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Confessions of a “Cereal” Safety Killer

Theories and programs are fine, but maybe the future of workplace safety comes down to getting the basics right: communication and teamwork.

As a tenured safety professional, I can honestly say that over the years I have seen the birth, death, rebirth, second coming, tragic passing, historic resurrection, the mighty fall of empirical rule, and even the silent and absent passing of some wild theoretical ideas on how to make the workplace safer. Whatever happened to that guy peddling his 132-step process for PPE assessments? I miss that guy, he was fun. 
Through all of this, however, we as a community of professionals still find ourselves with stagnating efforts in search and need of a unifying program or theory to lead us into a new and better era. Or do we? Maybe, just maybe our futures are not as dependent on theory or programs as we so would like to believe. What if the future of the safety professional is about understanding ourselves better, along with a better understanding of where we fit in? 

Let’s take a deeper look at this from some of my own personal “aha” moments.

BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS, NOT SILOS

A few years ago, I attended a safety conference where it seemed the hot new thought on the market was how to talk to C-suite and top level executives. You know—exciting stuff. Within one of the breakout sessions, “Speaking the Suite,” I found myself listening to an amazingly intelligent young woman explaining to me how execs speak a completely different language than normal people. This was intriguing to me, so I did what any excited and hip person does: I pulled out my phone and texted my boss, the COO of the organization I was working for. Here is that conversation paraphrased: 

Me: Hey, I’m at this safety conference where I am listening to a young woman talk about how execs speak a different language. 
COO: Is it Hawaiian?
Me: What? 
COO: You know I love Lean, and the Hawaiian language only has like half of the letters as English, so their conversation is more efficient because it has half as much involved in it. . . LEAN. 
Me: I hate you.
COO: Lunch, Thursday? 
Me: Cool. 

At that moment, I realized that I had spent a number of years building a relationship with my COO and boss, to the point I could talk to him as if he was and still is my friend. This made me question everything for the remaining time at this conference. I almost felt sad for everyone else at the conference who seemed as if they were struggling with determining a proper and effective way to speak to their managers about EHS-related subjects. It made me wonder if we as a profession could tear down the wall for a moment and view an organizational leader as Jack or Jill, the father/mother of two great kids, the owner of a horrible golf swing and high handicap and closet case NASCAR fan. My thought here is that if we viewed them as people and not a position, would it change our thought process as to how we speak to them? Would we then need to speak another language?

WE NEED TO GET BETTER

Let’s look at another one of my “aha” moments. A while back, I hired an intern, whose first assignment was to put together a HazCom training session and present it to a group of frontline employees. I am a firm believe that one of the best learning experiences in our profession exists in having to develop training and then present your masterpiece, and my new intern was by all means extremely excited about the opportunity. 

It took roughly a week for the young man to both develop the content for the training session and schedule it with the crew. When the time came for the class my anticipation had grown and I was super excited to sit in the back of the room and observe. Then it happened! Roughly three hours—yes, three hours and 120 slides into his 165-slide presentation—I was hit by a truck that I did not see coming. Safety professionals—not by their own fault, in my opinion—are horrible educators. 

This young man had just spent the last four years in school, learning and developing into an amazing talent, and at no point (which I learned in our follow-up conversation) had he ever had any direct training or education himself on how to design training materials or stand in front of a classroom. I was like, wait, what?... but the more I thought about it, 13 years into my own career, including years of schooling, training and safety conferences, I could hardly remember much talk about how to develop and present. 

At the moment I heard the brakes on that runaway truck squeal, I also heard the sounds of shifting gears and spinning tires and felt the truck hit me again, which in my mind was simply the truck slamming on its brakes, shifting into reverse and heading back to make sure it finished the job on me. If this young man did not have developed skills, and I could verify whether or not I did, can you imagine how all of the people that had sat through a class of mine had felt over the years? It gave real life into the funny adage of why most people dread and run from an opportunity to take some safety training. The idea really hit me hard: If we spent as much time learning how to pass on the knowledge we gain as we do in gaining it.

Lost for the remainder of the intern’s presentation, I remember him asking when he finished what I had thought. My reply was simply, “My friend, we are going to get better.”

IS SAFETY REALLY FIRST?

“Safety first.”
This phrase commands its own sentence. Every EHS professional in today’s modern world, including me, has uttered these words at one time (heck, I met a professional at a mixer one time with them tattooed under a cute dolphin; a story for another time). These words were ingrained into my head as a newly blossoming safety professional. 

With that said, almost two decades later I have to ask the question, “If safety is first, where does everything else rank?” If safety were truly first, would our ancestors have crossed the Pacific unknowing of what to expect in a newly discovered land? If safety were truly first, would a young woman have relinquished her seat on a bus for another passenger in 1955? If safety were truly first, a blossoming young professional’s wife would not have had to remind him that there was probably a better way to hang Christmas lights than hanging off of the top of a ten-foot ladder to reach that last spot over my… his garage. So the question and my aha moment, ten feet in the air, was, “Does it really have to be?” 

As a professional community, we have spent an eternity trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. What if, instead of trying to convince everyone that safety has to be first, we simply try to get it to have equal stakes at the table? What if we were to step away from this prima donna ideal and try to work and play more with others, in essence, try to be part of the team? 

The truth is I am not sure where the future of the profession is heading or what to expect from that next big EHS program or ideal. Like I have already explained, I am still trying to find the PPE assessment guy’ I still think he was fun. What I can tell you is that while I wait, I am thinking that it is about time that I do what I have been asking my employees to do for years: take a step back and look at things from a different point of view. 

From this new vantage point, I may find that I do not need to learn a new language to speak to another person. I may find a new and greater way to help develop and educate others, and I just might discover that being part of a team is a far more fulfilling life than those lost on a secluded island. From here, maybe we can see that we may have been a part of the problem all along, and with just a little bit of effort, we can be the heart of the solution going forward. 

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