What Are You Going To Tell Them About Safety?

That question has haunted me since before I called myself a Safety Professional

How about I tell you without words?

I was about a month away from becoming a civilian after nearly six years in the Air Force. My uncle and I were sitting in his kitchen where I had just excitedly told him my good news. I was going to work for a huge, multinational construction firm as a safety technician. It was life changing, completely unfamiliar territory.

The only thing I knew about construction was that most people wear hard hats while doing it. My uncle knew it, though. So he asked me the obvious question.

“What could you possibly tell a 30 year iron worker about safety?” I didn’t have an answer (to be honest, I’m not sure I do now).

As I began trying to wrap my head around my new position, I was assigned to a senior safety specialist with decades of experience. I began shadowing him on a massive new construction project and he began telling me about all of the complex issues that I may have to interpret and decipher at a site on any given day.

He was a special kind of nut job

We’ve all met that “safety guy.” He’s the one that’s so hard he doesn’t need to spit when he dips (yet secretly carries a water bottle in the pocket of his safety vest for just that purpose). One of my first memories of him was seeing him finish a drag on his cigarette and then raise his eyebrow at something he noticed out of the corner of his eye. In the next moment he was running across a congested heavy equipment lane chasing a forklift operator who was transporting a trash skid by dangling it off one of the tines of the lift.

“NO FREE-RIGGING YOU MOTHE…” his voice trailed off in the chaos of backup alarms and job site hustle, but you get my drift. I just watched and wondered what my uncle would think about what my new “mentor” had to say to that worker.

About two weeks into the job, he imparted what I imagine is the only the only profound lesson he ever taught. His message was that I would eventually be out there on my own and I’d have to make some difficult judgment calls. In between breaths that expelled the previous night’s Canadian Mist he told me to weigh the options, determine the risk, and “make the call because you’re usually right” (his exact words). It struck me as incredibly odd that he would phrase it like that since he knew little about me or my ability. He had no basis for saying I was ever right (my wife has strong opinions about that). I’ve had years to ponder his comment, and looking back on it I think he was actually talking about himself. He had quite the high opinion… but I digress.

I am usually right though…

So are most people. Even when we’re lucky, we’re right enough to survive. We survive because we’ve either learned a lesson from the past or learn one in the present from our mistakes. I think that fact is overlooked in the highly critical judgement zone that is industrial safety.

We assume that only that “safety guy” knows how to navigate the work site. It’s a belief that perpetuates the need for 5 years experience in one specific industry or another. But it’s also a stigma for someone new who has something incredible to offer but no credentials to back it up.

I had this conversation more than once this past week while talking to some newer safety professionals. A few were as new as I was when I jumped into the construction world. The doubt on their faces was the same I had felt all those years ago.

You’ve got something to say

That was my message to each of those new professionals. They may not have the level of experience as someone who’s dip bottle is slowly leaking in their pocket, but each brings something to the table. We’d be better as a profession if we figured out what that was and nurtured it. Maybe that way people wouldn’t feel the need to question their contribution.