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.


You Don’t Have It

It’s a big deal, that thing you want to do. You may have wanted it your whole life or the idea may have started a few months ago. You are right…it would change everything and it is important.

But you’re not ready.

You don’t have the time or the money or the experience or the talent or the wisdom or the discipline or the lifestyle or the confidence.

But you do have a piece of paper.

Write your “it”, your thing, at the top. And under it write what you don’t have…every single thing stopping you (time, etc.). There are at least a couple, right?

Now cross each one off. Really…scribble each one out. Because people with less than you will begin this morning. People with less talent, time, money, and education will begin your dream. And along the way they’ll learn what they need to…and they’ll win.

Take a picture of your piece of paper and make it your smart phone background. Put it on your bathroom mirror. Put it on your computer monitor. Put it in your car. Put it everywhere.

You have everything you need. Begin today.

Top 5 Quotes for the Distracted (and too busy) Safety Professional

It’s 7:00 am and your day is off to a good start. Your to-do list annotated and day scheduled. Then your phone rings. By 10:00 am the to-do list is scrapped, the fires of the urgent are raging, and a day of meetings and investigations erases the important work you’d planned.

That’s why this book should be on every EHS pro’s shelf. Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, by Cal Newport, takes the reader through the dangers of a life and career filled with distraction and offers a construct (and hope) for a more focused and purpose-filled plan.

Here are my 5 favorite lines:

“Clarity about what matters provides clarity about what does not.”

“Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love—is the sum of what you focus on.”

“We tend to place a lot of emphasis on our circumstances, assuming that what happens to us (or fails to happen) determines how we feel. From this perspective, the small-scale details of how you spend your day aren’t that important, because what matters are the large-scale outcomes, such as whether or not you get a promotion or move to that nicer apartment. According to Gallagher, decades of research contradict this understanding. Our brains instead construct our worldview based on what we pay attention to.”

“If you service low-impact activities, therefore, you’re taking away time you could be spending on higher-impact activities. It’s a zero-sum game.”

“Your goal is not to stick to a given schedule at all costs; it’s instead to maintain, at all times, a thoughtful say in what you’re doing with your time going forward.”

Too busy to read a book? All the more reason this book must be read. Your work (and those around you) will thank you.


The 10 Top Drucker Quotes for EHS Professionals

Some of the best books for EHS professionals aren’t written for them. For example, The Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done by Peter Drucker is written for leaders in a multitude of professions.

Here are my favorite 10 Drucker lines:

  1. “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.”
  2. “People who don’t take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year. People who do take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year.”
  3. “Rank does not confer privilege or give power. It imposes responsibility.”
  4. “No one learns as much about a subject as one who is forced to teach it.”
  5. “Plans are only good intentions unless they immediately degenerate into hard work.”
  6. “People in any organization are always attached to the obsolete – the things that should have worked but did not, the things that once were productive and no longer are.”
  7. “The problem in my life and other people’s lives is not the absence of knowing what to do but the absence of doing it.”
  8. “Converting a decision into action requires answering several distinct questions: Who has to know of this decision? What action has to be taken? Who is to take it? And what does the action have to be so that the people who have to do it can do it? The first and the last of these are too often overlooked—with dire results.”
  9. “Trying to predict the future is like trying to drive down a country road at night with no lights while looking out the back window.”
  10. “The best way to predict your future is to create it.”

The Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done is a must read.

Do you have a favorite Peter Drucker quote?

More is not Enough

Each profession begins with a question.

Architects ask how to build a beautiful building.

Psychologists ask how the mind works.

Nurses ask how to ease pain and heal the body.

Captains ask how to drive a ship.

In EHS, we ask how to prevent unintentional injury and loss.

But like the architect who learns that beautiful buildings don’t come from doing “more and faster” and the nurse who realizes that caring for more patients results in just going through the motions, many EHS professionals discover the futility of more. More inspections, more emails, more training. Sometimes we transfer this feeling of more to our teams. If only they’d work better and faster. If they’d be more focused and more motivated. A bit more of this too (and that).

More is not enough. It never will be.

What question are you asking today?

Are you answering with “more” or “let’s do this one thing well”?

More than CYA

While working out in the hotel fitness room, I saw it. The safety sign on the wall. Not the average laminated paper sign, this one was polished brass, the kind that would fit perfectly on the wall of a national monument. Fourteen rules, all clearly spelled out. Except for the blanks. “No children under the age of _____ allowed in the pool” and “No children under ______ without adult supervision”

The blanks were supposed to be filled in, but were plainly forgotten by a staff possibly more focused on liability and compliance rather than effectiveness.

This past week, I attended a local safety chapter meeting. The guest speaker spoke for 30 minutes on tips to avoid worker’s compensation errors and fraud.

Maybe there is a place in EHS for the blank signs and fraud avoidance. Maybe.

But then I remembered the fatality and injury investigations that I’ve done. The ones our profession does every day. Not a single person who died or was seriously injured would have been saved by a blank sign or a fraud-focused mindset. An EHS professional who prioritizes CYA will save the organization money…but at what cost?

Maybe this is naïve. Maybe this idea that it’s more than CYA is idealistic.

But try telling that to the family of the worker who no longer comes home.

I have a new team…now what?


During my first few years in EHS, I struggled with the constant change in team makeup. Here’s one method that helped me move past the change to deliver real value.

In The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter, Updated and Expanded, author Michael Watkins offers six criteria for team and direct report evaluation. Each manager should rank each quality according to relative weight in their organization. The criteria are: Competence, Judgment, Energy, Focus, Relationships, and Trust.

Which matter most to you (label them 1-6)?

Which is a quality that must be there, otherwise nothing else matters (called a Threshold issue)?

Now look at the criteria you numbered 4-6. Does this point out possible blind spots in your internal evaluation matrix? Possibly something you undervalue in a team member?

For more on managing change in an organization, you’ll also want to read the chapters on STARS, building credibility, and negotiating success with your supervisor.

My Personal Story with Opioids

Today, 52 people will die due to opioid pain medication (National Safety Council, 2016).

It began as a sharp pain in my lower back when I was 24. Within a month, I couldn’t bend over. An MRI would reveal three slipped discs between L3 and S1.  A first and second medical opinion recommended immediate surgery. After awaking post-surgery, the nurse told me the operation had taken twice as long due to a misplaced surgical cloth. They’d had to reopen the sutures to look for the cloth, found it in the wound, and then re-stapled the two 9-inch cuts at the terminus of the spine.

The hospital’s pharmacy gave me a brown bag of medications, including a large bottle of pain pills. To sleep at night, I’d take two pills. During the day, I’d take another pill every four hours or so. Due to the required physical therapy, I was off work for 90 days. The pills were refilled and refilled again.

I’m not sure when the pain stopped. Maybe the 60-day mark? Then I noticed I couldn’t sleep without a pill. My legs would shake. If I did get to sleep, I’d awake counting down the four hours until the next pills. I was hooked and knew it.

I’d quit smoking cigarettes when I was 21 and knew the mental and physical pain of quitting. So I “knew” I could beat the pills as well. I cut pills into halves and quarters and day-by-day reduced the dosage. My legs shook all night and I was dizzy most of the time. Slowly the symptoms went away.

I got lucky and I know it. Since that time, 14 years ago, I haven’t taken anything harder than Tylenol. I touched the devil and once was enough.

Maybe some EHS pros don’t see opioids as an issue. Or at least a safety issue. But with the rates of opioid use (and misuse), it affects every company. Today, 3.600 people will begin to misuse opioids for the first time. The United States has 4.3% of the world’s population and consumes 81% of the entire supply of oxycodone. And we are now more likely to die due to unintentional poisoning (including prescription medication) than by a motor vehicle crash.

What can you do? Want to know more? Here is the latest from the National Safety Council.

Would you write yourself a letter?

As a part of a gratitude practice I’ve built into my routine, I hand-write a thank you letter to someone every Monday morning. It helps me remember the truly inspirational people I work with all over the world and makes an outsized impression on the recipient…we just don’t write letters anymore and a note in the mailbox means a lot.

But I’ve never written myself a letter.

Mac Anderson, founder of Successories and author of The Power of Attitude, wrote himself a letter as a freshman at Murray State. Mac had been hired to sell books door-to-door and his dad thought it was a bad idea. His dad didn’t think he could do it. Here’s what Mac wrote:

“Dear Mac,

This is the chance of a lifetime. You’ll find out what you’re made of. Your Dad doesn’t think you can do it. You can prove him wrong. It won’t be easy and I’m sure there will be many times you’ll want to quit. Hang in there and with every fiber of persistence that you can muster.

And at the end of the summer when you look in the mirror…say with pride…I did it.

Make him proud to say, this is my son.”

Mac went go on to rank 7th in the nation that year for sales at the company. And he had shown himself the power of a letter (and in persisting and believing in oneself.)

What letter would you write and what would it say?

Why You Probably Don’t Need a Mentor

With so much talk on personal/professional development, does everyone really need a mentor?

No, I don’t think everyone does.

You probably don’t need a mentor if:

You have a stable job, plan to stay there forever, and nothing ever changes.

You don’t want to improve anything.

You already know everything (nothing new under the sun, right?)

You have no bucket list.

You feel that all feedback is a personal attack.

However, if there is a chance you might need to make a change, want to improve something, or aspire to do more, and have been disappointed in the past with a top-down mentoring model, here are a couple of non-traditional recommendations.

Sarah Friar, CFO at Square, recommends a personal board of directors. Four people to be exact.

  1. Someone you work with as both a colleague and role model.
  2. Someone you aspire to be.
  3. A mentor from a previous life.
  4. A person not senior to you, maybe a child.

James Altucher, investor and author, writes that the best way to learn and grow is to find a plus, an equal and a minus. A Plus is a real or virtual mentor who can teach you, an Equal is a person who can challenge you, and a Minus is someone you can teach and help you learn at a deeper level.

Personally, I use a board of director approach and wrote about it here (link). Specifically, this has helped me learn to handle criticism, speak in public, give better feedback to senior management, and write more clearly (I’m still trying).

How about you? Is there an area or two you’d like to improve? Would a personal board of directors help you?