Safety? No, we’ve got real work to do. Safety’s EXTRA!

I once interviewed for a Safety Manager position at a chemical production facility. It was a nightmare. At one point I found myself sitting alone in the plant manager’s office waiting for over an hour for him to show up.

When he finally did show, he proceeded to tell me that he didn’t have time to see me. But being the gracious and kind man he was, he suggested that if I wanted to hang around (for another few hours), he’d meet me at a bar down the street and we could talk then. I declined, but as I got up to leave he said something that stuck with me.

“You know,” he said. “I think the safety program is good when I have no idea what the Safety Man does.” Maybe that was bait, but I tend to think he was serious. That thought is what I’m going to tackle today.

If that guy was being serious about his position I’m willing to bet it’s because he actually has no idea what a good Safety Professional should do. I’m also willing to bet that there are thousands more like him. And you know what? It’s your fault.

It’s actually the safety profession’s fault at large, so don’t get your panties in a bunch just yet. This post could easily become a book chapter (or two…), so let me keep it pointed: Take a second and think about how your organization talks safety.

Is the conversation a two second blurb about the occurrence (or lack) of injuries from the previous day? Is it a check the box activity and then a quick reminder to “pay attention to your surroundings” before you send the crew out to do the real work? Or is it a meaningful, detailed discussion about what actions need to be taken in order to successfully (and safely) navigate the day.

If that conversation is anything other than the latter, safety isn’t important, it’s extra. It’s time to change the way we talk safety.

In my next post, I’m going to start breaking down some of the common pitfalls that we make which perpetuate the “Safety’s Extra” mentality. Until then check out IT’S A GIANT SLINGSHOT, SIR! and start thinking about getting down to business and really doing what matters.

SAFETY IS TIRED, LET’S MAKE IT RELENTLESS

134192

Truth be told, I’m tired so I couldn’t think up anything wittier to title this post. Daylight Savings can bite me.

In any case, since I’m just getting off the ground with this new blog and a new book which (if all the stars align) should see publication sometime later in the year, I figured it would be worth spending some time explaining a bit. My name is Jason Maldonado. I’ve worked in Industrial Safety for the past 15 years. Before that, as you may have gathered from my first post IT’S A GIANT SLINGSHOT, SIR!, I served in the United States Air Force. 

The reason I mention that is not simply to identify as a Veteran or get likes. It’s because that period of my life taught me the majority of the best lessons in leadership that I’ve had the pleasure to learn. In actually some of the best examples of great safety performance were demonstrated during my time in the military as well. Sadly, when I transitioned to civilian life, I walked into a world of regulation, interpretation, numbers games, politics, and gray areas. The difference between safety performance in the military vs. safety performance where I work now was incredibly simple, yet deeply profound: we were safe when we served because we had to be to live. That statement holds just as true in civilian industry, but our people just don’t believe it. 

I’m not going to throw shade on every man and woman out there trying to make a difference in the lives of the workers, I have seen and worked with some truly amazing safety practitioners throughout the years. But even the best of us send the wrong message more than we should. We are on a tightrope with a balancing pole that caries mandated regulations on one side and meaningful work on the other. For too long the safety profession has tried to sell OSHA to the people when we should have been finding ways to comply while creating momentum and excitement for why and how the job gets done. We should have been building safety in, not making it a checklist to mark off during a pre-shift. What we’ve been left with is “Safety” as an extra, burdensome, bureaucratic thing that gets in the way. 

So that’s what this blog is about: Challenging the status-quo state of our profession. I know there are many out there seeking and even achieving greatness beyond the bureaucracy, so I’m not alone in this. It’s time for safety as a function to get better, relentlessly.

If you liked this post check out THIS ARTICLE by the always engaging Phil La Duke.

IT’S A GIANT SLINGSHOT, SIR!

Master Sergeant Brent walked into my shop on a tear. He was flustered, foul-mouthed and had no time for my BS. Not that I had an opportunity to change my regular course or mode, but I did at least get five seconds of warning as he loudly entered the bay.

“Maldo! Have you seen an update to the tech manual for the Sparrow missiles? It’s missing and support says you’ve got it.”

“No sir,” I replied hastily. I could tell he was in no mood and I had secrets. “My guys don’t use that one. Did you check Air to Air?”

If I recall correctly, it was near the end of May or June in 2004. I was on the home stretch of my one year tour in South Korea while serving in the United States Air Force. I had progressed rapidly through that first assignment and was finishing out the year as crew chief of the Air to Ground missile crew of the Precision Guided Munitions (PGM) shop. Air to Air was the bay next door. They seldom worked on Sparrow missiles, but if anyone would have had a need for the manual it would have been them. My bay was spit-shined and ready for inspection when he walked in, so initially, I didn’t think he’d dig too deep. Evidently, though, he had been given an order from on high and needed the manual ASAP. I later learned that there was a rush update that had been sent down which needed his stamp and had to be dated no later than that day (Friday).

What that actually meant was that the Airman whose job it was to update our manuals had dropped the ball and forgotten to do the time-sensitive task. Sgt. Brent was trying to save both himself and that Airman from a royal ass chewing by getting it done on time. In any case, there he was in my bay, looking for an update to a manual that had been cleverly stowed away on the corner of that support Airman’s desk. He’d left a few days earlier to go home for his mid-tour leave, so there was no way to interrogate him. I took the hit instead.

Sgt. Brent eyed my perfectly arranged workbench. I had painstakingly staged a “battle” between an army of lead seal men and lead seal bugs which I had fashioned using our shop vice and piles of used lead inspection seals. Each missile which was put into storage was sealed using a metal tie wrap with a stamped lead seal on the end of it to indicate the missile had passed inspection. I had spent my year collecting the broken seals and made art with them in my free time. He had no interest in those on that particular Friday, though.

He began rummaging through the stacks of work orders I had in folders on the bench, leaving them in disarray. I twitched a little knowing I would have to re-organize them before my supervisor would sign off. Mostly though I wanted Sgt Brent to go away. I didn’t dislike the man in any way. Quite opposite, actually. I looked up to him more than most leaders I’ve had throughout my career (still do). I wanted him to go away because of my secrets.

Not finding his quarry on the bench, he began forcefully opening the drawers one by one. He started on the left side, sliding open the small bin at the top which held pens and markers. Nothing there. That drawer slammed shut and was immediately followed by the larger middle drawer. No dice there either.

“I’m sure it’s not in there Sgt. Brent. We don’t use that one.” He wasn’t dissuaded.

Continuing on, he opened the largest of the drawers on the left. Aside from a few improperly stored cans of spray paint, there wasn’t anything that interested him in there either. Then he transitioned to the other side and I began holding my breath.

The first drawer yielded nothing. The second, nothing. Then he opened the bottom drawer on the right side of my bench. It looked odd, but not too odd. In fact, he even began shut it again, noting that the drawer was empty. But something made him pause, and reopen the drawer. For a second we both stared into the empty chasm, he perplexed, me nervous.

I pretended like I didn’t know the drawer had a false bottom and just crossed my fingers. It didn’t work though. Sgt. Brent finally noticed the anomaly and focused his gaze on the far left corner of the bottom of the drawer. It looked conspicuously like a finger hole one might use to gain access to a lower hidden level beneath the bottom of the drawer (it was). Inquisitively, he set all risk of appendage loss aside and surrendered his finger to the hole. With almost no pressure, the false bottom popped out and revealed my secrets (secret actually, but it was a big one). I furrowed my brow and waited.

At an agonizingly slow speed, he began to pull handfuls of orange rubber rope out of the drawer. In total, the device was about 15 feet long, had loops at either end and a large canvas “bowl” in the middle. One who was of a creative mind might imagine such a thing being stretched out, attached to two solid objects/posts (bay door bollards for instance), and then pulled taught by the canvas apparatus (perhaps with some sort of payload in tow).

Sgt. Brent looked at me and then back at the device. “What in the holy hell is this, Maldo?” I sighed and took a breath.

“It. It’s a giant slingshot, sir.” It was awesome! I could tell he wanted to use it but knew it wouldn’t be professional. We had actually kept that secret for at least a good six months. My guys had made it one night on swing shift out of a damaged rubber seal from a missile container. We had easily shot items over our 30’ blast walls to distances of more than 100 yds.

Sgt. Brent shook his head and I braced for impact. Instead, he began coiling the orange rubber rope around his shoulder the way an electrician wraps up an extension cord. As he finished he gently placed it back into the drawer and replaced the false bottom. With a grin, he looked at me.

“Maldo, I swear to God, if you weren’t on your way out of here,” he closed the drawer without continuing the thought and walked back out. A few minutes later, the manual update was “discovered” in support and the crisis was averted.

I don’t know how long that slingshot lasted, but I heard rumors of its existence throughout the next extent of my six-year enlistment (possibly beyond). If Sgt. Brent had thrown it away, I doubt I would even bother telling that story. I’m telling that story now for two reasons: The first is because it entertains me (hopefully it made you chuckle too). The second is a little more obscure. The second reason I tell that story is because it provides a glimpse of a leader who made a small, seemingly insignificant choice. He did it while working under duress and trying to uphold a strict deadline. He could easily have channeled all of that into my horseplay/violation/immaturity (whatever one might call it), but he chose instead to let it go and focus on what mattered. How often are we as leaders presented with choices like that one? How often do we focus on what matters?

%d bloggers like this: