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The lasting legacy of poor safety leadership & culture

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“At the end of the day, whatever you’re working on is never as important as your family back at home.” This Thanksgiving season, we are grateful to have Louise Adamson join the podcast as she recalls the events that led to the loss of her brother in a fatal workplace incident in 2005. Louise accentuates the critical need for safety leaders to possess greater care for their team members than the work product and expresses the life-altering ripple effect that serious injuries and fatalities have on loved ones.

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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 well-being 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 is 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 safe legacy? Your legacy success story begins now.  

Hi, and welcome to the safety guru. Today, I am very excited to have with me Louise Adamson. She is a workplace safety speaker and a former lawyer. Louise, welcome to the show.  

Thanks so much for having me on. It is a pleasure.  

Maybe share a little bit about your journey and really the story about your brother that got you really focused on driving change, positive change around the safety space.  

Okay, thanks. Well, my brother Michael, was an electrician, 26 years old. He left a home that he shared with his fiancé on the morning of the 4 August 2005, and he did not make it home to Lisa that night. So, what had happened was he originally had come into a job in Edinburgh. He then got a call midway through the day from a job his employer was working on in a city called Dundee. It was an all-hands-on-deck job to get a sports store and a gym complex completed for a handover to a client by the next again a day or else some penalty clauses were going to kick in. So, for a job worth 720 grand for Michael’s employer there is a fifteen grand late penalty clause if it is not handed over by 10:00 the next again morning. Did you know if is Michael willing to go? Well, this is a man who is saving for a wedding. He has been offered over this over time probably right through the night. So of course, he’s willing to go. So, he heads up to Dundee with two of his colleagues. They’ve done pieces of work in the afternoon, and they’ve had their evening tea break.  

He then heads back to work at 06:30 in the evening and at that point, he was only to continue working for the next 40 minutes. So, what he was doing, was collaborating with his colleague Jim and they were installing a security system. So, they were needing to connect a cable that was already in place within a ceiling void to one lead pulled in and Michael is on a set of steps. He’s got his head and shoulders above a full ceiling, he cuts a cable, and he throws it down to the gym. And that cable had a label on it on insulating tape just wrapped around it. And written on the label it said not in use, I do as then Michael is stripping the insulating material from that cable, he suffers a fatal electric shock. So, he fell off the ladder, he fell at Jim’s feet and efforts were made to survive them. But those efforts were unsuccessful in the end. 

I’m so sorry.  

So, it’s a 26-year-old man with his whole life ahead of him to live and he didn’t make it home that night because it’s often said that Michael died because of contact with electricity. No, my brother didn’t die because of contact with electricity. He died because that series of feelings came together and resulted in his death. So, on that site, there was ineffective management and supervision. There was the paperwork that was not put into practice, you’ve got incorrect equipment being used. So, Michael only had a multimeter available to him when he should have been using a voltage tester. There were time pressures being brought to bear. Clearly, with the penalty clauses about to kick in the next day, you’ve also got shortcuts potentially being taken. So, did my brother use what I’m told is referred to by electricians as the bang test? So, did he just try to cut that cable with his snips, wait on the bang to tell him it was life or not? We don’t know if that’s what he did because only he’d be able to tell us, but that’s one of the possibilities that we left with. So, you’ve got shortcuts in the mix, you’ve got a safety on the job.  

It was just seen as a tick box exercise. You had a risk assessment that wasn’t a living document. It was dated more than a year prior to their contract start date.  

Oh, my goodness. 

Dated prior to the contract has not even been awarded because it was one of these generic ones and no site-specific tailoring has been done to that risk assessment. So even at the point at which they energize the distribution boards, so they’re now live working, that risk assessment isn’t revisited. So, it is described by the Health and Safety Executive inspectors as being completely inadequate, so nothing living about that. And it also contributed to Michael’s death. And then I think the sort of final piece, the final hole in all of this is there was a workforce there that wasn’t confident enough to speak up if something was wrong. They were in that mindset of, we could speak up, but nobody’s going to do anything about it anyway. We’re coming to the end of the job. What’s the point if I do speak up? I’m seen as the troublemaker the person dobbin pals, so let’s just get on with it. So, all of these things come together and result in Michael’s death. There was a trial of his employer more than three years down the line after his death, and the outcome of that was that the HSC said that Michael’s death could have been prevented had his employer ensured that safe working practices were being conducted in accordance with the company’s own written procedures.  

And that is just you don’t know how hard that is for a family to have to hear and then went on to say that managers and supervisors must be taking active steps to ensure that electricians work safely. Well, for us, it’s not just about electricians there you swap out the word electricians, you’re swapping in the word workers, operatives. That applies to anything that’s going on any site. In Michael’s case, there were charges laid against three senior individuals. So, there was a managing director an operations director, and a technical services manager who were all charged with criminal health and safety offenses along with the employer company. But mistakes were made by the prosecutor and in the end, those three individuals got to leave the court, and walk free from the dock before the case got before the jury. So, the lawyer then for the company is kind of doing his grand summing up speech as you expect lawyers to do. But he’s referring to his client as being the invisible man now sitting on the dock. That being the employer company.  

Sure.  

So, it was the invisible man that was found guilty of the failures that led to my brother’s death and it was the invisible man that was fined £300,000. But that for us as a family, it doesn’t approach justice and absolutely nothing in the way of comfort. So that’s why I’m now trying to use Michael’s story and to use it to strike a chord with other people, to stop it from happening to other people. That is what now provides my family with the comfort of knowing that positives come from the awful thing that is Michael’s entirely preventable death.  

Yeah, it seems incredibly preventable, and everybody goes to work and expects to come back, nobody thinks about injuries and what could happen. And in this case, there are so many elements here that just show woeful inadequacy in terms of how the organization was being run. From a safety standpoint, they’re looking at hazards but not really understanding what they were. The risk assessment to me is something that should be absolutely living, but also something that people review as they change throughout the day. As the conditions change, they need to reassess the houses in front of them. It sounded like there was labelling saying that it wasn’t even a live wire. So, by all accounts, he’s trusting somebody else had done their job. So, it’s a layering of multiple errors and multiple inadequacies on top of each other.  

Absolutely going to say in terms of the wire, the plans had changed much earlier in the job, but nobody had up, nobody. So, while the plans changed, the written plans didn’t change. So, nobody documented a change in wiring plans. So that then compounds that failure in relation to the cable. 

I see. The other problem is you’ve got multiple crews coming in without it seemingly an onboarding to the job and so there are changes like that that get layered on. So, one topic I hear a lot is the importance of speaking up. And there are two elements that you touched on because speaking up requires two parts in my opinion. One is the employer creating an environment where I’m comfortable speaking up. Leaders recognize, lean in when somebody speaks up, stop work, and says, this is positive, I want to see more of it. And then the other is the peer-to-peer element because that’s also very important. Leaders have an important role in terms of fostering that as well. So, it’s not an abdication. But there are two elements because there are cases where the organization has done really well in terms of encouraging it, but peers think that I think somebody shared a story where they said, are you a man or a mouse when the person spoke up and stopped work. And so, peer pressure also becomes an element of it that the organization needs to drive forward. Any thoughts in terms of that part? Because speaking up is difficult.  

I’ve done it once I stop work. And when you know the consequences of it being very expensive, you think about it 10,000 times, is it really the right call? But it was recognized after by the executives that they lose the right choice to make. What are some of the things that you’ve seen to really drive that forward? 

I think reflect on him first on the fact that my brother wasn’t a shy, retiring individual. He was a ball she individual who, if something was wrong, he’d have no qualms about speaking up about it. He’d already challenged his employer previously about some work that they’d been doing where asbestos was present. So, he wasn’t off that mindset. So, I don’t understand why he didn’t speak up in this situation. So, I have to kind of second guess it. And I think a large element of it is that whole drive to get the job done, guys, we’re up against it and let’s come together as a team and let’s battle the odds and let’s beat the odds and we’re going to get this done by ten tomorrow morning. Nobody thinks we can do it, but we’re going to get it done. There’s that whole thing going on. I think so. I think the sheriff, the judge in the case, in our sentencing statement, said that there was a male macho, cavalier approach being adopted in that industry at the time. So, in terms of battling that, you do need the MD, the Ops director, whomever it might be, they’re the ones in that situation. 

They were the ones who needed to take the step back and say, we’re not going to put our people in this position where they are being made to make these choices. They were the ones who should have stood back and had a grown-up conversation with the principal contractor, the principal contractor with the client. Because I can see that it would be easy in that situation for the men on the ground to be swept up in that. Let’s achieve the impossible goal. And when you’re working in an organization where safety isn’t any sort of core value, it seems then it’s dangerous being an important point. 

Because of that desire to achieve a goal, often even in organizations that are fairly good at stopping work and creating that relief valve sometimes a desire of achieving a goal can get people to start straying into forgetting about how to achieve it safely. And I think an example recently was the whole inquiry into the Boeing 737 Max, and it was all a goal to let’s get this plane done because otherwise, Airbus had a superior plane. And at the point in time where the decision was made to progress, American Airlines was going to move most of its fleet on the Airbus side, whereas they had an entirely bowling fleet. So that created this goal of let’s make sure we get this plane done. And then lots of things fell apart in between. Not that that’s the only item, but people then forget about it, we have to do it safely, we have to make sure we know how to build a plane, we need to make sure we’re capturing it the right way, we’re getting the right diagrams, et cetera. And that goal can rally against the right purpose, the right choices. It doesn’t mean don’t have a goal.  

I think it’s just a question of how you mitigate that goal. How do you reinforce that the goal is to get this done safely and to pause if we see something right?  

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

Yeah, and I often reiterate that because the Health and Safety Executive Inspector who investigated Michael’s death, I met him just a couple of years ago, and he was saying to me, supervisor level back at that time, and he was quite sure to a degree still today is that their number one priority is getting a job done on time. And I’m always saying that’s not what it should be. It should be to get that job done safely. Safely isn’t that added extra? It’s the on-time part that sure added extra so safely. 

And that requires a lot of messaging that really reinforces that story consistently within the organization. Particularly in the case of the production pressure, you’re mentioning, because here there are penalty clauses. Unfortunately, that production pressure seeps in a lot, even in organizations that have good management systems, just, we got to get this done. Have you seen anything or is there any advice that you share with organizations in terms of how to mitigate that production pressure, so it doesn’t impact the choices that somebody makes? 

I guess that’s really about explaining to people why they’re there. At the end of the day, the sports store my brother was working on, was going to open regardless of how long it took. They’re up against time pressures, so they’re throwing bodies at that job to try to get this all-hands-on-deck job completed. And in the process of that, they threw an actual body at that job, my brothers. And the goal at the end of the day, whatever you’re working on is never as important as your family back at home. And that’s what people need. They shouldn’t need to be reminded of that. But as we’ve already talked about, there is that whole getting swept up in a certain mentality sometimes. So it is that core value, that leadership. Actually, the biggest thing that they care about is the people that are working for them. Not whatever the product or building or whatever it might be at the end of that, it’s the people that they care about the most. 

Yeah. And I think that’s really the message that you share really an organization has to do so much more, has to recognize to create an environment, a culture where people get home every day to their loved ones. And the impact of an event like this, somebody passing away, somebody getting seriously injured, is a life-changing impact for multiple people around that person.  

Yeah, absolutely. And we still hear about new people who’ve been impacted in other ways by what happened to my car. And we’re now 17 years on from his death. But we know about the immediate family, friends, his colleagues who were there at the time. Sorry, we know about the impact it had on them because we see it. We see it day in, day out, we see it. We hold an annual memorial golf tournament for him. So, we hear from his colleagues that kind of the impact that it still has on them and how much they miss him. But then I’ll be speaking at an event, and somebody will come and say to me, oh, I know the first aider who stopped by the C-suite where Michael was working. He just happened to be walking past when this happened, and he helped provide CPR to your brother and he’s still impacted. And until more than a decade after Michael’s death, we knew nothing about this man and about the help that he provided. So, the ripple effect is so wide. I’ve just recently had a colleague of Michaels get in touch and she’s now working in safety as a result of what happened to Michael.  

So, there are so many ripples, so many negative ripples, but also, I hope, so many positive ripples are now being created out of Michael’s death. And I was speaking at a new-born graduation on Monday and I’m saying that I hope at some point these ripples all come together and then it’s that sort of ground swell of positivity so that we know that other lives have been saved as a result of what happened to him and being able to talk about what happened to him and getting lessons learned from what happened to him. 

Which is so important. Really. For other organizations. Other leaders. Recognize the importance of really leading for safety and for others in terms of the day-to-day choices or making how they show up as a supervisor. How do they show up as a leader? So, Louise, thank you very much for sharing your story. It’s still a very difficult, raw story to share because there will never really be closure. But I think the importance of sharing the story, the message, I think helps make sure somebody else comes home safe to the loved ones. So, I appreciate the work that you’re doing. If somebody wants to have you speak to their organization, how can they get in touch with you? 

So, they find me on LinkedIn, or you’ll get me on the website michaelsstory.Net or email [email protected], that would be fantastic. Thanks, Eric.  

Cheers. Thank you very much, Louise. 

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. Elevate your safety. Like every successful athlete, top leaders continuously invest in their safety leadership with an expert coach to boost safety performance. Begin your journey at execsafetycoach.com. Come back in two weeks for the next episode with your host, Eric Michrowski. This podcast is powered by Propulo consulting.  

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ABOUT THE GUEST

Louise Adamson spent 13 years working as an employment lawyer for a top Scottish firm.  However, a personal tragedy led to her attentions becoming focused on the field of health and safety. Her brother Michael was only 26 years old and engaged to be married when he lost his life in an electrical incident which could and should have been prevented. Lessons must be learned and Louise now tells Michael’s story on-screen and in workplaces across many sectors and on major projects.  She has spoken internationally, travelling to Australia and widely throughout Europe.  And has delivered her brother’s story on-screen to workplaces globally. In the last year alone it has made a positive impact in health and safety leadership, culture and practices from the west coast of the USA, through Central and South America, across Europe and Asia, and on to Australia. She is a NEBOSH Ambassador and has previously been named the UK’s Most Influential Person in Health and Safety by SHP Magazine. Louise is also a trustee of health and safety charity Scottish Hazards, where she is focussed on securing long-term funding for an occupational health and safety advice, training and support service for workers. Her primary aim in all she does is to stop anyone else from losing their life or their loved one in a preventable workplace incident.  

For more information: [email protected]

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