Why You Should Manage Safety With CPR

Why You Should Manage Safety With CPR

Just not the mouth to mouth part… HR won’t approve

“Jason!” our new safety manager, Wally, hovered over my desk and studied my name tag. “Your name sounds familiar.”

In my mind I flashed back through the half dozen or so times I had introduced myself to him at various company events through the years. At least one of those times he had spilled his gin and tonic on me, so his lack of recollection wasn’t any surprise.

“We’ve met, Wally.” I said. Then I bit my tongue and decided against saying anything else.

Wally was a corporate guy who had outlasted his usefulness. The company had closed his region and needed a place for him. Our project was a nice, quiet corner to tuck the old drunk into. As a bonus perk his best drinking buddy (The Tongue) was already there.

Shortly after our “introduction,” Wally assembled the staff for a meeting and announced there would be substantial changes to our operation. At the end of his speech on of the clerks raised her hand and asked when we could expect the changes to start. He didn’t need to take any time considering his answer.


We all thought he was joking. As it turned out, the joke was on us. Wally reassigned everyone in the department, demoted our supervisor, and put his drinking buddy in charge of the safety team. It was a nightmare.

In the span of just a year, the changes he’d made proved so damaging that nearly 60% of the staff had left to find new jobs. All of us were actively looking, too. It was a shame, because we worked for one of the best companies around. I eventually left as well ( that crazy story is in my book, and worth getting a copy just for that one section)

Any decent leader knows that going into a new environment guns blazing isn’t a great proposition. Still many think they know more than everyone else and feel the need to assert their dominance. Every time I’ve seen that done it’s been a sure path to poor performance.

There’s a better way though.

Look, Listen, Feel

If you’ve been through the American Heart Association’s CPR training, you’ll likely recall that mantra. It’s what you do when you find a victim who potentially needs resuscitation. First you look to see if the person’s chest is rising (are they breathing?). Next you listen for sounds of that breath. Then you feel for air movement. Finally you (firmly) tap them on the shoulders and loudly ask “are you OK?” It’s a simple way to distinguish between passed out drunk or dead.

The idea also works for leadership. When you take over a new area of responsibility figure out what’s happening and how your style fits. Here’s how:

  • LOOK at the way things happen in your new environment. Be critical, but keep your mouth shut so you can do the next thing on the list.
  • LISTEN to the things your people say. Are they negative, positive, apathetic, passionate? If you take the time to listen, make sure you actually hear what they are saying.
  • FEEL your way into your new role (figuratively… don’t be creepy). Ask around about what people expect, but more importantly what they need.
  • ASK your new crew how they’re doing and how you can deliver on what it is they need.

Wally was an ass, don’t be like Wally

If you’ve never had a gung-ho know it all manager like Wally, count your blessings. But also do your best not to become him. You might have the greatest ideas in the world, but if no one respects you, they’ll never get any traction. Build relationships first, then use them to change the world.

Being on good terms with your staff will also make it more likely they won’t hold it against you when you spill your drink on them and forget their name. Here’s to being good leaders!

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You’re Young, You’ll Get Better – False Leader Logic

Titles don’t equal wisdom

What do you call a doctor who got D’s in medical school?… Doctor.

“Well, Sergeant. I don’t know what’s wrong with you. But you’re young. You’ll get better.” Those words will echo in my head for the rest of my life.

The phone call I had two years later with the same Air Force Major who said them to me was even more astounding. He was the only podiatrist on base and had been “treating” me for what he considered phantom foot pain.

“I told you, Sergeant. There’s nothing we can do. You’re still young, though. You’ll get better.”

“You’ve been saying that for two years, doc,” I replied. “You need to do better than that.”

“How dare you talk to me like that! I’ve been practicing medicine since before you were born.”

“Well, I’m not getting younger and I’m not getting better. So I don’t think your strategy is working.” With that I hung up on an officer for the first and only time in my military career.

I immediately told my boss, expecting the backlash to be enormous. It wasn’t though. My boss directed me to the patient advocate at the base hospital (affectionately know as the “medical hobby shop”). The advocate sent me to a civilian doctor who actually cared about her patients. She diagnosed me with tendonitis in my right foot. After some rehab and custom orthotics, my pain subsided and never returned.

Hope isn’t a strategy, neither is denial

Those who haven’t known me more than 15 years hardly believe that I was once an avid runner. Considering that I probably wouldn’t run now if I was literally on fire, that’s understandable. But I was. And I was fast.

Reminiscing about that time in my life now, I think it’s actually when I became a writer. My regimen consisted of 5-10 miles a day with a long run (13+ miles) every weekend. It was my time to reflect and process. It also destroyed my knees. But I digress, this story is about my foot.

In high school I stress-fractured my left leg running. That injury was compounded by a foolish altercation with a kid I thought was my friend. It was a distinct kind of pain you don’t ever forget. When I felt it again in my base dorm room at age 23 the memory flooded back. I crumbled to my knees to let the pressure off and then crawled to my phone to call my supervisor. I let him know I would be heading to sick call (you don’t get to just call in in the military).

The night before, a buddy and I had been lifting weights at a gym roughly eight miles from base. I had reluctantly ridden with him in his Mazda Miata, protesting the whole time because neither of us were having a midlife crisis. I might well be coming up on one now, but I still don’t like Miatas.

When we finished the workout I felt great and told him to head back without me. I was going to run home. He shook his head in disbelief, but got in the tiny car and drove away. Everyone knew I was serious when it came to running.

That night I made great time. I was back on base in just under an hour. I showered, ate some fried stuff with four bean salad at the chow hall, and was in bed before 8. Less than 12 hours later I found myself at sick call explaining to a med-tech that I believed I had stress fractured my foot. Her response?

“That’s not possible.” I’m guessing that since I didn’t have one, she felt validated.

Thus began the saga

Initially, my doc friend did typical thing and issued a PT waiver so I wouldn’t have to run. It killed me not to, but by the end of six weeks my foot actually felt a lot better. Then I ran for ten feet and it all came rushing back.

We played that game for a few months until I earned an MRI. The airman running the diagnostic checked me in, strapped me to the table and inserted half of my body into the magnet tube. Then over the speaker I heard a crackle and a question.

“Uh, Sergeant, could you remind me which foot hurts and where?” I imagine I made the kind of face some bosses do when they’re upset (The kind where their lips shrivel up and resemble a cat butt more than a mouth).

“It’s the right one,” I said as I rolled my eyes.

“Could you show me where it hurts?”

“No. It’s in there,” I pointed down the tube.

“Just show me on your hand.” I obliged, realizing it was futile to explain to him that hands and feet are different. And so, I was given the world’s worst MRI. Even my doctor admitted it wasn’t readable. But he couldn’t order another one, because… you guessed it… he didn’t know what was wrong with me.

I was young though…

Thanks for sticking around for the moral of the story

Although I’m sure you get it, the message here is simple. My problem didn’t go away on it’s own. Whatever you’re faced with probably won’t either. Whether at work or at home, it’s tempting to turn a blind eye and hope things will get better. But, as we all know, hope isn’t a strategy. Action is.

Whatever it is that you’re facing, look it straight in the eyes. Stare it down and take a few deep breaths if you have to. But then do something about it. If you’re afraid of making a wrong move, just remember that no one ever got anywhere by not moving.

And don’t wait for someone with more experience to tell you how. There are plenty of experts out there who don’t know the difference between hands and feet. There’s also plenty who don’t realize that problems don’t go away because they’re young.

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Workers Keep Dying, Safety Keeps Chasing Band-Aids

I’m just going to come right out say it. This subject straight pisses me off. When we go around talking about how awesome our companies are at safety because we’ve got low incident rates it equates to pissing on the grave of every worker who has died at our facilities. There is no correlation and the games we play to get “good” are just disgusting. Interpreting the grey areas in CFR 1904 to justify leaving it off your 300 log IS NOT safety.

If you think I’m wrong, just do some research about the “excellent” injury rates and safety programs of giant companies that have experienced multiple deaths when offshore rigs explode, or have massive chemical releases/explosions that poison whole towns. The point is that anyone can boast good numbers. Very few can say they’ve provided their workers a workplace that won’t kill them.

Stop looking in the wrong places

If you’re willing to accept the idea that our main goal is to prevent death and catastrophic injury this should be an easy logical leap: Trying to reduce risk to the point where no one is injured is ridiculous. Life itself is a risk of injury and a guarantee of death (I’ve said that many times, but the safety zealots won’t buy it). The only reason for an organization to set a goal of “zero injuries” is to look good on paper, thus becoming more competitive and beefing up bonuses. It’s much less glamorous, and a much harder endeavor to focus on the things that kill.

So, we don’t. We nit-pick every bump and scrape that required more than an OTC dose of Advil. Then we chastise managers and supervisors because they can’t find any way to prevent those things from happening again. The sad part about it is that for all the time we waste trying to find the “root cause” for why Billy’s finger started hurting, we loose valuable time that could be devoted to making sure his partner doesn’t get crushed by the faulty machine he operates.

Here’s a newsflash. You can’t prevent every injury. Neither can those leaders who you accuse of not giving a shit about safety. If you want to eliminate risk in your facility, recommend shutting it down as the corrective action next time someone gets cut and needs stitches. That’s the only way to guarantee it never happens again.

It’s time to get off the pedestal

Safety professionals (leaders in general, actually) are prone to superiority complexes. We get so good at analyzing things after they happen that we start believing that knowledge can translate into real time. “If only our workers paid more attention.” Maybe if we spent more time working along side them, feeling what they feel, seeing what they see, and reacting to what they experience we’d have a better perspective. Until we realize that our view of the world is different and start trying to figure out how other people see it, workers will keep dying. We’ll be safe in our plush office chairs, though. So I guess in the end it doesn’t really matter.

It’s time to put some pragmatism into this profession. That’s exactly why I wrote A Practical Guide to the Safety Profession: The Relentless Pursuit. If you’re reading this thinking I haven’t offered a meaningful solution to our problems, well… buy the book. I’m not going to give everything away for free. Either way, let’s work together and start making a difference in the lives of the workers we’re supposed to support. They might not thank you for it, but at least you’ll be able to sleep at night knowing you did something that mattered.

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How Are You Going To Make Me Safer?

Spoiler Alert: You can’t.

Hey look. We’re made out of the same stuff.

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.

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Are You Going To Salute Me, Son?

man-151816_640There’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?”

How’s this for a salute?

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.

Either way, it’s your choice.

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Safety Doesn’t Require Piety, It Demands Action

Hark! Dost thou heareth the bullshit?

Since it’s Easter Sunday, I thought I’d spend some time quoting from the good book of safety. Please stand and join me as we turn to page 1904.4 in our hymnals and lift our voices in praise to OSHA our protector. It’s OK if you laughed at that. I’m still here typing, so that’s at least some proof the real God won’t strike you down for your blasphemous sense of humor.

Actually, there’s nothing I would rather do less than quote OSHA on this Sunday or any other. But, I was reading another great article by Dr. Rob Long and it reminded me of a story I’ve been wanting to post here for quite some time. Today seemed appropriate.

Unlike my usual twist ending, I’m going to give away the punchline at the start. I’ve stolen some of my kids’ Easter egg loot and I’m feeling generous. You’ll have to read on for the story this time, though. I haven’t eaten that much candy. This tale has a lesson for two people: The Leader & The Advisor.

Let’s Break it Down

First off, leaders. You’re expected to guide your people toward safe, quality production. Sounds noble. It even is sometimes. But let’s not mince words, your true purpose is to deliver profit. People seem to think that’s a dirty thing to say, but it is what it is. If businesses weren’t in business to make money, there would be no workers for whom your advisors need to uphold safety and quality standards. If that’s a shock, life must truly be hard for you.

Secondly, advisors. I avoided pigeonholing this category because I believe this concept transcends the safety profession. Your role is to provide good counsel to the leaders of your organization and facilitate that “safe, quality production.” It’s not to throw up roadblocks every time someone decides to violate your rules.

Now for the story:

I’m not sure but I think the guy’s name was Steve…

It was the second day of a riveting three-day safety summit. My company had shipped a few dozen safety professionals to corporate and corraled us into a conference room suited for four. We’d then spent hours drinking burnt (seriously, why do people like Starbucks?) coffee listening to each manager tell their safety story. I recall one of the guys had a really nice boat (substance was not a prerequisite for presenting).

Finally, we had reached the pinnacle of the day. Our VP was going to present to us about the value of safety. I could not wait (for it to be over). I’ve honestly blocked most of that boondoggle out of my memory banks, but this “keynote” has etched itself into my mind for eternity.

Without much fanfare, our “leader” cleared his throat and boldly asked a room comprised of hundreds of years of collective SAFETY PROFESSIONAL experience the following question:

How many of you BELIEVE you can go the rest of your life without an OSHA Recordable injury?

He raised his hand in proud declaration. I looked around the room as all but two others raised theirs as well. He must have counted my jaw hitting the floor as a raised hand because he didn’t notice mine were in my pockets. I looked to my left and raised an eyebrow in disbelief. The VP of Safety and Health who sat next to me shrugged, but kept his hands down as well. The rest of the crowd lowered theirs as he began a 45-minute sermon about he would never again need a prescription medication because of how safe he was going to be (or a splint, or use tweezers to excise something from his eye, or any of the other dumb things that constitutes a recordable).

The sheeple nodded along in blind obedience as this buffoon pontificated to us about how every accident was preventable. I couldn’t believe the arrogance. His speech essentially amounted to the statement that every part of life was controllable and only people who didn’t care enough could be injured.

But his words weren’t the worst part…

The worst part was the Safety Director who stood next to him nodding, affirming, and placating his ridiculous claims. For the sake of making this case, I’m willing to set aside the ridiculousness that makes an injury an “OSHA Recordable” for a moment. Let’s just say he meant a bad injury in general.

What kind of leader thinks it’s OK to stand up in front of a bunch of people (safety pros or not) and predict the future? And what kind of advisor stands by and lets him do it? Both of those men proved that day that they were detached from reality. Not only that, but there was a strong case to be made that they believed themselves superior to those beneath them.

How much more impact could “Steve” have had if he had stood in front of that crowd and admitted his humanity? Then he could have rallied the troops to fight for his dream of no injuries. He could have offered his support and resources to make our work environments safer. Instead, he yammered on and said a bunch of words that had no impact on one, single worker’s life. All while his “advisor” nodded in approval…

I can only hope we would all do better!

If you’re new to this blog, let me introduce myself. My name is Jason. I’m a safety professional, podcast host, author, and world-renowned origami artist (that’s a lie). If you’re NOT new to this blog, go buy my book… it’s like this but multiplied by the power of unicorn tears. In any case, I hope you enjoy the content here. Please like, share, and join in the discussion as we all pursue Relentless Safety.

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You’re Not A Doctor: A Case Against “Case Management”

I’d say this guy is a lot like my colleague, but that would be an insult to asses

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.


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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.

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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… 

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“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? 

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