Safety’s High Horse

Safety fail pictures are popular.

There are now websites and social media groups dedicated to these photographs and millions of likes/shares of workers standing on buckets atop ladders or being lowered by their legs to fix air conditioners 30-plus stories high.

This same quality draws our attention to outrageous newspaper and news channel headlines. This celebrity failed. This one is now divorced. This politician accepted a bribe. This athlete took drugs.

Somehow the judgement errors in others makes us feel better. Somehow their missteps are so different than ours.

Many safety professionals even rationalize the pictures as a way to learn. To show their colleagues the dangers of certain types of work.

Don’t believe it.

Alain de Botton, author and philosopher, writes about this modern-day disconnect. “Confident that cast-iron walls separate our nature and situation from theirs, comfortable in the well-broken saddle of our high horse, we have exchanged our capacity to be tolerant for detachment and derision.”

The myopia that rationalizes safety fail pictures separates “us” from “them”. It diminishes empathy and artificially elevates egos.

And some safety pros wonder why the EHS profession is often unappreciated and undervalued?

Where is your saddle?

Do Not Pay Them Too Much Honour

The day after burning the White House in 1812, Rear Admiral George Cockburn set his sights on a newspaper building. The National Intelligencer had printed articles calling Cockburn a “ruffian” and he’d had enough. The admiral ordered his sailors to take the building apart brick by brick and instructed, “Be sure that all the C’s are destroyed, so that the rascals cannot any longer abuse my name.”

The newspaper was rebuilt and continue publishing into the mid-1800s.

Instead of tearing down buildings and destroying the “C’s”, Arthur Shopenhauer offers another way to balance external viewpoints. He writes,

We will gradually become indifferent to what goes on in the minds of other people when we acquire an adequate knowledge of the superficial and futile nature of their thoughts, of the narrowness of their views, of the paltriness of the sentiments, of the perversity of their opinions, and the number of their errors…We shall then see that whoever attaches a lot of value to the opinions of the others pays them too much honour.”

If you’re doing something big, if you’re doing something worthwhile…they will call you a ruffian (at best).

What value you attach to their opinions is up to you.

You Don’t Need a Culture Survey (Just Look At This)

There is a lot promised by a culture of safety. Articles reference building a safety culture, books promise cultural assessment tools and techniques, and speakers offer the top five ways to embed a culture of safety.

Maybe some of it works.


In an interview with New York Times columnist Adam Bryant, Tae Hea Nahm, managing director of venture capital firm Storm Ventures, summed up cultural assessment in four simple sentences.

No matter what people say about culture, it’s all tied to who gets promoted, who gets raises and who gets fired,” he said. “You can have your stated culture, but the real culture is defined by compensation, promotions and terminations. Basically, people seeing who succeeds and fails in the company defines culture. The people who succeed become role models for what’s valued in the organization, and that defines culture.”

That’s it. Who gets promoted, who gets raises, and who gets fired.

What does your culture say now?

Maybe Future EHS Pros Should Get Liberal Arts Degrees?

I’ve long held that a significant gap in EHS training and education is the lack of business skills and knowledge. This gap only increases the separation of EHS from “normal” lines of business and solidifies the “add-on” perspective of safety.

However, George Anders, author of “You Can Do Anything: The Surprising Power of a “Useless” Liberal Arts Education”, counters with a perspective of a more generalized education, and his ideas strike to the heart of success in EHS.

Anders offers five points as to why a liberal arts education might make one more successful in their career. There are striking similarities to the necessary qualities of top-tier EHS pros.

  1. A willingness to go explore something new. Anders writes that most people just want to be told what to do.
  2. The ability to analyze a problem, peel it apart and gather necessary facts.
  3. Work up nonobvious solutions to complex problems.
  4. Read the room. What’s on other people’s minds?
  5. Communicate persuasively.

What would you add to traditional EHS education and training? And what would you subtract?

How Alaska Airlines reminded me to keep safety simple

Just at or below eye level, the dual 24” monitors were at the perfect height on the desk. Although the monitor stands didn’t fit the desk, she’d found a pair of books to elevate the stands to just the right height.

Wait…I recognized those books.

She’d corrected the ergonomic hazard with two books, “Fundamentals of Industrial Hygiene” and “The Occupational Ergonomics Handbook: Interventions, Controls, and Applications in Occupational Ergonomics“. Each tome weighed in around 2,000 pages.

If this was the best use a safety inspector had found for the books, what do we expect from our first-line supervisors and line employees? Might they also find “better” uses for our safety programs, policies, and training?

An hour later Alaska Airlines reminded me just how simple safety should be.

On the side of my checked luggage, in bright orange, was a sticker. It read “HEAVY Bend Your Knees”

They didn’t give 27 steps to manual lifting safety. The reminder didn’t offer 51 PowerPoint slides with a worksheet and homework. Just a gentle nudge to bend the knees.

How can you make safety simpler?

The Next Generation of Safety Professionals

Yesterday, I had the honor of sharing the floor with Jim Smith, M.S., CSP (ASSE President) and Jitu Patel, CPEA (ASSE Fellow and Global Ambassador) in a discussion with the Alaska ASSE Student chapter members and leaders in EHS from across Alaska.

The students asked questions on continuing education, credentialing, internships, and scholarship opportunities. Jitu’s passion for EHS flows from his stories. His excitement about the importance of safety across the globe is contagious. Jim’s vision for ASSE and the profession is equally intense. Being in the same room as these two giants in EHS was humbling. But when Jim spoke about the work that the ASSE Foundation is doing, my jaw dropped.

Since 1990, the ASSE Foundation has awarded 970 scholarships, totaling $2,440,180. In 2017 alone, a record of $303,000 in scholarships was awarded! The Foundation board, led by David T. Crowley, CSP, CHMM, also awards grants and funds research to build on the profession’s knowledge base.

And even better news? The open season for scholarship applications is NOW! Here’s a link to learn more about the tremendous work of the ASSE Foundation and application instructions.

Share this with someone who might be interested!

Are You Talented in Safety?

Some people just have it. From the moment they can throw a ball at age 4, they had a knack for the sport. They got good and got good fast. Others found a talent for music, acting, dance, or academia.

Is there a talent for Safety? I suppose a few of the necessary skills for the safety professional may be written and oral communication, negotiation, an ability to learn new things quickly, curiosity…and more. Some people have talent in these areas.

But talent is overrated. Stephen King wrote, “Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.”

Many of us have stories of the talented ball player in high school who was incredible at the sport their whole life…but failed to grow the necessary work ethic to complement the talent. High school graduation put a lid on the casket of their dreams.

Because hard work wins in the end. Persistence, vision, dedication, and the dogged pursuit of dream win out…every time.

Hard work spotlights the character of people: some turn up their sleeves, some turn up their noses, and some don’t turn up at all.” – Sam Ewing


Questioning Our Career Field

“It is important that students bring a certain ragamuffin, barefoot irreverence to their studies; they are not here to worship what is known, but to question it.” Jacob Bronowski, “The Ascent of Man”

We stopped teaching Heinrich’s Accident Pyramid this year. We should have stopped sooner.

For decades, we’d instructed all safety professionals in the Air Force on the validity of the pyramid and its implications; that by focusing on the prevention of minor injuries we’d also reduce major injuries. Thanks to people like Fred Manuele, who questioned the seemingly unshakeable model, we now “see” the myth. Link to Manuele’s article here.

We should also question the hierarchy of controls, the efficacy of JHAs, human factors coding, every incident investigation model, and risk management processes (among other “foundational” EHS concepts). Not because they are wrong, but because we owe it to the field and those we serve. If the ideas survive renewed scrutiny and remain effective, fantastic. If not, we must ready ourselves for new models and press forward with focused research.

What will you question today?


The Condition I Feared

“Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: ‘Is this the condition that I feared?’”

– The Tao of Seneca: Practical Letters from a Stoic Master

Someone asked me a few weeks ago what I feared the most. I responded with some flat statement regarding not living up to potential. Upon digging further (which is of course what good friends do), I later clarified by saying homelessness. I fear losing everything and living alone on the street.

So I did it (in a way).

This past weekend, I spent an afternoon sitting on a flattened cardboard box on a sidewalk in a major U.S. city. It was cold, rainy, and quite windy. No smart phone, no food or water, and nothing to distract from the moment.

Did I lose fear? I don’t think so. But I most certainly gained empathy. I saw mental illness and the effects of addiction up close. I felt the avoidance of eye contact by passing adults and the unblinking stares of children. I felt shadows of hopelessness and the impact of a simple smile.

What do you fear?

What do you want to understand better?

What do you find yourself judging without first-hand knowledge or experience?

Maybe it’s time to grab your flattened cardboard box and gain a new perspective.

(Note: I did find that while an afternoon with this exercise might be a good start, it’s not nearly enough time. I’m planning for a couple-day experience in the near future.)

Safety Martyrdom: 4 Steps to Breaking the Cycle

She sat across from me in the Seattle Central Public Library. A pen went flying and I thought it she had dropped it. Then she threw her eyeglasses and a string of expletives followed. She slammed her laptop shut, retrieved her pen and eyeglasses, and minutes later the eyeglasses were tossed again. More words followed, the kind you’d hear in a bar or Navy port.

I don’t know for sure, but she might have worked in EHS. She had the symptoms of a safety martyr.

Safety martyrs work tirelessly for the oppressed worker. The ones abused by a profit first/safety last manager. The workers who want to get the job done even if that requires putting a bucket on top of a ladder to finish the work. The safety martyr feels unappreciated, undervalued, and generally unloved, but resolutely stands by the principle of worker safety. This mixture of principled work and under appreciation can devolve into the disease known as safety martyrdom. 

How to break the cycle in 4 steps:

1. Identify your company’s value drivers: Your company believes in a few things. Not those espoused core values…but the beliefs which drive decisions. Find those. Maybe cost control, productivity, reputation, market share, etc.

2. Identify EHS activities: What actions do you take in EHS? This might be training, inspections, permit compliance, waste reduction, compliance, etc.

3. Link EHS activities to value drivers: List the value drivers (Step 1). Which of your EHS activities (Step 2) support the drivers? Draw lines between drivers and activities. Hopefully you can match multiple activities to a single driver (and vice versa).

4. Measure and communicate: Find a way to measure what you do and why it matters. Communicate results constantly and always align these results with value drivers.

Want more on this idea? I’m presenting at the ASSE Alaska 2017 Safety Summit on 24 Oct 2017. If you’d like a copy of this portion of the slides and you’re a connectingEHS subscriber, send an email request to Not yet a subscriber? Subscribe here and send me a note requesting the slides.