I’ve heard that question repeatedly over the years, delivered with varied levels of hostility. The one that’s stuck in my head was a quick conversation with an employee who was new to her position. At the time, I was new in my role as well. And working in an unfamiliar industry. When she asked, I had my pre-programmed response locked and loaded.
Looking back I probably came off as a pompous safety ass just like the very examples I write so frequently about. It wasn’t that my answer was wrong, it was simply that it was empty. I told her what I tell everyone who asks.
My job isn’t to make you safer.
It’s to provide the tools and training needed to facilitate safe work. But I could tell the answer didn’t resonate with her (mostly based on the eye roll). So I made it a point to go back. Not once, but often.
Each visit began with a question for her.
Do you have everything you need?
Usually the answer was “yeah.” She would smile and let me know that everything was good. I’m not sure that was always true, but one thing I do know is that she appreciated my asking. It built trust between us.
Eventually her answers became more descriptive. Sometimes she would tell me it was all good. Other times she would ask me for suggestions about how to do something safer. There were even days when we just shared a few moments of small talk.
Then one day I didn’t have to ask
When I would walk in and she would talk to me first. We talked about safety every once in a while, but most of the time we just talked. But she knew I would find her an answer if she had a problem. We had built a relationship.
I don’t tell that story to brag about how great I am at interacting with people. If I’m being perfectly honest, it’s something that I have to work extremely hard on. Social interaction has always been difficult for me. But it’s necessary in leadership, and just life in general. Especially in the safety field.
We sell a product that workers have been conditioned to resit. So often we try to sell it “because OSHA says so.” Instead, we should sell it based on the fact that we care. That only happens if you engage… from one human to another.
I don’t have any quips or funny anecdotes to go with this story, just a bit of reflection. Like I said, I genuinely struggle in this department. If you do too, that’s OK. Keep practicing. Give people what they need. Then empower them to use it. Personal responsibility is a huge part of the relationship.
How many times throughout life are you told to “think positive” or “count your blessings?” You’d think it would stick a little better. Especially in today’s world of ultra woke philosophers and positivism gurus.
A perfect example of the overt positivity of our times came up the other night as my wife was working on her latest TV binge. She’s been watching the network show 9-1-1. Many of the more dramatic scenes start with a recorded voice over playing over a transcript. One scene actually pulled me away from my work (OK, I was watching YouTube videos). It went (loosely) like this:
Operator: 9-1-1, what’s your emergency? Frantic woman: A man’s been attacked by a shark! Operator: I hear you, ma’am. What beach are you on? Frantic woman: We’re not on the beach. It’s on the 405 (freeway)!
The scene cuts to a man lying on the road with a shark attached to his mangled arm. A broken “aquarium truck” sits in the background as EMTs rush in with their tools. They are quickly and forcefully chastised by the victim.
Man: No, don’t hurt her. She has a husband and a baby! (that’s probably not what he said, but I was laughing too hard at that point).
In a final touching moment of pure positive goodness, the shark is triumphantly motorcaded down to the beach and set free to rejoin baby shark… and daddy shark… and grandma shark.
In case you’re wondering, I would not have given one ounce of concern for that shark. In fact, my line would have been something closer to: “Punch it in the face with the jaws of life!”
But, whatever, that episode must have been low on the required amount of inclusivity. Only Hollywood would try to make lemonade out of a shark attack in downtown LA. In the real world we only focus on negative things.
Or so safety would have you believe…
Think about it. What was the last “safety report” you heard, gave, or read? 9 times out of 10, I’d put money on that report having at least one of these elements:
We’ve had a rash of injuries lately…
No one was injured last week…
There have been way too many (fill in the blank) violations lately…
All negative. All emotion based. None helpful.
Like it or not, though, statements like those are what define safety for much of the industry. The idea that “safe = accident free” has been pounded into us so relentlessly, that even those who know better still fall prey to the idea now and then. Sure it’s tempting to make the illogical leap that the absence of something (injuries) means the existence of something slightly related (safety). But believing something doesn’t make it true.
This is a theme I’ve touched on before in several posts like THIS ONE, but the problem isn’t going away any time soon. So, I figured I’d be relentless as well and drive home the counterpoint.
I was speaking to a group of interns and newly minted career professionals recently and told them what I tell all groups of new workers: Learn from every day, not just the bad ones.
But having x amount of injuries is bad
No argument there. Work related injuries are terrible, and we’re supposed to be the one’s helping prevent them before they occur. The sad reality, though, is that rarely happens when we focus on the past. In my experience, that’s because we only look back when something “bad” happens… like an injury.
Let me put it another way. If a facility (any facility) experienced 20 serious injuries in a year, that facility would likely invest some concerted amount of time and effort into figuring why and how to prevent similar events in the future. That’s a good thing. Those lessons need to be learned. But things often go off the rails from that point.
The company will likely harp on those 20 injuries, consider “safety performance” poor, and perform CYA type activities like “sign off sheets” in order to show how proactive they are. While all that may sound OK on the surface, consider what’s been thrown to the wayside.
Just to keep the math simple, we’ll say all 20 of those injuries occurred on separate days. That means that the while the facility did indeed have 20 bad days, it also had 345 injury free (“good”) days. But what happened on those good days? Were they even good at all? Or were they close? Maybe they were outright disasters. If focus was solely on the 20 “bad” days, no one will remember the other 345.
Learn, move on, find your weak spots
Getting hung up on injuries defeats our ultimate purpose. If you forgot what that is, I’ll remind you, but you should also READ THIS if you can’t remember that the goal is to keep workers from being killed. So learn the lessons that need to be learned from each injury, and then let it go and let your injured worker heal. Instead of focusing on a consequence of the past, focus on what matters and what you can do to better the future. There are a million ways to slice that pie, but none of them involve wailing and gnashing of your teeth in pious self righteousness. Or worrying about getting bit by a shark during rush hour.
There’s a cat and mouse game every new military member struggles to learn. It’s one of those things that probably doesn’t matter all that much, but after hundreds of hours of customs and courtesies are drilled into your head, you tend to sweat the small stuff. Sometimes that’s the difference between life and death, so the game certainly has it’s place.
My wife (an Army vet) often reminds me that the other branches had bigger things to worry about (like not getting shot), but I still think the game is universal to some degree. I won’t keep you in the dark. The “game” I’m referring to is the mental chess match an officer and and an enlisted member play with one another as they cross paths out doors. For those who may not be aware, the enlisted party must initiate a salute whenever they meet a recognized commissioned officer. The game was played by determining just how close you could get before doing it (there is a specific instruction for distance, but to be honest I don’t remember and just don’t care enough to research it).
I only lost the game once…
I have many fond memories of salutes gone awry. Some were done so awkwardly that it was near impossible to maintain bearing, but those aren’t the subject of this post. They wouldn’t be all that entertaining to anyone who didn’t serve anyway.
The episode in question happened within the first few days of my assignment in South Korea. I had just finished work and was hastily making my way to the base post office to pick up a package from my parents. In those days work ended at 1630 (4:30 pm). That meant I had exactly thirty minutes before Retreat signaled and the National Anthem played. Retreat isn’t a bad thing, but it does mean that you must stand at attention saluting the flag throughout the entirety of Star Spangled Banner. So you try not to be outside when it happens.
In my rush, I approached the final street before the small sloped driveway to the post office. I looked up and instantly felt a flutter of nervousness when I noticed the full-bird Colonel (one rank below Brigadier General) approaching me from the other side. Mentally I began preparing my salute.
In perfect unison we both stepped off opposite curbs and began the final paces toward our inevitable meeting. Then without warning he drew a deep breath and nearly screamed,
“Are you going to salute me, son?”
Instinctively I lifted my right hand and offered the most limp, confused salute of my career.
“Yes, sir.” I held my hand against the brim of my cover (hat) as we awkwardly gazed at each other and crossed the street together. “Good, how? Good evening sir?” I didn’t know what to say. He didn’t even return the salute.
To add in insult to injury, the encounter slowed me down so much that I only made it to the driveway of the post office before retreat crackled over the base loudspeakers. The Colonel probably would have laughed at me if he hadn’t also been caught.
Contrasting leadership styles
I’ll come back to the over zealous full-bird Colonel in a bit, but first I want to flip to a different side of the same coin.
Months later I was assigned to a pack and ship detail. It is an exercise only done every few years. My job was “spotter” on a two man crew. Our task was to take loaded semi-trailers to a staging area. From there they would then be inspected and taken to port. It wasn’t complicated, but it required a bit of coordination to ensure the right material was shipped on the right boat. That equated to a whole lot of good ‘ol “hurry up and wait.”
The roads leading to the staging area were narrow and parking was at a premium. So, we learned quickly that we didn’t even want to depart the base until there was room for us at the stage. That meant finding a hiding spot for our forty-footer fully loaded down with munitions. My driver was excellent. He located a dead end alley/road in an obscure corner of the base and skillfully backed us in. My job was to signal him from outside the truck so he didn’t hit anything.
I did my job dutifully for the first week or so (the assignment lasted upward of three) until both the driver and I agreed getting out every time was just a waste of time. There were no hazards in the alley, and almost no chance of causing a scene. As a fail safe, I used the mirror on my side to alert him to any changing conditions.
Objects are closer than… well shit!
One afternoon we were nestling our transport back into its hiding place. It was just after lunch so there were a few more people meandering around behind us than usual. None seemed close enough to pose a risk as I peered through my mirror. I had twisted myself against my door as I did so in order to give myself maximal field of vision.
Then, violently, and without warning my door swung open. I grabbed my (buckled) seat belt as I started to spill out of the truck. At least I was doing one thing right.
“Why. The. FUCK are you not out spotting your driver?” The Silver Oak Leaf of the Lieutenant Colonel’s insignia glinted in the sun. Instinctively I tried to pop up a salute while steadying myself at the same time. “Don’t salute me! Get the hell out of this truck and do your job!”
“Yes, Sir,” I replied. As I exited he gave one last tidbit of knowledge.
“I better never see you warming a passenger seat again, Airman.” he looked up at my driver. “That goes for both of you!” With that he turned and walked away.
When we returned to our shop, we were both expecting hell to be unleashed. Nothing ever came of it though. The Lt. Col. hadn’t said a word to anyone but us. Over the remainder of the year we both saw him periodically in places like the chow hall or out on the street and always gave him his due respect. Not because he’d yelled at us, but because he had earned it. The orders he’d given us were based on doing the right thing, not obligation. The fact that he hadn’t told on us meant he trusted us to follow through. That was a trust neither of us was willing to break.
In contrast, I wouldn’t have even been able to pick the full-bird out of a lineup even two minutes after he’d yelled at me to salute him.
The safety “choice”
There’s a lot of pseudoscience going around these days about the “choice” a worker makes to be safe. This post is already far too long to broach that subject so I’ll get into that later. There is, however, a real safety choice that hardly anyone acknowledges. It’s the choice the safety professional has to act in a way that supports employees vs ordering them to do safety’s bidding.
Think of it this way: You can be like the full-bird and yell and scream for people to do things “because I (or God-forbid…OSHA) say so.” Or you can be like the Lt. Col. who coached us to do the right thing because it was the right thing to do… and then trusted us to do it! The latter is how you get an empowered workforce that wants to work safely.