Nuts & Bolts No One Can Find: Part 2

They all live here now…

If you give the ideas I talked about in Part 1 a fair shake, it’s a good bet that your work planning is off to a good start. I’ll be honest, many organizations or at least certain crews within an organization really do a pretty good job at it already. But, whether you’re just beginning to improve your process or already great at it, there’s a hidden hazard that can derail even the best plan: Making sure everyone knows how to put it into action. 

Since I’m sure you’re keeping with the model I talked about in Part 1, you’ve already asked the key questions that have helped you map out the job. So, now your people know what they are doing, how they are supposed to do it, what tools they need to do it, and how someone could be injured. In order to make that stick, there are five actions you need to take.

  1. Verify your people know the job: You’ve already laid out what the job is, but it’s crucial that people know how to do it. As with the questions, this may seem like a dumb task, but knowledge shouldn’t be taken for granted. Is anyone on your crew new in their role? Is this a task that hasn’t been done for a long time? Have conditions or configurations changed since the last time it was done? These are the questions that often go unasked, and can lead to accidents if not addressed.
  2. Remove unnecessary complication: This is probably the least intuitive step of the process. It requires a bit of surveying on site coupled with some critical reasoning. What I’m driving at is really quite simple though. I’m talking about removing the hose that everyone has stepped over a hundred times, or staging the workers in zones to prevent them from getting in each other’s way. It might even be a simple thing that people don’t even realize is in their way. A good example of that was the Airman who stood outside in the rain for three hours because he had reported to duty five minutes late and arrived to find a shut door. He didn’t try to open it because he assumed it was locked (it wasn’t). My point is that you open all of the shut doors standing in the way of your people completing their tasks.
  3. Gather all your parts and tools and lay them out: During the planning, you’ve identified what you need to do the job. In this step, you actually go get it, organize it, and make it accessible to the crew. The better you are at doing this, the less likely your people will experience frustration when they can’t find the right screwdriver or they’re missing a crecent wrench.
  4. Identify upset conditions: Assuming the plan was good, and it should be if you follow the format, you have a pretty good idea of what to expect. With this step, you should be looking for anything abnormal. For instance, if you planned to work on a section of steam piping which was to be locked out and bled, you may have expected that the valves would seal completely. If you discover once work is underway that one of the valves is leaking by because it is damaged and won’t close completely, you need to stop and reassess. You may have to reassess several times. The key is recognizing when you need to do it.
  5. Plan for failure, stack the odds in your favor: This step directly corresponds with the brainstorming your crew did when you were planning the work. Since you’ve identified the things that could cause someone to be injured, you now have the opportunity to put safeguards in place to prevent that from happening. If you know that there is a good likelihood someone could come into contact with chemicals, maybe the right thing to do is to set up an exclusion zone and then provide PPE designed for that specific hazard and an emergency action plan to be used in the event of an exposure. Look for areas where people could easily make mistakes, and then alter the process in a way that will minimize the consequences when that happens. A great, and easy example of this can be found in any gym. If you watch an experienced lifter squat in a squat rack, you’ll see them set the safety bars in a position where they can easily “dump” the bar and abort the lift if they’re not going to make it. People with less experience just grab the bar and go (and subsequently end up on “gym fail” videos).

If you approach job planning the way I’ve outlined in these two posts, you’re likely to experience two very profound side effects. First, the risk of personal injury will be reduced significantly. Second, and only slightly less important, your people will be engaged and more productive. 

I never would have thought that my Dad’s cans of nuts and bolts could have illustrated such an important lesson. The crazy part, as I alluded to in Part 1, is that it’s not a “safety” lesson. Planning and organizing your work is just a good way to conduct business. As you can tell from the picture, my Dad learned that lesson. The only downside is that my kids won’t have the joy of rummaging through a coffee can when they help Grandpa with a project.

As promised, I’ve included a free planning worksheet with this post. Feel free to download and use it as much as possible. You’ll be glad you did. If it helps (it will), drop me a note at jason@relentlesssafety.com and let me know what your people think.

Nuts & Bolts No One Can Find: Part 1

This can is probably older than me…

When I was growing up, my dad had about a half dozen Folgers coffee cans full of old nuts, bolts, screws, and other random metal things. The collection consisted of the extras from every car project, every trip to the hardware store, every new piece of furniture; he’d even pick up poor little metal orphans off the street. I was at his house this past weekend and noticed one of them in his shed.

I can remember ‘helping’ him on projects when he’d hold up a bolt and say “find a nut that fits this.” Then hours of endless searching would ensue until I found that one perfect nut. I hated those cans.

Seeing them got me thinking about all the nuts we deal with in the safety field. I’m not just talking about all the crazy people that still think Heinrichs triangle is a real thing either. I’m talking about the parts and pieces of our safety programs. In this post, I want to talk through one of the most simple, innocuous, and seemingly well-intentioned pieces that nearly every company employs in one way or another: The Job Hazard Analysis (JHA). 

It’s one of the safety staples that everyone touts, and some even brag about. One of the foundational cornerstones of any good Safety Program. One of the essential Nuts and Bolts that holds any good safety machine together. 

People call them all different sorts of things. It could be labeled a Pre-Task Plan or Standard Operating Procedure. Maybe it’s a Task Risk Analysis where you work. Whatever your organization calls it, it’s there to help workers mitigate risk. Or is it? If you looked at it from the perspective of the nuts and bolts analogy, could you say for sure that you found the right nut and the right bold from your Folgers can? 

I tend to make weird correlations in my mind, so I realize that probably doesn’t quite make a whole bunch of sense. Let me break it down.

Let’s use the example of a JHA that comes in the form of a “Pre-Job Checklist.” It’s something your employees complete every morning before they get at it. The supervisor dutifully reads down the list, and the crew nods along as he checks YES or NO next to each line. I’m sure you’ve all seen the ritual. 

“Any fall hazards? Yes” 

“Everyone got their proper PPE? Yes” What does proper mean anyway? Nevermind, I’ll save that for later.

“Work at height hazards? No” And on it goes until they reach the end of the list and then pass the paper around for everyone to sign. You know, because signing stuff makes you safer…

What I just described is an exercise designed to protect the legal interest of the company, not the lives of its workers. On rare occasions, you might find an outstanding supervisor or two who makes a point to go beyond the checklist, but the only thing an activity like that does is cover the company’s ass. Plenty disagree with me on that, and I welcome the debate. Especially the ones who are quick to note how effective pre-flight checklists are. Here’s a note of caution on that line of thinking: PEOPLE AREN’T AIRPLANES! I can talk for hours about checklists (and I don’t just say that to convince you how interesting of a person I am).

If you’re willing to think beyond the checklist, consider this. What else could that conversation look like that would make it valuable to the worker? I submit that the answer is very (almost childishly) simple. Just discuss the work and how it will be done. It should look like this: 

What is our job today? Here the crew describes what they have to do. Are we replacing a pump? Great. How is that done? 

What do we need to get it done? Here the crew lists out and strategizes about what they need. Do you need parts from the stockroom? What size wrenches are required? Do we have all of the gaskets and lubricants needed to put it together?

Who’s doing what? Here roles are assigned. For simpler tasks, this may seem dumb since everyone should already know what they’re doing. Maybe. But calling it out will keep people from wandering around without purpose, doing ‘stuff’ to stay busy, and walking all over each other.

How could someone get hurt during this job? Here the crew brainstorms. They should talk about areas where extra coordination and communication is needed as well as considerations for other people who may be in the area. 

How do we make sure that doesn’t happen? Here the crew should discuss the measures they will take to account for the risk they just brainstormed about.

That’s all it takes. If you engage in discussions like the one I just laid out, you begin to engage your workers in the process. Not only that, but you’ve just taken the first steps toward “building safety in” to the process rather than allowing it to just be something EXTRA. You may not have noticed, but only two of the questions I asked had a safety specific connotation. By talking about things like tools, tasks, and strategy people will begin to get the idea that safety isn’t just “1st” and then on to the real work. They will begin to think of the safety elements as steps in the process. It’s a simple shift in thinking, but an important one.  

There’s one more pretty incredible thing about my Dad’s collection of scraps that’s worth special mention. I was so in awe of the vintage 80’s Foldgers can that he has been hanging onto since I was a kid that it almost didn’t click. I’ll cover that in Nuts & Bolts No One Can Find: Part 2. I purposely left out some really important things in this post, so make sure you check it out. Also, I’ll be giving away a free downloadable tool you can use to facilitate your Nuts and Bolts discussions.  

Safety is KILLING us!

Workers Deserve Better


The data used in this post was taken from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) news release dated December 18, 2018. The numbers are staggering, but so is Industry’s response. And not in a good way. We can do better.

Workers Deserve Better

In December 2018 the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that from 2016 to 2017 worker fatalities were “down slightly” from 5,190 to 5,147. They went on to describe that only 3.5 workers per 100,000 died at work in 2017 as opposed to 3.6 in 2016. I’m not going to beat around the bush on this, those numbers are appalling. The fact that anyone saw fit to even try to cast a positive light on 5,147 human beings being killed while they try to provide for themselves and their families is downright disgusting. And all of it is our fault.

Let me explain what I mean by that. I’ve spent my career working in Industrial Safety & Health. We call ourselves Safety Professionals, but we are known by many different titles: Safety Officer, Safety Manager, Health & Safety Coordinator, Safety guy/girl, you name it. Most everyone who has held a job in this country has at least had a loose connection to someone in my field. We’re the ones who write all the safety rules, tell people they’re not wearing their safety glasses, fire people for violating OSHA requirements, and on and on. But we should be the ones protecting people.

Don’t get me wrong, there are many who strive day in and day out who do just that. But even the best among us have fallen into what I call the “compliance trap.” We get so wrapped up in the rules we make (or the ones our companies are required by law to abide by), that we forget about the people those rules are designed to safeguard. Not too long ago, I was told that a company can’t even begin to get “good” at safety until it is great at (OSHA) compliance. I find that fundamentally backward and potentially life-threateningly harmful to employees.

There are two distinct issues at play here. The first is legal compliance. The second is actual worker safety. Let’s start with compliance.

While I would never argue against being OSHA (or any other governing agency) compliant, I will argue until I turn blue that complying with their laws does not directly correlate with worker safety. Compliance is required, that’s without question. But compliance needs to rest on the shoulders of organizations, not individual workers. There are three things people miss when trying to sell compliance as a fatality prevention measure:

  1. OSHA enforcement is directed toward companies, not workers. An employee rarely has any personal motivation to comply.
  2. OSHA regulations are laws and written as such. Even if a worker was motivated enough to read them, there is nothing within them to envoke an emotional response powerful enough to make someone want to buy in. The rules may tell someone what they can or cannot do, but they don’t explain why (or how).
  3. Compliance “feels” oppressive. No one wants to be told what to do. Workers need a reason to invest their energy and will likely resist if they feel forced.

Now let’s look at what real worker safety means. I mentioned already that compliance is the organization’s responsibility. It would be easy to read into that statement and assume that I mean to say the worker is absolved of responsibility, but that is entirely false. Workers have the personal responsibility to perform to their safest ability while working within the compliant environment their organization owes them. The trick is getting them to buy in. Someone like me can yell OSHA at a worker all day long like its some four-letter curse, but the truth is OSHA just doesn’t mean anything to most people. Most people only care about what matters to them. For some it’s family, for some it’s fishing, but everyone has a vested interest in not dying. Meaning most of us enjoy living.

If companies would invest more time in figuring out what it is that people live for, appeal to those things, and then show them why working safely will allow them to continue those activities, we might actually see worker deaths decrease. My point is simple: compliance is required and safety is required but they’re distinctly separate things. Help me spread that message and actually make a difference in the lives of American workers. It’s far past time we do.  

If you’re looking for a practical way to help jumpstart the process, check out THIS POST

THE S#!%TY SCAFFOLD SAGA: PART 2

If you’re not caught up on the story, YESTERDAY’S POST will get you there. It’s important… READ IT!

Most would have been satisfied with a job well done and a hard-fought victory after having rid the site of those awful step things. But that would have required that one never go back out onto the site and look at that condition of the scaffold that had replaced all of the franken-lifts. It was awful. And I don’t mean just a little awful, it was reaching onto the table to grab your water bottle and instead accidentally swigging a mouthful of undiluted vinegar awful (laugh if you will, my son actually did that today… I won’t judge, I laughed too). This was the most broken down, rusted out, dried out, split board scaffold ever erected on a construction site. The conditions weren’t our primary beef though. We chose to hang our hats on an OSHA compliance issue: daily inspection.

Even now looking back and citing 29 CFR 1926.451(f)(3) – Scaffolds and scaffold components shall be inspected for visible defects by a competent person before each work shift, and after any occurrence which could affect a scaffold’s structural integrity seemed like a pretty solid regulatory bet.

Sometimes I wish they let us carry swords… it would make debates more interesting.

The argument was simple. The contractor postulated that daily inspections (actually pre-use inspections) were only required if the scaffold were to be used on a given day. Our position was that every scaffold needed a pre-use inspection every day regardless of use. This may have been a stretch of the compliance language, but we did it because we knew our enemy (that’s right, I just went Sun Tzu on ya). We knew that they didn’t want to waste the manpower doing “meaningless” inspections. We also knew that every single scaffold was actually being used every day because no penny-pinching GC worried about wasting time on inspections would actually waste real money to rent scaffold that wasn’t being used. That and we had caught numerous people on the uninspected scaffold.

Lines were drawn in the sand and we took our sides. The client, always the opportunist decided to side with our GC. We did our due diligence though and prepared case studies, photographs of the rundown scaffold components, “examples” of people using uninspected scaffolds, you name it. The issue became so heightened that the GC went as far as to enlist the local OSHA consultation division as their expert resource and standard interpreter. I won’t go as far as to document my speculations about backdoor dealings (wait, did I just do that?), but the whole thing got… dirty.

When it all came to a head, Nick was summoned to a meeting with all of the highest stakeholders. The owner of the GC and their OSHA Representation, the client, and our VP were all in attendance. We sent him into battle armed to the teeth with an infallible case. But it was all for naught. The decision had been made before he had even set one foot into that room. What was supposed to be a civil debate, was a violent debasing. Nick had been all but tarred and feathered by the time he left the room. 

The three of us who made up Nick’s team were sitting at our traditional meeting place (the Safety Table) waiting for him to return. He stormed in like the 6’4” 70-year-old tornado he was.

“That is the last time I will ever walk into a room with those people and fight a losing battle like that,” He was red-faced and furious. “You guys set me up!” The other two sat in disbelief of what they had just heard as I instinctively replied.

Always wear wristbands when yelling

“That’s bullshit, Nick,” I yelled. “What about all that ‘I’ll back you guys up, crap?” The rest of our conversation isn’t worth repeating, but let’s just say it devolved into a screaming match between me (the lowest ranking member of the team) and our Sr. Safety Manager, with the latter storming off in anger when we hit a standstill.

The team was still reeling when he returned after cooling off a few minutes later. I vividly remember still being angry as “Mr. K”  was “coaching” me about how inappropriate it had been to argue with the boss the way I had. Not surprisingly, though, Nick walked in during his speech and stopped him mid-sentence.

“No, Jase was right. I’ve always told you guys I would back you up and I didn’t do that today,” Nick was a hard man, but also incredibly wise and humble. “You deserve better than that and I’m sorry.”

There are numerous leadership lessons I’ve carried with me since that exchange. For one I learned that sometimes it’s ok to yell at your boss. On the other hand, you better be ready to take what comes your way when you do.

The most important thing was realizing that my heroes are human. They get things wrong just like we all do. But the leaders who can rise beyond their mistakes and admit when they are wrong are the ones people choose to follow into battle and trust with their lives.

How often have you heard, seen, or even just felt that a leader (maybe even you) simply says the right things with no intention of backing them up? That leader may never be put to the test the way Nick was, so you may never know their intentions. Even less likely is the chance that person will be called to the carpet when they don’t measure up (most people have a better filter than I do and would have kept quiet). The trick is this, however: to be a good leader you have to figure out how to prove your intentions. Words are just that. As trite and cliche as it may sound, actions are an entirely different thing.

Think about it this way. If someone who worked for you today was asked to explain the thing that most impressed them about your leadership would they have a story to tell? Would it be a good story? Or, would they just remember your favorite leadership buzzwords?  

Safety Professionals must get better at leadership. Not for the reason’s you might think, though. We’re not the ones who will change the tide and create cultures that actually make worker’s safer, our leaders will do that. We need to be equipt to teach them how to do it. There’s much more on that to come. In the meantime, be like Nick and do what you say you’ll do.

THE S#!%TY SCAFFOLD SAGA: PART 1

The best leader I’ve ever worked for broke the first promise he ever made to me. The story took quite a while to play out, so I’ll be posting this one in two parts. If you get nothing else out of these next two posts, they should at least remind you that even great leaders make mistakes. I’m sure that shocks no one.

But why is it, then, that those of us who have chosen the path of leadership want to seem infallible?

One of the most important things I’ve learned throughout my career is that even the most brilliant, eloquent, and headstrong leaders are hopelessly lost more often than they like to admit. That’s what makes it hard to live up to the standards we set for ourselves. Taking the path of less resistance and sticking with the status quo is a tempting option when faced with making a tough choice and standing against all odds just to maintain your integrity. Especially when there’s no guarantee you’ll make the right choice. Even more so when there’s not really any danger of your decision being second-guessed… because you’re doing what anyone else would do, right?

Back to the story…

Nick, our new manager, showed up and gave us a quick and dirty rundown. His philosophy was simple: we were one team; his team. Any decision we made out on site whether right or wrong was a decision he would support. He made it clear, however, that if we were wrong we would go into an isolated office somewhere and have “words.” But he would always have our backs. That meant we would not be questioned in front of the client or even any of our other coworkers. It was a promise we all believed. It was what every choice we executed was based upon. It was our source of strength and unwavering confidence, but it was never tested.

Truth be told, that promise was more than just a source of strength, it was a silent partnership and a huge responsibility. We knew instinctively that our choices out on site were a direct reflection of our leader, and no one (not even the consummate people-pleaser of the group, “Mr. K”) took that responsibility lightly. So most of our choices were good ones. Or at the very least, very well researched, exhaustively educated guesses.

All went swimmingly for a time until one day when we noticed a disturbing trend on our site. We were acting as “Agent for the Owner” on a multi-billion dollar construction super-project. It was highly political, highly contentious, and always high stakes. One of our General Contractors (GC) had a reputation for killing people who were working at height. It hadn’t happened at our location, but we were always on the lookout for trends that had caused deaths on other sites.

One trend that came up alarmingly fast were the miles of scaffold that seemed to show up overnight. They filled every hallway, climbed to every ceiling, and cantilevered over every balcony.

When they appeared, we were already battle worn and weary from having spent nearly 18 months battling the GC about their less than compliant methods for using scissor lifts. Problem numero uno being that they had fabricated steps that were fastened to the rails of every lift to allow workers to climb to greater heights. When added to their policy that did not require those workers to wear fall protection while working in those lifts, we spent more time than should have been warranted trying to reign them in. They knew the practice was wrong, but time was money, and workers with steps on their rails got more work done.

That continued until one man fell out onto his head at a height of 22 ft. He lived (thankfully) and we were finally given the ok by the owner to crack down. The GC’s answer? Scaffold. Everywhere.

Click HERE for the conclusion to this story. I can guarantee this much: it’s not at all what you’re going to expect. Also feel free to check out some of my most recent posts. If you like what you read, please subscribe. And by all means, please share… 

PROBES AND VIOLATIONS: A COMPARISON

Ok. I’m not going where you think I’m going with this. But nor am I above shameless click-bait. So, let’s talk about probes!

Of course, I’m talking about Ph probes used for recording scientific data. Are there even any other kinds of probes?

To be clear, we’re discussing one of the probes pictured on the right. Get your mind out of the gutter.

Now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s set the stage. You work at a manufacturing facility. For years, technicians have been using probes to test Ph. Recently there was a change to the process. A simple change, mind you, but one with big implications.

Since Monday (hypothetically speaking of course), technicians have been required to attach the Ph probes and their leads to a probe stand like the one in the picture above. The change is being made to prevent contamination and/or potential breakage of the probe. In the past, the probes were not captive and had frequently broken. In support of this initiative, each sample station is being given a sanitary container in which the buffer liquid cup can be stored without spilling.

Today, you have the task of auditing this new practice for compliance. You go to the first station and it’s perfect. Second, perfect. Then you come upon the third station. The technician there is hurriedly scurrying about and doesn’t have time for your intrusion. You start to walk by and then notice that his probe is not attached to the stand. In fact, he has reverted to the old practice of placing the buffer cup and probe in the permanent holder at the top of the station. You cite the violation, inform him, and leave.

I’m well aware that nothing like that ever occurs in a work environment but just go with me on this journey for a moment. If something like that had occurred at your facility, wouldn’t you want to know why? Many of you reading this “get it” on a fundamental level so I won’t insult you. But if even one person out there is content to just cite without understanding, then this needs to be said. 

I mentioned the technician being in a hurry for a reason. If this example were real (totally fabricated, trust me), one might have noticed that he had placed the cup and probe in the old location because his new holder was gone. An inquisitive observer might then have asked him why he wasn’t using the new stand. Although that is an inherently dumb question (yes, they exist), it would prompt the technician to explain that he didn’t want the buffer cup to spill and the stand would not reach to the old holder. He would also explain that his new holder had been taken before his shift. Easy.

So now let’s draw that comparison. If all of this had been some sort of safety issue, how many Safety “Professionals” would have probed (see what I did there…) deeper and figured out why the violation had occurred? What if the buffer was a highly volatile acid that had a flash-point of -2 and could melt through your hand while at the same time spontaneously combusting it? Would the conversation have been civil, or emotion-driven due to the extreme risk that technician had placed everyone in? 

Here’s a simple truth: People are task-based. We’re driven to complete tasks, not assess the risks associated with them. I would even argue that we don’t consciously assess risks as we encounter them. We either plan for them up front (build risk mitigation into the task) or react to them as they happen. 

When the operator “violated” the new policy, he did it in the interest of completing the task. To some degree, he even did it to mitigate risk (the buffer cup spilling). In his case, however, the system failed him and he was faced with a choice: a) do it “correctly” and risk spilling his cup or b) do it the old way and finish the task. 

How much better could we be at accounting for error and avoiding problems if we looked at the world through the lens of the worker rather than trying to spot what they are doing wrong? If you don’t practice this already, give it a shot. It may surprise you. In the meantime, if you haven’t already, check out SAFETY IS TIRED, LET’S MAKE IT RELENTLESS.

Mom made me do something REALLY dangerous!

A while back I conned convinced my wife that it was time to upgrade our TV. I mean, it was completely justified since we hadn’t bought one for almost 8 years (don’t ask me if the old one still works, that’s irrelevant). In any case, she let me go to the store (alone no less) and sent pictures representing different size TVs so I could make an informed decision.

As soon as I got home my daughter ran up and grabbed my hand, pulling me into the corner and whispering “Dad! Mom made me do something REALLY dangerous!” Since I’d seen the pictures already, I knew she was talking about having stood on the TV stand (you know, the thing designed to support a 100 lb TV). 

I thanked my daughter for letting me know and then we talked about it for a minute. I asked her to explain why she thought it was unsafe and what she would have done differently. In the end, she came to the conclusion that what had been done was OK. The key is that she now knew why. I know not everyone would agree that letting her do that was a safe activity, but the alternative would have been to have her stand on a ladder (a tool she’s not all that familiar with) and try to balance while holding the tape measure. That’s a bit riskier in my mind. 

I run into things like this all the time when I’m working in the field. An employee will rush up to me in a frenzy and explain the egregiously unsafe thing the are expected to do. After evaluation, though the task may seem weird, it’s actually not a big risk. Part of our jobs as Safety Pros is to make those calls and help people understand why that HUGE THING (at least in their mind) isn’t. Never discourage those conversations or blow them off though. They are the perfect opportunity to help people understand the difference between something annoying and something that will kill you. 

Here’s to a great weekend, everyone. Recharge and relax. Next week’s challenges await.  

SCREW YOU GUYS, I’M WATCHING SPONGEBOB…

“That’s not my problem,” Sgt. Green shrugged. “I didn’t lose it. I’m going inside and watching SpongeBob. Screw you guys!”

Those of you who served in the military probably won’t be surprised, but Sgt. Green had a funny way of saying ‘screw you’ that sounded remarkably like ‘F-you.’ As soon as he’d said it, he walked inside and left us to sort out our conundrum.

This is one of those Korea Leadership lessons that has stuck with me over the years. I figured it would be a good change of pace just in case anyone’s gotten the idea that I’m only interested in bashing the poor examples of Safety Professionals out there. As I get farther into this thing, you’ll see quite a few posts about leadership. Because without it, there’s no point in even trying to get better at safety. 

We’ve pulled safety so far apart from everything else in our businesses, that it’s tempting to believe you can be a great leader and have someone else handle safety for you. That’s just not true. A good leader might have someone write his speeches for him, but he (or she) damn well better execute flawlessly. That means living safety just as much as one lives profit, production, quality, etc. Most of this blog is aimed at helping the safety professional write better speeches (so to speak), but the leadership of any given organization is the critical piece to making those speeches resonate. You get my drift. 

In any case, Sgt. Green had a right to be mad that night. We had committed a CARDINAL (someone remind me to post about that word one day) sin. In the Air Force, one of the highest priorities is protecting assets, both human and machine. Obviously, the machine assets come with some hefty price tags, so you can imagine how much emphasis might be put on, say… not having a wrench sucked into the engine of an F-16. Every tool that could possibly come into contact with the flightline had to be tagged, tracked, and accounted for every day, every shift. We had some pretty simple tricks and even more robust systems for accomplishing that task, but the long and short of it was that no one ever went home until every tool had been accounted for. 

That night, our swing-shift crew had killed it and inspected over 150 missiles. That number might not impress you, and in all honesty, the inspection part of the task was a quick thing. What wasn’t quick was pulling all of the missiles out of storage, putting them on a trailer, tying said trailer down (per regulation tie-down configuration), driving them to our shop, taking them off the trailer, and then painstakingly opening the containers. That was the hardest part. The containers were made of fiberglass and rusted metal that had sat in storage since (in some cases) the 1960s. Nothing lined up and two or more guys had to pry the bolts loose to open the box, then muscle them back into place once the inspection was done. All of this being done while praying some idiot didn’t do something stupid like shatter one of the protective covers on the front of the unit. 

Like I said, we had killed it! I was driving the forklift that night and remember driving into the bay to scoop up the last missile and seeing a look of panic on the face of the Airman who was doing tool inventory. I parked the lift and went over to help, but my heart sunk as soon as I walked up to him. 

“We’re missing a crescent wrench,” he said softly. I looked at my watch and noted that we were already 45 minutes past the end of our shift. From that point the rest of the crew went into panic mode and tried to find the missing tool. Until Sgt. Green walked back in.

“What’s taking you guys so long? Let’s go home.” He knew there was an issue, but I’m sure he wanted to rub it in a bit before someone delivered the news. He had been in the next bay handling some smaller jobs in order for the rest of us keep focused and get our work done. Everyone went silent and waited for someone else to speak up. Finally, the same Airman I had spoken to broke it to him. That’s the point at which he decided to go watch SpongeBob. 

We spent the next three hours re-opening and re-inspecting EVERY SINGLE UNIT in the exact reverse order we had begun earlier that night. Sgt. Green watched AFN (Armed Forces Network) the entire time. He came out once to check and gave us some more funky sounding ‘screw yous,’ but for the most part, we toiled alone. And we found nothing…

It was nearly four in the morning when I pulled the last load of two missiles (stacked on top of each other like Legos) into the bay. I backed the lift up and raised my mast, then forward again to lift the top missile off. As I tilted my forks back a loud, resounding metal CLANK echoed through the bay. The wrench had been sitting on the lip of that last missile. Sequentially, that meant that those two missiles were the first two we had inspected. So yes, we had lost the wrench at the very start.

You’re probably reading this thinking that I’m going to give you some predictable line about how Sgt. Green wasn’t a good leader because he didn’t have his troops’ backs. That he wasn’t willing to get down and dirty and do the hard work. That’s certainly what we all felt that night (and said in our own funky version of screw you, repeatedly).

But the real leadership lesson is actually quite the opposite. Sgt. Green happened to be one of the best examples of a leader I’ve ever worked for. I’m not even sure he was aware of how good he was. The real lesson is accountability. He had given us a job to do, and expectations regarding the quality of work required of us. The simplest of our tasks that night was to maintain accountability of our tools, and we had not done that. Sgt. Green made us own it. Most leaders don’t have the fortitude to do something like that because it means drawing a line in the sand and backing up your words when shit hits the fan. All while suffering through the hate and discontent your people sling at you from the other side of the line. 

If nothing else came of that night, that crew never lost another tool. The amazing thing is, though, that we actually became a team that night. A team that never questioned who their leader was.

What unexpected lessons have you learned from the great leaders in your career? 

ALL accidents are preventable: UNTIL THEY HAPPEN!

Might as well just dive off the deep end, rip off the band-aid and say it. Doc Brown was better at safety than most people who call themselves safety professionals… for one specific reason: He didn’t stay in the past.

I’ve been around and around on this subject more times than I care to admit, but it’s worth the mention. No doubt It will come up in future posts as well, because its a slippery slope that I would be willing to bet 99.99% of Safety Practitioners have fallen prey to. Here’s the scenario: Someone gets hurt, you tell them their accident was preventable.

It might play out a hundred different ways. Maybe you see a surveillance video of a severe injury and the immediate 20/20 hindsight look on the person’s face indicates they “knew better.” Maybe you have some subjective method for ranking the outcome or circumstances around an event which indicate what a “reasonable” person would have done otherwise. My point is that lots of safety people do things like this, and all of them are wrong for doing it.

When you tell someone who is (or has been) injured, you’re not speaking to a system. You’re speaking to a human. A human who had limited to no knowledge of what that one day at that one moment would bring. Sure we all have varying levels of risk perception, but we all miscalculate those risks from time to time. To tell someone who has already been injured that they shouldn’t have been, is just rubbing salt in their wound.

Here’s the thing. Maybe you’re reading this thinking that I’m just playing with semantics. And maybe I am. But if I’m right, and you continue telling workers their actual injuries were preventable, you’re just telling them it was their fault and they were too stupid not to get injured. Is that the kind of Safety Professional people trust?

As you might have noticed, I’m pretty opinionated about this subject. But I think it’s something that’s so deeply, mistakenly rooted in our professional culture, that people don’t even realize it’s a problem. This is a bigger discussion than a quick blog post, but let’s start small. Next time the opportunity arises, try this: Console your injured worker, tell him or her that their only job from that point on is to get better, then actively work to figure out how to prevent it from ever happening again. Don’t mention anything about how preventable it was. Better yet, go out and search for things that could cause harm and get rid of them before they do. That’s where real success lies.

If you like the content of this blog so far, please follow and drop a reply. I’d love to hear your experiences and examples as well. And for all you Millennials who don’t know who Doc Brown is, go watch Back to the Future. You’ll thank me later.

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