I distinctly remember thinking “Holy Shit! That guy just died!!” I had just watched a mini excavator with a bucket attachment swing around and knock a laborer in the hard hat with full force. The laborer dropped faster than a safety guy who hears there are free donuts in the break room, his limp body hitting the ground with a hollow thud. Thankfully he came to as I hurried over to the scene.
Aside from the fact that (thankfully) the guy didn’t die, the most amazing thing about the incident was that the operator didn’t even notice until everyone around him came running over to “help.”
He and the laborer had been working together to excavate a small trench near an existing utility building. The operator would delicately break some soil loose and then wait just long enough for the laborer to remove the spoils with a shovel. They were doing their best not to strike any underground installations.
The two had worked in such perfect synchronization that hardly anyone took notice, let alone realized that their work was particularly dangerous. I was just as guilty as anyone in my complacency. Add to that the fact that the tiny little machine seemed innocuous and borderline cute, and we had a recipe for disaster. Any other heavy equipment on that site would not have even been allowed to be operated with an unprotected human nearby.
There are plenty of takeaways from that little episode. In hindsight, I reflected on a fatality that had occurred involving a slightly larger skid steer just a few months earlier. I kicked myself for not recognizing the danger that had been right in front of me. In speaking to the operator and laborer afterward, they both admitted that they had assumed the other knew what each man was doing and had failed to communicate. But no one recognized the risk.
It’s easy to pinpoint poor behaviors and blame the actions someone takes after an incident occurs. That’s why there are so many safety cops and “investigators” that hang their hats on doing just that. But, it becomes much harder to do when you have to look in the mirror and admit that you made the same error in judgment
The next time you walk through your site, wherever that might be, try this: Look for the “normal” practices that are waiting to smack someone in the head (figuratively or literally). You may find some workers who are taking unnecessary risks but get over that. Identify what those risks are and then figure out why they are taking them. You might be surprised when you figure out why you never noticed the potential for harm. It may well be because you underestimated the risk just like everyone else.
I’m going to keep this one short because I’m in the midst of writing abstracts for the chapters in my book. Big things are headed your way. If you haven’t already, subscribe so you don’t miss a thing. In the meantime, take a look at THIS POST to pass the time.
If you’ve ever had a boss that wasn’t fit to interact with other humans, you’ll identify with this story. I had one that defied imagination. Since I don’t have the kind of money required to fund a libel lawsuit I’ve always referred to him as The Tongue. It’s an appropriate name considering some of the vile things was known for saying.
I was working on the startup phase at the end of a massive construction project. At the time The Tongue came into our lives, my crew had been working together for nearly two years. We had figured each other out and had begun to work well as a team. We had one of the best supervisors I have ever had the privilege of working with, but the powers above decided the crew needed a shake up. Thus, our (good) supervisor was swapped for the site’s troll of an Industrial Hygienist.
We’d had rough dealings with him throughout, but no longer protected by our shield, The Tongue’s full wrath was unleashed. He was mean for the sake of being mean. For example, one day he spotted me on site and grabbed my safety glasses from my face. They were Oakleys that I had gotten in the Air Force. He “knew” that Oakley didn’t make any ANSI approved safety glasses, and was convinced I was violating site rules. I learned that day that he didn’t enjoy being proved wrong.
That Christmas, he insisted that we have a full staff on site every day of the break. On the surface t
He did all kinds of other fun things to torture us. Secretly pitted friends against each other. Put in false ethics complaints with certification boards against people who questioned him. Called us nonsensical names in staff meetings. I’m sure you get the point. He was an ass.
Personalities are an obstacle that everyone faces. If The Tongue being a difficult person was my only gripe, you’d be justified in saying that I’m a little petty and should have just dealt with it. I’m sure pettiness played a role, but his downfall was actually a much bigger issue than personal conflict. As I mentioned, he hated being questioned. In my experience, Safety Professionals who are unwilling to accept they may be wrong cause more harm than good. We’re not all knowing gods. Hell, many of us have never even performed the jobs of those we “advise.”
The real trouble came with his penchant for the arbitrary. The Tongue had spent most of his career in the oppressively burdensome regulatory world of nuclear surety. That mentality (which, I should mention, is warranted in that environment) was something he carried with him as a badge of honor. He made rules about rules and could spew a form or checklist out of any orifice without even having to blink. Until the time he became our supervisor, his rules and forms were confined strictly to things of an Industrial Hygiene nature. No one really questioned any of that as he was clearly the site’s foremost authority. Trouble came, however, when he assigned our crew the task of performing confined space evaluations.
If you recall, the site was transitioning from new construction into
When The Tongue received my evaluation he publicly berated me and made a point to explain to the lab staff how ignorant I was. Not only did he want it labeled a confined space, but a Permit Required Confined Space. Here’s the kicker though. He didn’t want it labeled a PRCS because it was one. He wanted it to be called that because it would make people be more careful around that bank of filters.
That line of reasoning is, unfortunately, none too scarce in the safety world. Safety zealots the world over seem to make it their holy mission to find some arbitrary travesty on which to build their legacy. For some, it’s outfitting an entire company in FR clothing without commensurate risk warranting they do so. For others its spending thousands upon thousands of dollars on new machinery without just cause.
My point in bringing any of this up is that doing things without solid, logical reasoning based on responsible risk analysis diminishes the importance of safety. Workers are smart. They can easily distinguish between what’s done for their protection, and what’s done because some pompous safety peacock wants to show how awesome and super smart he (or she) is. Keep that in mind the next time you think about starting a new initiative. If there’s a truly a risk, go for it. Otherwise, save your showboating for the karaoke machine at the company picnic.
Not too long ago, I had a conversation with a fellow safety “professional” (it’s in quotes because the guy is an absolute turd). I had made the audacious claim that recordable injuries are a terrible measure of safety performance. It’s a conclusion that I did not reach lightly and I tried to explain my logic to him. Most importantly the fact that OSHA outright says it’s not. This guy wouldn’t have it though.
Not only did he inform me that I would never find a company that didn’t measure safety performance based on recordable rates, but also that it was my job to manage those rates in order to keep them low. He went as far as to say that I should tell an employee when they weren’t “really” hurt. To which I replied:
“I’m not a doctor, dude. Neither are you.”
I have to admit, I once thought a lot like my dimwitted colleague. At one time I prided myself in my ability to “manage” injuries on a site. My pride wasn’t without merit, either. Depending on the project, my track record for avoiding an OSHA recordable injury was often near 75%. I knew 29 CFR 1904 inside and out. Every question, every nuance, every interpretation letter, all of it. If an injury occurred and any treatment was given I would agonize over it to make sure I “made the right call” before placing it on my 300 log. Then one day I went to work for one of those mythical companies that don’t use rates as a performance measure.
We certainly could have talked about them, because ours was always low. Sometimes it was even non-existent. But we chose to talk about important things instead. Things like planning our work or helping people figure out why they should work safely. In fact, we didn’t even talk about injuries unless there was a good lesson to be learned that would translate across the company. We talked about the actions taken to prevent injuries.
I’m going to keep this post fairly short because I cover this ad nausem in my book (still coming soon) and I don’t want to give too much away. But I do want to leave you with a thought. Aside from how ridiculous the criteria is, if your company is one that still uses rates to gauge safety performance, how much time do you invest in “case management.” If your answer to that question is anything more than “none,” consider the implications. Who does that case management serve? The employee? Maybe. I’d say a safer bet is that it only serves the employer and their bottom line.
Maybe our time would be better spent investing in things that help prevent injuries instead of trying to play doctor after they happen. Maybe.
If you like the material in these posts please reply and let me know. Also, subscribe so you don’t miss out on anything. I’ll be adding more free resources periodically, so check back often. Thanks for reading. Stay RELENTLESS.
My first week in Korea while Serving in the US Air Force ended in an unexpected twist. It was my first active duty assignment, and as such, I was assigned to two weeks of acclimation training called First Term Airman’s Center, FTAC for short (everything in the military has an acronym).
On Friday afternoon, our class was expecting an early release so we could head downtown and party with the rest of the base.
Instead, we received a surprise visit from a Captain who worked in the Inspector General’s (IG) office.
The Captain, in turn, introduced us to a Technical Sergeant who would be assigned as our supervisor the following week. The base was going to be conducting a chemical warfare exercise, and since we were not yet released to our “shops” we were not eligible to participate. Instead, we would be helping the IG test out a new procedure.
The procedure had been penned at the PACAF (Pacific Air Force) headquarters at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii. In support of the test, the Command Chief (highest ranking enlisted member) was being flown in to observe. We were all in awe of the opportunity and excited to participate in something so high profile. We received instructions to meet at the IG at 0700 on Monday morning where the Tech.
Monday came quickly and we all assembled outside on the steps to the building. The Tech. Sergeant held an officially sealed manila envelope and a few other pieces of paper. He told us that our mission was to transform an ordinary building into a chemical fallout shelter. The IG had chosen to perform the test on the Family Support Center and the envelope held the procedure. After explaining that the test would be conducted using spearmint (like the bubble gum) gas to spray the building, he extracted the “procedure.” I’ll paraphrase what it said so I don’t run the risk of saying anything super top secret:
- Find a building
- Get some duct tape and trash bags
- Tape trash bags to the windows and doors
- Hide inside the building
- Don’t die
If you’re not laughing at that, it’s probably because you’ve written a procedure as awful as that one. I jest. You’ve probably written much worse. Ok ok, I’m kidding. You can imagine the confusion when we read that procedure. We all knew it wouldn’t work, but our Tech Sergeant was determined to make it.
So began the “tests.” We spent the first day attempting to duct tape plastic tarp (we upgraded) to all of the windows and doors of our makeshift shelter. In the humid Korean summer, the tape barely clung to the stucco walls. By the end of the day, we had battled honorably and mostly achieved our goal. There were corners sagging and the plastic certainly wasn’t airtight, but we left with a feeling of accomplishment. We were instructed to return at 0600 the following morning in full chemical gear.
In the morning we lined up single file and were sprayed with bubble gum scented gas. We were then instructed to “DECON” with activated charcoal pads. That essentially meant that we were filthy for the rest of the day. We then “hid” inside our shelter. At about 0900, we smelled the telltale smell. Enemy gum gas had penetrated our defenses!
From that point, we regrouped and began to brainstorm. All of the FTAC Airmen sat mostly on the sidelines as the Tech. Sergeant and two Staff Sergeants tossed out ideas. I remember them being at a loss until one of the Staff Sergeants spoke up.
“What if we screw it into the walls?” The FTACers looked at each other in disbelief. I figured no one would even consider that.
“Yeah, that could work,” said the other Staff Sergeant.
“Ok, if you think so. Let’s go get some drills and screws,” Said the Tech. Sergeant.
“But, Sir,” one of the Airmen spoke up. “Won’t the holes…” The Staff Sergeant who came up with the asinine idea laser beam stink-eyed him and he quieted down. With no more dissent in the group, we rounded up the drills and screws got to work.
The next morning we repeated the DECON ritual and then waited for the smell. It rolled in like clockwork and we were forced to regroup once again. This time we wised up and decided to use caulking to seal the plastic to the windows and doors. That did the trick. We ruined the building but accomplished the mission.
What I’m getting at here is simple: Don’t legislate from your desk. So often, safety professionals sit in their offices and dream up new policies, procedures, and standards without considering the people who will be forced to use them. We write detailed “roles and responsibilities,” tell employees what they “shall” do, and make up arbitrary rules that only impede progress on our worksites. What is actually needed is a partnership with those employees. In our case that summer in Korea, the IG would have saved tons of man hours and a little bit of
If you are in the procedure writing business, do everyone a favor. Go out to the people you’re writing for (sometimes it’s easy to forget we’re not writing for ourselves) and tell them what you’re trying to accomplish. Then ask them how they could best achieve that goal. You’re much more likely to get buy-in this way and even more likely to get a procedure people can execute.
On the off
Writing is a necessary skill that is often overlooked in the safety profession. I’ll never profess to be the best, but I do know my way around words. Since so much of what we do is based on communication, I think it’s a disservice if we’re not at least competent. For that reason, I’ll be continuing this series in the weeks to come. If you like what you’re reading, please subscribe so you don’t miss it.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know what your people think.
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.
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:
- OSHA enforcement is directed toward companies, not workers. An employee rarely has any personal motivation to comply.
- 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).
- 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.
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.
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.
“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 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…