore your listeners to death. So, I’ll try to make it interesting. Think of this, by the way, the metaphor I love is a pilot’s checklist. Imagine you got on a plane and the pilot’s door was open and it never would be. And the pilot said, we’re too busy today. Let’s just skip the checklist. 

No, you don’t want that.  

I give up. Or the pilot says, let’s do every other item. Now, here’s the seven things, and they start with where you focus. One, you got to have leadership support, right? I got to have a sponsor and a champion who says, this is something I personally and using my status and role and title, stand behind in HR. You’ve got to have business leaders who adopted, who adapted, who make that part of their identity. And so, a business leader in safety has got to model safety. You’ve got to live safety. You’ve got to talk about it. Number one, leadership. Number two. And these are going to be so obvious. I share these with senior executives, and they go and I say, that’s the pilot checklist. Your pilot says, wow, what is that rudder? You don’t want this to be educational. You want it to be disciplined. Number two, you got to create a business need, right? What’s the business case for doing safety? Safety is not just about caring for our people. There is a business case. That’s what we started with. How will it add value to customers? Investor number three, you got to have a clear vision and direction.  

What does safety mean? And I think what do we mean when we say we’re going to be more safe? And I hope it’s not just physical, but I hope it’s also psychological. 100%, yes, that safety is a multi-dimensional concept. And let me just stop with those three for a minute. You got to have a leadership support champion sponsor. You got to have a business case, and you got to have a clear sense of what safety looks like. Those three make sense as a starting point. 

100% makes sense. And I agree with your commentary on psychological safety because what I just shared before, where it’s a pattern, people are speaking up. They’re questioning the work in front of them if something doesn’t feel right so that we’re learning before anything ever happens.  

Actually, that’s really helpful. You just hit a third safety, one, physical safety, which is no question that’s ladders and physical harm and death and also covert and injury. Psychological safety, which is mental health, emotional well-being, which I think is growing right now. I think the pandemic comes down to be an endemic. And we talked earlier. I had to look up that word. But the emotional mental health issue is going crazy. The third safety you just mentioned is social safety, that an employee feels that he or she has a right to speak up, that I share your socials safety net, that I can tell my boss what I’m feeling without the repercussion. That’s actually very interesting to think of. Physical cycle. Okay, leader, I’m going to give my checklist now. I’m a pilot. We have a leader. Do we have a business need? Do we have a vision? Number four, which is the most critical? Have we engaged everybody in the process? Safety is not a random event. It’s getting everybody connected to making it real. It’s not a communication. It’s not a random actor. And we talked about that. Engaging everyone is so critical.  

Number five, have we translated safety? I got to go back to number four, engaging everyone in the HR space. Things happened. We had tragedy with diversity, with death and tragedy in the Ukraine, there was a tragedy and companies send out a broadcast. We stand with Ukraine George Floyd. We stand with these issues. To be honest, those are not very helpful because they’re isolated events. Sending out a safety announcement doesn’t do as much. So, you got to really engage people. Number four. Number five, you got to identify decisions. Now you’re the safety expert, not me. In the next 30, 60, 90 days, what decisions can we make that will drive safety? In HR? We do the same thing. What decisions can we make and get clear. Number six, we got to weave it into our systems, budgeting system, talent system, huge. It can’t be a standalone event. It’s what I just said with the George Floyd communicate. I don’t disagree with communication, but I do think it’s got to be woven in. And finally, number seven, you got to monitor progress and track it. You got to keep track and learn and grow. That’s your learning organization.  

I’ll do it quickly. You got to have a leader. You got to have a business need. You got to have a direction. Number four, you got to mobilize commitment. You got to get people bought into it. Number five, you got to translate it to very precise decisions. Number six, you build systems around it. And number seven, you create learning that we grow. Those seven dimensions are not new. But in fact, when I’ve shared those with business leaders, they go, I’m paying you for this insight. I could have come up with those seven in ten minutes. And I said, why would it take you ten? It takes you two. But the discipline like a pile of checklist to do. That is what really helps. And I hope safety is about disciplines, it’s about protocols. And that’s the actionable protocol we’ve seen.  

I think the element you talked about touching the last two, weaving into the budgets so important because simple decisions around I need to reduce the cost. And this PNL, and I don’t think about what could go wrong. We saw it with a Boeing 737 Max not so long ago. In terms of decisions that are intended for the right reason to maybe reduce costs, improve profitability, can have the wrong impact if you don’t think about what could go wrong. Right. And then you talk about monitoring. One of your books touches on some of the metrics of the leading indicators. The leading indicators, to me is key because the Lagging indicator is interesting but not useful. It doesn’t tell you how your performance is going to go. You want to think about how am I adding value? How am I engaging employees around improving their safety practices, how we’re learning? These are all leading indicators that I think need to be embedded in the business and elevated.  

I totally agree. I love your first point there around, we often cut what looks simple to cut. For example, in the HR, we’ll cut training, and that makes sense. But remember, the training and development is the fuel that drives the engine and you run out of fuel and the engine doesn’t work. And I’m sure the same would be true in safety. There are investments that we have to make. What would be some lead indicators? Again, I’m spoiled because I get to learn from the Safety Guru what would be some lead indicators that you think people might want to track around safety?  

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There’s certain things around how many employees have been involved in improvements, right. So, you had a book many, many years ago on workout, which was really about creating boundaryless organization, really about employee involvement and engagement. Same concept. Just are we leveraging our employees to drive improvements? How many near misses are we seeing? Are we really learning? So, you talked about aviation at checklist. There’s about 60,000 year misses are reported by the FAA every year. And then your miss could be something benign, could be something a little bit more substantial. But people are comfortable raising issues, right. So, we forgot this item on the checklist might end up being a near miss, to use your earlier analogy. And so, an organization where people have the psychological safety and the social safety, you’re going to see a lot of those near miss reporting. People are going to look at it, they’ll stop work and say, what just happened? How do we make sure this doesn’t happen again? Just a few samples.  

I love that. And you use the word earlier. I love learning. Create a learning culture. And we’re using Airlines a lot. I fly quite a bit, or I used to fly quite a bit before the last couple of years. I always got mystified that when it rained, everything shut down. And I thought, these executives have some form of corporate Alzheimer’s. It’s rained before. Don’t you realize that? We’ve had rain and we can actually manage. And it feels like we’re not creating a learning agenda. And I think that’s really cool about near misses. So how do we learn? And hopefully nobody ever loses a life or a limb or something tragic. But how do we learn to avoid that? And anticipate. I really like that idea. And I see companies not doing that very often. The other thing I’ve seen in safety is to get the symbolism of safety there. I mean, you know this and I’m telling safety people obvious stuff, which shows I’m not a guru in safety. In a lot of manufacturing plants, every meeting begins with a safety discussion, right?  

Absolutely.  

Now let me throw something out to think out loud. Medtronic’s is a firm that makes stuff that you don’t want to have to use. It’s heart valves and things in your body, medical devices. They like to begin most of their meetings with a customer who comes in or patient and says, thank you, your valve saved my life. It would be interesting to try to elevate safety, not just here’s a safety minute, which is a great idea safety moment, but to talk about what that means a family member or somebody outside the company. To say, let me just tell you how important safety is. Let me give one example. As I’m thinking out loud, a number of years ago, GE, they still make aircraft engines. One of their engines went bad and the pilot was close to death. I mean, because the engine was bad, and you could hear his tension in his voice. And the plane crashed. He bailed out and was thankfully saved. What GE aircraft engine did was very clever. They brought him in to speak to every employee group and stood up and he said, let me share the last five minutes of the cockpit conversation where he is literally scared to death.  

You hear it, you hear the tension, you guys goofed. Something didn’t work and it almost cost me my life. When you talk about quality or TQM, whatever it is, it’s not abstract.  

Right.  

The people who saw that in the Cincinnati plant many years ago said we’ve heard so many statistics about quality and we’ve had little lectures on quality tools. Nothing means much more than a pilot coming in and saying, what you did here almost cost me my life. Get on board now. He said it in a more positive way, of course. 

Right.  

It would be fascinating to have some of that. 

And some organizations have done that, and they’ve done it in terms of either somebody who got injured or even reflections as to who do I stay safe for? Because there’s an element of personal choice. Right. So, internalizing that motivation. The other theme that I’ve seen work really well in the organizations is beyond the safety moment. Don’t go on a ladder with that. Whatever is start pushing some reflections. Tell me about a leader that really influenced your safety. What was unique about them? More open-ended questions to reflect on where I’ve seen good happen. Maybe where I’ve had some shortcuts that I’ve taken in the past, recognizing that I’m not perfect and talking about where I’ve made maybe the wrong choice or a good choice where I’ve been influenced by. 

I love it. And again, I said I was going to learn. Nobody can see this because we’re video. I’ve got a page of notes. I’ve got two notes. Strike me, then put a face on safety. Personalized.  

Yes, I really like that. 

The second is use reflections to anticipate. What did I do today that worked? What did I do that potentially increased risk? So, I like that. Put a face on safety and use reflection time to get ahead of what could go wrong. I love that anticipation is about risk and companies are doing risk audits all the time. Safety should be a part of that risk audit. And what are the reflections that I could anticipate where things might go wrong, by the way, I say that and I look at my office where I’m sitting right now and going, oh my gosh, look at all this. But again, we don’t want to overbear it. We don’t want it to be overbearing, but it goes back to where we started. Why do we do this? We do this so that an employee has a good experience, so that a customer investor have good experiences, and it begins to make a difference. 

I really like that you shared some great ideas on the strategic relationship. How do I elevate the conversations? I think the other element that I see with an HR that’s important is also the HR business partner model and how I’m aligning in HR with each line of business to understand their priorities and connecting with them to make sure that I’m adding value. Could you maybe share some insights there? Because I think that same approach works in corporate functions. In terms of how do I become that thinking partner for the operational leader? Maybe at a site?  

Let’s go back to the case I started with of somebody who left our program at Michigan and sat down with their business leader and said, the business partner starts with, what are we trying to accomplish as a business innovation, digital transformation, whatever the business is. Then the second question is, how can I help us make that happen? Notice it’s us, not you. How can I help us make that happen? And I then bring some of my tools to that agenda. This is what often happens. The business leader says here’s what I want. I want people to do this. I want people to do that safety. Here’s what I want. 

Sure. 

I think I can tell you more not just what you want, but also what you need. By the way, this is a broader issue. I think people are feeling a little bit entitled right now. They want to work at home. I don’t want to drive 401 to Toronto. That traffic is horrible. I’ve been there. I don’t want to drive on that road. I want to work up north. I want to work in wherever and just work remotely and get paid the same. Well, what you want is good business leader. What you want is good. But I also can tell you some things that you need. And I think the challenge is responding to what people want, but also guiding people on what they need. And that’s what we’re helping HR people do. For example, I want you to go hire people. I want you to train people. I want you to pay people. I want you to do career management with people. And the HR businessperson says, that’s great, that’s great. We’ll hire, we’ll train. All of that will do around people. But let me tell you what you need. You’ve got to build a culture. 

And if all you do is those events around talent, you’re not building the team. You’re not building the capability. So, what you want is to treat people well, don’t disagree. What you need is to turn people into a high performing team. And when you can make that happen, you’re going to have more success. I hope in safety, we don’t just say, here’s what you want. You want lower incidents; you want harnesses on ladders? No. Here’s what you also need. And I’m going to bring you some ideas that will help make that happen and then describe it in a very simple way. You said, I turned complexity into simplicity. Thank you for that. I hope so. To say, let me give you two or three things you might do. I’ll give an example of that. Sure. We worked with a person doing HR, and their business leader was traveling around the world visiting ten countries on tour. Those things happen, and it could be a plant visit, it could be site visits, whatever. The HR person went to the person coordinating the senior executive trip and said to that person, when she or he visits a plant, would you mind asking a couple of questions? 

How’s the culture here? How are you treating people? Almost didn’t matter.  

Right?  

But when the business leader went out on that tour, they asked those questions. And by asking the questions, the business leader began to behave as if he was committed, or she was committed to the human resource issues. Safety, simple action. Get your business leader to begin to ask the safety questions, to begin to probe safety in their daily routines. How’s the business doing? Oh, it’s great. Well, our profits, our margins, our customer scores. How are we doing with some of the safety issues? What are you thinking? Just not a big deal. Just throw it in. Don’t say the world is going to stop. We’re now going to do 20 minutes on safety. No, we’re going to make a part of the routine. By the way, that business leader came back after visiting ten countries and said, wow, I got some great insights. So that’s kind of the idea. When you get people to behave as if they’re committed in a public way, they’ll become more committed. And when you get people to behave as if they’re committed to safety in a public way, they’ll probably become more committed to it.  

I would say many of the questions you shared on those tours are the exact same ones that somebody that’s committed on the safety side should also be asking how people treating you here when there’s an issue, how are we solving it? Things of that nature, asking for input is so critical, the safety component as well. But even the broader culture elements. 

One of my takeaways today is often when I think of safety and I have a narrow mindset, I’m broadening it. I think of physical safety. I’ve got psychological safety, and I really like that idea of social safety. Are we creating a social work setting where people have a safety to voice their opinions? I think that’s a critical piece and I love it. I know we’ve gone a long time. You are so good at this. I can see why you’re the safety guru. 

Thank you. Dave. You have so many great ideas, and I think the element I would also advocate is there is so much opportunity for better collaboration between the HR groups and the safety groups because both need to bring culture to the forefront to be able to drive impact. Both care about how the leaders show up because we know in both cases that has such an impact. And there’s opportunities for better collaboration because at the end of the day, when you talked about psychological safety and social safety, these are themes that are critically important for safety but also for HR, no question. 

We did some research what makes a great HR Department, and guess what? The structure of the Department didn’t matter very much. What mattered the most was the relationships between the HR people. Do we collaborate? Do we work well with each other? Do we have a positive, related the example I love, and this may or may not apply to safety? I assume it does. There’s a tool called Rasi, responsible, accountable, consultant, informed, and you go through it. I’ve been married 45 years. I’m old. Not once in 45 years have my wife and I sat down Sunday night and done a formal Rasp laundry, shopping, cooking, paying bills, caring for kids. You know what? We have a relationship. Last week she was swamped. She was really busy. So, here’s what I do, and you do the same thing. I went shopping, I Cook food, I did laundry because that was my relationship. This week I’m a little busy, and so she’s doing that. I mean, we’ve got to build relationships within safety, between safety, HR, it finances, and with us and the business leaders. And when those relationships work, the roles don’t matter as much. If you have clear roles but not a good relationship, you won’t get things done. 

So, I know we’ve gone over I really appreciate a sensitivity to safety and using safety so that our employees have a better experience so that our customers, investors, and communities have a better experience. 

Dave, thank you so much for coming. I think you brought some really great ideas from the HR space that really apply in the safety space. I encourage anyone to pick up any of your titles, your books, you publish, Leadership Code, Results, Bayless Leadership, the one on Workout. As the list goes on. You’ve got a lot of great insights that I think applies when the safety world. And I really encourage people to pick up, reflect and see what could work for them.  

You got it. Thank you so much. Thank you. 

Thank you, Dave. 

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ABOUT THE GUEST

Dave Ulrich is the Rensis Likert Professor at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan, and a partner at the RBL Group (http://www.rbl.net) a consulting firm focused on helping organizations and leaders deliver value.  He has published over 200 articles and book chapters and over 30 books. He edited Human Resource Management 1990-1999, served on editorial board of 4 Journal and on the Board of Directors for Herman Miller (16 years), has spoken to large audiences in 90 countries; performed workshops for over half of the Fortune 200; coached successful business leaders, and is a Distinguished Fellow in the National Academy of Human Resources. He is known for continually learning, turning complex ideas into simple solutions, and creating real value to those he works with in three fields.

Organization.  With co-authors, he has influenced thinking about modern organizations (Reinventing the Organization) by empirically showing how organization delivers 4 times business results over talent (Victory Through Organization), defined organizations as bundles of capabilities (Organization Capability) and worked to delineate capabilities of talent management (Why of Work; Talent Accelerator), culture change (GE Workout), learning (Learning Organization Capability), and collaboration (Boundaryless Organization).   

Leadership.  With colleagues, he has also articulated the basics of effective leadership (Leadership Code and Results Based Leadership), connected leadership with customers (Leadership Brand), shown how leadership delivers market value (Why the Bottom Line Isn’t), shapes investor expectations with an ability to measure leadership (Leadership Capital Index), and synthesized ways to ensure that leadership aspirations turn into actions (Leadership Sustainability). 

Human Resources.  He and his colleagues have shaped the HR profession and he has been called the “father of modern HR” and “HR thought leader of the decade” by focusing on HR outcomes, governance, competencies, and practices (HR Champions; HR Value Added; HR Transformation; HR Competencies; HR Outside In).  He spearheaded a “gift” book on the future of HR (The Rise of HR) distributed to over 1,500,000 HR professionals), in which 70 thought leaders freely shared their insights.

Most recently, he posts new articles and insights each Tuesday on LinkedIn (over 150).

Honors include:

2022:

*One of top 30 People Analytics leaders by Perceptyx

*#6 (out of 200) thought leader in leadership by LeadersHum

2021:

*Lifetime Achievement Award from Institute of Management Studies

*#3 (out of 200) thought leader in 2021 by PeopleHum

* “Most Influential Global HR Leader, 2021” sponsored by PeopleFirst and HRD Forum

* “Honorary Member” of IFTDO (500,000-person training/development organization)

2020:

*Distinguished Fellow (one of 15 total), National Academy of Human Resources

*Michael R. Losey Excellence in Human Resource Research Award by SHRM

*Honorary Doctorate from Utah Valley University

*Initiated the Dave Ulrich Impact Award by the Academy of Management to honor contribution in HR

2019:

*Named one of the 100 top influencers in HR (in leadership & development category)

*Named one of the top 20 influential HR leaders

*Ranked #1 thought leader in HR by HRD Connect

2018:

Named one of the 20 most influential business professors in the world by top-business-degree (#13)

2017:

*Named to the Thinkers50 “Hall of Fame”, a recognition of lifetime achievement in influencing management

*Chartered Fellow of the Human Resources Institute of New Zealand

2016:

Presidential lecture “in defense of organization” for Utah Valley University

2015:

*Named the most “influential HR thinker of the decade”

*Listed in Thinkers50 as management thought leader

*Commencement Speaker Southern Virginia University

2014:

*Ranked #1 speaker in Management/Business by Speaking.com

*Commencement speaker, University of Michigan Ross School of Business

2013:

*Lifetime Leadership Award from the Leadership Forum at Silver Bay

*Listed in Thinkers50 as a management thought leader

2012:

Lifetime Achievement Award from HR Magazine for being the “father of modern human resources”

2011:

 *Ranked #1 most influential international thought leader in HR by HR Magazine

*Listed in Thinkers50 as a management thought leader

*Ranked in Top 100 Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Leadership Behavior

2010:

*Nobels Colloquia Prize for Leadership on Business and Economic Thinking

*Lifetime Fellowship in Australia Human Resources Institute (AHRI)

*Ranked #1 most influential international thought leader in HR by HR Magazine

*Kirk Englehardt Exemplary Business Ethics Award from Utah Valley University

*Why of Work (co-authored with Wendy Ulrich) was #1 best seller for Wall Street Journal and USA Today

2009:

*Listed in Thinkers 50 as a management thought leader

*Ranked #1 most influential person in HR by HR Magazine

2008:

*Ranked #1 most influential person in HR by HR Magazine

2007:

*Lifetime Achievement Award from American Society of Training and Development (ASTD)

*Honorary Doctorate from University of Abertey, at Dundee Scotland

2006:

*Ranked #1 most influential person in HR by HR Magazine in vote by influential HR thinkers

*Dyer Distinguished Alumni Award from Brigham Young University, Marriott School of Management

2005:

*Ranked #2 management guru by Executive Excellence

*Named by Fast Company as one of the 10 most innovative and creative thinkers of 2005

  • President, Canada Montreal Mission, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

2001:

Ranked #1 management educator and guru by Business Week

2000:

*Lifetime achievement award from World Federation of Personnel Management

*Listed in Forbes as one of the “world’s top five” business coaches

1998:

*Society for Human Resource Management award for Professional Excellence for lifetime contributions

*Lifetime achievement (PRO) award from International Association of Corporate and Professional Recruitment, and Employment Management Association

1997:

*Warner W. Stockberger Lifetime Achievement Award from International Personnel Management Association

Dave and Wendy live in Alpine, Utah, have 3 children and 10 grandchildren.

Contact e-mail:  dou@umich.edu

 

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RELATED EPISODE

The Importance of Team-based Safety Culture with Dan Plexman

The importance of team-based safety culture

LISTEN TO THE EPISODE

ABOUT THE EPISODE

“Safety systems and procedures mean nothing if people don’t implement them.” In this episode, Dan Plexman shares how a culture of production in the workplace led to an incident that changed his life. Complacency often enters into the minds of team members when the focus is on completing tasks rather than completing tasks safely. This National Electrical Safety Month, Dan is emphasizing the importance of team-based safety culture. Tune in!

READ THIS EPISODE

Real leaders leave a legacy. They capture the hearts and minds of their teams. Their origin story puts the safety and wellbeing of their people first. Great companies, ubiquitously have safe yet productive operations. For those companies, safety is an investment, not a cost. For the C-suite. It’s a real topic of daily focus. This is The Safety Guru with your host, Eric Michrowski, a globally recognized Ops and safety guru, public speaker, and author. Are you ready to leave a safety legacy? Your legacy success story begins now.

Hi, and welcome to The Safety Guru. Today. I’m very excited to have with me Dan Plexman, who is a workplace safety speaker and life safety advocate. Dan, welcome to the show.

Good morning, Eric. Thank you very much for having me. Great to be here. Thank you. 

Sounds good. So, I’d love to hear a little bit about your story, the story that got you to become a workplace safety speaker.

All right. Well, the process of becoming a professional speaker on workplace safety. I think this role is handed down to too many other workplace safety speakers, not by choice. It’s just something that happened to them. And they’re sharing their story to change the world of safety. And the same thing happened to me. I was injured in a workplace accident about 14 years ago. And after realizing I wasn’t going to be able to return to work at the same capacity, I decided to get into safety and started doing some safety training, which I had been already taking safety training since the early 90s or the late 90s. I mean, so one of the safety courses I was taking was to train the trainer and teach the teacher. And part of the course was to do a ten-minute presentation from the class. And obviously I spoke about my workplace accident. And the ten minutes turned into 30 or 40. And then the teacher brought me down to the Chancellor’s office and said, this guy has to be our keynote speaker at our next safety conference. And three months later, I was in front of 500 people or 500 safety professionals telling my story. 

And I guess six, seven years later, it’s still going strong. And it’s been a great experience. There’s so many things that this experience has given me. It’s taken away a lot. But you can’t really look at the bad things in life. You have to look at things with a positive matter. And without this experience, I never would have met my wife. So that’s one thing that I really, truly cherish about being injured. And that’s how I became a speaker about my injury and my accident. My story and my story being injured in a workplace accident. It starts off like any typical Northern Canadian kid. I was a construction worker. I was raised by a working household. My mother was a nurse. My father was a construction guy. As a child, I went with my dad on the job sites. He’s a Pipe liner. And from the time I was about nine or ten years old, I was driving around the big trucks with him on the construction sites, and I really enjoyed it. And as a teenager, he was able to get me working on some boom trucks, like swamping being like a Raker on trucks and crane trucks. 

And I never looked back after that. When I became a graduated high school, I was just a construction guy and I worked in all different types of construction. I typically chase, like pulp and paper mill construction, oil sands production. Up in Alberta, I did a short, short stint in oil rigs, and then I picked up an election apprenticeship working out in the oil sands and took a job back home a few years later in Ontario with a lecture utility company. I worked for them for about three years, and I wasn’t your typical apprentice. I started the electrical apprenticeship probably around age 32. So, at the age of 35, when I was injured. When I was injured, I was a full-grown man. I wasn’t fresh to construction, but I was fresh to the electrical industry. But all the construction job sites I’d been on had the exact same machinery, the exact same type of work. The only difference was now we’re working under a live electrical line and we’re putting this live electrical apparatus together and building it. And I love the job. I love the guys I worked with. And to cut to the short end of the chase, as far as my accident goes, I was working in a man left by myself. 

I was about 20ft in the air, and I was working under live lines. I was doing a simple, simple job. All I had to do was tighten a few nuts and bolts. Okay, my accident happened on a Tuesday and the week before, we had erected these electrical towers, these steel structures to Mount some of our electrical apparatus. And when I showed up at work the next after the weekend, that was my job. Just go up there and tighten the feed nuts and bolts, and we’re good, and then I can go to the next job. When I accepted the work orders, I didn’t think anything of it. It was very common for me as an apprentice to be working under live lines and to be working by myself in the man lift. And I knew at my previous employer we weren’t even allowed to walk a man left without having a ground crew or another person in there with you. And I had complained about this to the employer I was working with this actually utility employer. And I said, like, you know, I wasn’t even allowed to do this job at my old job. And now I’m expecting to do it alone as an apprentice.

And basically, they said, well, maybe you should go back to your old employer. And I just took that as out of sort of thing. Wow. And this is probably a couple of years before I was injured. And then as the years went on because I only worked there for three years before I was injured, still doing my apprenticeship. And I complained, not really complained, but I brought this up again to my safety rep. And the funny things with the safety rep, with bringing this up to the safety rep. I was actually the safety rep for when we went out when our crew split up. So, I was like the field safety representative. And when they asked me to fill this role, I said, Great, when do I get the training? And I was actually laughed at, and I was told, this job is strictly a paper roll. Sign your name here and don’t rock the boat.

Oh, wow. 

When I brought these concerns to my safety rep, who had said this previously, I kind of knew it was going to fall on deaf ears. So, I made sure there was a group of people around, which included my Superintendent, my lead hand, my Union steward, the safety rep. And I said, I shouldn’t be operating this machine without supervision. It’s like illegal to work as an apprentice under live lines. It’s just how it works. And I was laughed at, and I was asked, what are you, a man or a mouse?

My goodness.

Yeah. And that’s exactly what I said, are you a man or a mouse? We’ve been doing this job for like 27, 30 years. Some of the guys have been there for over 30 years. We’ve been doing this job this way and for you to come here and tell us how to do it, it’s just not going to work that way. And I wasn’t intimidated in a way where I was physically intimidated or I felt like less of a man, I actually felt guilty where I just wasn’t fitting in. And that was sort of the culture of the crew that I was on, where people weren’t rude with each other and to push these unsafe work practices. It was just how it was. And it was kind of like, you’re not mad enough. Well, you’re kind of feeling like you aren’t mad enough, so you just kind of follow suit. And that’s what I did. And I had done that my entire life. I had done that my entire life. I always just accepted the job and I did what I was told. And being a good, loyal, hardworking employee was instilled in me. And that was the attitude I went to work with.

I wanted to produce, I wanted to fit in, and I wanted to be productive. Even. Like when I was 17 years old, working with my dad on one of those boom trucks, the first time I ever operated a chainsaw was with my dad when I was 17 on the job site. And he never gave me any instruction how to operate that he just gave it to me and said, fire this thing up, climb up on the trailer and cut the chunk off the end of this wood that’s sticking off the side of the trailer, so we don’t hit anything Whizzer driving. And I was 10ft up in the air, hanging on the trailer with one hand while I operated, the chainsaw with the other stretched wide open. And that was how I was taught from the age of 17 by my dad. And that’s normal. That was normal to me. And that’s how he learned. That’s how everybody learned back then. So, I really can’t blame, like put blame or responsibility on my fellow workers and just the poor safety culture that I came from that I was working with on-the-job site when I was injured, because that was the same culture that I was raised in a culture of production rather than a culture of safety.

And that’s unfortunately quite common as a teams in a lot of organizations. The focus of reinforcement is on get it done as opposed to get it done safely.

Exactly. And another human factor with my I don’t know if it’s actually a human factor, but just another statistical factor with my injury and my incident being a typical construction crew. Like you said, it’s all about production. And typically, most construction crews are running a little lean on the manpower just because when the jobs are lean, you don’t want to have to go through the layoff process when there’s too many guys. So typically, my experience, they run a little lean on the lean side just to prevent any layoffs when things get busier or slower. And that was an issue we were having where we were always running lean, but there was just so much work to be done. We were always running short and working with a composite crew. There’s electricians, there’s carpenters, laborers, machine operators, that sort of thing. And working farther up north, where our job location was, there’s not the massive amount of workers in some of these other big utility yards and job sites. So just as sometimes you’re running lean with manpower, you’re also running lean with machinery, you’re running lean with just the general tools. Sometimes you have to just do with what you have, and sometimes you make do with what you have, and the job gets done. 

Nobody is hurt. And then you go to the next job just because nobody was hurt and there was no injuries or incidents, no time loss and the jobs got done, it doesn’t mean that they were done correctly or even done safely. And I think that complacency was a big issue with my job where everybody was doing this for years and years before I was hurt, but I just happened to be the guy that was 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 www.propolo.com.

Tell me a little bit more about the culture on that crew. Because you talked about production over safety. The feedback you got when you identify some safety opportunities was to shut you down. Your quote around or your man or a mouse is horrifying to me. What was unique and how did that crew evolve to have that culture? And were there some signs that as a leader in the organization, maybe it could have seen that something was not quite off? I’m assuming this wasn’t the culture of the whole company at the time. 

No, that’s the thing with my experience with this. And I’ve come to learn that almost every part of any job site, any accident, anything, it always involves people. You can have as many company policies and procedures, and you could have as many Unions Constitution, rules and regulations and safety protocol to follow. But it all means absolutely nothing. If people don’t enforce it and implement it, follow them. And that was the issue with my crew. The company we worked for was a huge electric utility company. There is never a shortage of materials. There’s never a shortage of money to be thrown at all the jobs we were doing. There’s no reason to be writing so lean and no reason to cut any corners. All of that was in place. All of that was there. The men, the leaders, myself, I just chose not to use them and not to follow these Propulo.com and not to enforce it. I truly believe personal safety is the most important part of every aspect of any kind of safety measure. If your personal safety isn’t number one for everybody, there’s never going to be anybody. There’s always a lot of accidents. 

It’s just how it works. And I really wish I would have enforced my right to refuse dangerous work. I should have, but I didn’t. My employer, the guys that I worked with, they should have enforced these rules, but they didn’t. I should have gone home that night, but I didn’t. Instead, I accepted those dangerous work orders. I accepted the unrealistic job expectations. And then I went to the hospital for three months. I’ve had over 30 major surgeries, 100 little ones. And there’s real consequences to not following these protocols that are in place and ensuring your personal safety.

So, when you speak about safety and you speak to team members, what’s your core message really around? Taking that personal ownership for safety?

Like I said, even though I knew what I was doing was wrong, and even though I complained about it before, I did not get the recognition and I didn’t get the respect, the recognition and things did not. The things I was asking for and talking about. They weren’t recognized or even acknowledged. So, the culture has to start from everyone. And if you’re having a hard time instilling your own personal safety, take another step up the rung. Go higher. I went from my lead hand, my Union steward, my safety rep, I went as high as the Superintendent and the Superintendent actually agreed with my lead hand when I said, or when they said, what are you, a man, or a mouse? Because it was the lead hand who said, what are you, a man, or a mouse? Then my field Foreman, the general Foreman, and then the Superintendent all agreed and said, yeah, I have to agree with that. So, at that point, I really felt there was no I couldn’t go any higher. I was talking to the Superintendent. Who else could I go to?

Sure.

There’s much more higher rungs than that. There’s probably five or six or ten other superintendents in other areas that I could have emailed or called or anything. I could have called the Ministry of labor. I could have called my local MP. I could have done something, but I didn’t. I just wanted to fit in. I just wanted to get the job done and I wanted to be part of the crew. I really liked working with these guys. I respected these men. They were my friends.

Right.

And their culture of production led to my life altering accident. It changed my life completely. But I don’t have any blame, or I don’t blame anybody because there’s no Mal intentions, just things happen. And sometimes the best intentions have the worst outcomes. And having a culture of production is just not acceptable nowadays.

So, you’ve raised the issue at a fairly senior level, Superintendent level, and everybody echoed the same message to me. There’s also an element that I got to wonder, if I’m an executive and I’m running the business, how do I find pockets like this where maybe people don’t feel comfortable speaking up, don’t feel comfortable raising issues, and where you have more of a production of production orientation as opposed to safe production focus.

The intimidation factor has to be removed. That’s how I see it, yeah. When I was intimidated on the job, I was a six-foot tall £229 and I was injured. I was a big, strong, hardworking guy and I wasn’t easily physically intimidated. I walked confidently and I wasn’t really scared of a lot of things. But physical intimidation is a real big difference when you’re dealing, like mental intimidation, emotional intimidation. That’s what I felt because I don’t really feel. I didn’t feel if I look back on it now, I do not think I was mentally or physically intimidated when I was asked to do this job, but I was emotionally intimidated. I was made to feel like I was not worthy. I was made to feel like I was letting the crew down. I was made to feel like I just wasn’t fitting in and I was the youngest guy in the crew. I was 35 years old, and I was the youngest guy in the crew by at least ten years. Everybody else was at least 45 to 65 years old and they had all been working there for at least 20 years. I was the first guy that they hired in over 13 years on the crew as an apprentice.

So, the intimidation I felt was emotional intimidation because I just felt that I wasn’t fitting in. And if that was removed, if things were a little bit softer rather than men trying to be so hard and rough, if that makes sense, I think things could have changed, right?

Yeah. So, thank you for sharing your story, Dan. I’d love to dive into some of the human factors that were present when the incident happened and hear a little bit about thoughts around what were some of the countermeasures that could have reduced the impact of those human factors, for sure.

My personal human factors are the number one thing that were involved with my accident. And the timeline before my accident is just the perfect recipe for an accident in any situation. You see, like I said, I was injured on a Tuesday. Like I said, I wasn’t there on Monday, and I took the Monday off and I took the Monday off because I was selling my rental house. And during the weekend I had like three apartments that I was painting and doing a bunch of renovations to get prepared for selling the house. And my weekend was so busy, and you also have to remember my home to the job site was a six-hour drive. So, I worked until Thursday. I came home on Friday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday I worked and then Monday I made the deal to sell the house and then the plan was for me to show up on work on Tuesday at noon and get back to work. So that’s what I did. I drove to work the morning of my incident, so I left about five in the morning. I drove for 6 hours, and I stopped at my hotel, I rested for a couple of hours and then I went to the job site.

I remember actually driving to the job site thinking I was just so tired. My mind was racing with all the things that I had done on the weekend and my mind was racing with all the things I still had to do. When I came home on the next weekend and my mind wasn’t on the job, it was about my home life. I was stressed, I was busy, I was tired. And when I arrived on the job site I was asked to go back to the man, lift you’re on before the weekend and finish installing the bolts and those steel structures. And then you can hop in your car and drive 200 km to the next job site and meet the rest of the crew. My electrical work instructions were given to me by the Carpenter Foreman. There was not a single other electrician in the yard. When I was injured, I was by myself, and I was still an apprentice working under live lines in a man left without any ground crew, no signalman or anybody. And I accepted those work orders. That’s how we did things. And like I said, I was really tired, and my mind wasn’t on the job.

So, like I said, I accepted the work orders. And then I went to the hospital for three months. And my mindset is I truly believe it’s the main reason why I was injured, because as soon as I got on the job, actually, I put work boots on. I went to the man lift, I got on that man lift, and then I safely proceeded to do my job. And all I needed to do at the end of the job was just to inspect my work. So, for you to inspect my work, I had to drive that man left with five or six inches one way just so I get a better view. And like I said, my mind wasn’t on the job when I started the work. So, I didn’t do safety circle check of the man left I was working on. It’s one of the first things you always do on any job site when you’re operating any machine, you do a safety circle check. But I didn’t. I was just too busy in my mind thinking of what was going on at home.

Sure.

And I was also just thinking of getting a simple job done and hopping in my car and driving 2 hours to the next job to meet the rest of the crew. And as I said, when I was in that man left, I just had to drive it maybe five or six inches, maybe eight inches one way. And because I didn’t do that safety circle check, I didn’t notice that that man left was parked exactly where I had left it the weekend before, but it had actually been moved, and it was parked exactly where I had left it. But it was parked 180 degrees opposite of how I had left it. And I didn’t notice that because obviously, I didn’t do that safety circle check, and I didn’t walk the work area if I would have noticed that the machine was parked 188 degrees opposite. So, if you haven’t operated a man left before, sometimes, depending on the machine, when you spin that machine 180 degrees opposite, the control levers actually go opposite as well. So left is right, and right is left. So, when I move that control lever, expecting that man left to go to the right, it actually went to the left.

And right there, that is when my life changed forever. The sparks, the fire, the bright light. It consumed me. The steel bucket, the steel man lift that I was on. It caught on paper. It caught on fire just like paper. And I was a golf. I was in a cage of flames. That’s what I was. And I really was not there mentally because I was thinking of everything else that was going on at home and I really wish I would have taken the time to do the safety circle check. I really wish I would have walked the work area. I really wish I would have refused the dangerous work orders and instilled my right to refuse dangerous work right.

Goodness. 

Another issue that was a big factor in my accident was like I said, I was 20ft up in the air. So, after I was caught on fire, I rolled out of the man left to get away from it to get out of the fire. But instead of falling to the ground, I was stopped, and I was suspended by my safety harness. So, I hung there swinging about 17ft in the air, burning alive until my thick nylon lanyard the safety harness until it burned completely through. Then I fell 20ft to the ground. While I was up there burning alive, I was awake, and I was aware, and I remember all of it. And the carpenters and the machine operators and the laborers from the other side of the yard doing another job. They heard all the noise in the commotion, and they came running towards me. They came running towards me with the best of intentions, but they came running towards me like chickens with their heads cut off. They were so stressed, and it was panic and chaos. No one knew what to do. We had a little bit of safety training in what to do if a man left his stuck sort of thing.

But there was no emergency rescue plan in place and there was no practice emergency rescue plan in place, that’s for sure. There was like nothing. So, when I was burning up there alive, one guy, all they had to do was press a single button to release the machine and I would have come down to the ground. They could have put me out and they could have put the fire out a lot sooner, but they couldn’t do that because they were freaking out. They were not planned; they were not trained and there was no emergency rescue plan in place. Like I said, two other guys are trying to reach me at 17ft with a twelve-footstep ladder. That was the best they could do at the time, and it was the best of intentions, and they did their best, but their best wasn’t good enough because they did not follow the safety protocols. They did not instill the safe work procedures that were set up by the company and set up by the Union. It was humans that failed to follow the rules, safety systems and procedures. They mean nothing if the people do not implement them.

Absolutely agree. Dan thank you very much for sharing a story. If somebody wants to get in touch with you and learn about how you can present your story to others share some of the insights around improving safety outcomes within the team, how can they get in touch with you?

Very easily, danplexman.com that’s my website and you can reach me anytime.

Very easy.

No problem. Just Google my name.

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

The Safety Guru with Eric Michrowski

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ABOUT THE GUEST

Dan Plexman is from Thunder Bay, Ontario and is 44 years old. He has worked as a labourer, driver, equipment operator and warehouseman in pipeline, oilsands and general construction since the age of 16.

Starting an electrical apprenticeship in his early 30’s was a natural transition to make, and provided the perfect mix of both familiar and unfamiliar work locations and practices. Dan worked as an apprentice in Alberta and Ontario for a few years, completed a term of trade school in both provinces, and was enjoying working closer to his home town than he had in years when he was seriously injured at work.

September 30, 2008 is the day Dan’s life changed forever. 

Working alone and 17′ aloft, the manlift he was operating came in close proximity to live overhead power-lines and an electrical arc flash fire resulted. Receiving 3rd degree burns to 70% of his body before falling those 17′ to the ground left him clinging to life with a 13% chance of surviving and a long road of recovery ahead. 

Over 9 years of constant surgery, medical procedures and therapy haven’t been the only focus in his life. Besides taking the courses needed to obtain the National Construction Safety officer designation, and starting the Occupational Health and Safety University education, he also is enjoying an exciting new career as a safety and motivational speaker. 

Other than the obvious physical trauma, the subjects of creating a safety culture for the home and workplace, equipment and workplace inspections, demanding safe work procedures, standing up to peer pressure and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder are very near to his heart and talking about them proves to be a healing and learning experience for him as well as the audience. 

Dan is both honoured and excited to speak with everyone willing to listen and share his experience being seriously injured in a life altering workplace accident. 

For more information: https://www.danplexman.com/ or https://1sheet.pro/DanPlexman

The Plexman-The Ordinary Average Guy/

Your Workplace Safety Superhero

The Plexman-The Ordinary Average Guy/ Your Workplace Safety Superhero

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RELATED EPISODE

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

Mental wellbeing a call to action for leaders

LISTEN TO THE EPISODE

ABOUT THE EPISODE

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

READ THIS EPISODE

Real leaders leave a legacy. They capture the hearts and minds of their teams. Their origin story puts the safety and wellbeing of their people first. Great companies, ubiquitously have safe yet productive operations. For those companies, safety is an investment, not a cost. For the C-suite, it’s a real topic of daily focus. This is The Safety Guru with your host, Eric Michrowski, a globally recognized Ops and safety guru, public speaker, and author. Are you ready to leave a safety legacy? Your legacy success story begins now.

Hi, and welcome to The Safety Guru. Today, I’m very excited to bring Michael Weston to the show. This month marks a mental health awareness month in the USA. And so, this brings me to Michael’s story, which is an incredibly powerful story that I think every listener needs to listen to. He’s from Perth, Western Australia, public speaker, advocate for mental health, and previously was in senior roles within the mining industry until his life changed forever. Michael, welcome to the show. Really excited to have you with me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks Eric! Thanks for having me. 

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

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ABOUT THE GUEST

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

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

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

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

www.michaelweston.com.au

www.cnbsafe.com.au

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

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Real leaders leave a legacy. They capture the hearts and minds of their teams. Their origin story puts the safety and wellbeing of their people first. Great companies, ubiquitously, have safe yet productive operations. For those companies, safety is an investment, not a cost. For the C-suite. It’s a real topic of daily focus. This is The Safety Guru with your host, Eric Michrowski, a globally recognized Ops and safety guru, public speaker, and author. Are you ready to leave a safety Legacy? Your legacy success story begins now.

Hi, and welcome to The Safety Guru today. I’m very excited to have with me, Bernie, and Sheila Inman. Bernie is a survivor 28 years ago of a critical workplace incident. He’s now turned into a critically acclaimed motivational speaker around safety. So, Bernie and Sheila, love to have you on the podcast. Love. If you could maybe share your story a little bit, we can start getting started there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exactly.

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

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

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

Sure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Absolutely.

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

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

Yes. Thank you.

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

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

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

Thank you.

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

Oh, wow.

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

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

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

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

Thank you. 

Cheers. Thanks. 

Thank you for listening to the Safety Guru on C-suite Radio. Leave a legacy. Distinguish yourself from the pack. Grow your success, capture the hearts and minds of your team teams fuel your future. Come back in two weeks for the next episode or listen to our sister show with the Ops Guru Eric Michrowski.

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ABOUT THE GUEST

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

For more information: http://bernieinman.com 

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