Getting your safety message through when no one cares

No one even looked at him.

He was standing with a clipboard in the middle of a busy airport terminal. He tried to engage with passersby, something about an airport survey.

No one stopped. No one cared.

If you’ve been in the EHS profession for more than a week, you’ve felt this dejection.

Robert Cialdini, author of “Pre-Suasion” and “Influence”, writes about ways to create a space for not only getting people to listen to your message, but also to positively receive it.

Cialdini cites a study where researchers asked people to participate in a marketing study and only 29% said yes. However, when the researchers began with, “Do you consider yourself a helpful person?” the number of volunteers went to 77.3%! The people said yes because of their need to be consistent. If they considered themselves helpful, then (to be remain consistent) they must also say yes to help with the survey.

How could you use this idea in your work?

What if your work disappeared tomorrow?

When days in EHS feel like endless to-do lists, separated by various last-minute emergencies, and bookended by meetings, program evaluations, and quarterly reports, I find it easy to imagine it all disappearing.

And priorities once again become clear.

What if you walked into your office tomorrow and found no trace of EHS in your company? Your desk is gone. No programs. No compliance. No OSHA posters and no one remembers the last time your company had a safety director.

It’s all gone.

But your CEO sees you and thinks you might be useful. She read somewhere that safety is important, and while she’s not sure why, she hires you.

What’s the first thing you do? What’s the single thing you would do to make the biggest impact that first day? The first week?

Write down a few ideas.

Compare this very short list with your to-do list from yesterday and the day before. Are they similar?

If they aren’t…are you doing what matters?

Or have your priorities drifted from what makes the biggest impact to what makes the time pass by quickly?


Four Questions to Increase Clarity in Life (and EHS)

Morgan Housel, writing for the Collaborative Fund, suggests writing is a way to increase clarity in life. Specifically, Morgan recommends writing out the answers to four questions. Below are the questions and my responses. What are your answers? Feel free to post them here…looking forward to learning from you!

What is your edge over competitors?

In safety and professionally, our work depends on our ability to connect the art and science of safety to management and the worker. My “edge” is that I wake up focusing on that connection.

Also, I learned a decade ago that I can’t change the entire world. But I do have the opportunity to inspire, develop, and encourage safety professionals, and together we can do amazing things (and change the world).

How do you react to unforeseen risk?

I’ve learned that unforeseen risk is part of iteration and learning. I now take more in stride and accept it as a part of the learning cycle, changing what I can and (learning to) accept what I can’t. It’s a journey.

What have you changed your mind about recently?

Two things.

First, a quote from Todd Conklin. “You’re not ever going to be able to stop an accident. You can directly change the way the accident affects your organization, your workers, and yourself.” I spent many years feeling failure every time I came into the office in the morning to see another incident report. Todd’s words refocused my energy on the incident outcomes, not the error itself.

Secondly, I’ve changed my mind about high personal standards. For years, I was counseled by supervisors that my standards were too high. They said I was setting myself and my teams up for failure by setting the bar so high. I almost fell for it. To my core, I now believe high personal standards are foundational to every small amount of success I’ve managed to achieve.

What part of your job are you not good at?

This question is the easiest…there are so many areas. I get lost in strategic policy decision conversations. My personality wants to move on, implement, and move on again. I’m not good at data entry work. I’m worse at reviewing multiple editions of company regulations….my mind seems to get lost in the many versions. Program sustainment…yep…not so good. I’m fantastic at conceptualizing, designing, and implementing. I’m not the one to maintain the program. And, I’ll stop there in case any future employers see a conflict with my resume. 🙂

Link to Morgan Housel’s original article on writing.

What are your answers?

Bad things happen to good people

It’s easy to see it.

The inattention. The lack of competency. The hurried state. The fatigued mind.

And then the injury.

In the mind of many managers (and even some safety professionals) the injury is a result of being a bad person.

“How could she do that?”

“What was he thinking?”

“Didn’t they know that would happen?”

“Weren’t they paying attention in the training class?”

If the supervisor thinks back, she knew it was coming. She’d seen the signs. Why didn’t she do something previously?

It’s a lie. It’s THE lie. It’s convenient to line up the dominoes and cheese slices post-incident. It’s mentally convenient to assign blame to that domino, that piece of cheese, or that bad worker.

Bad things happen to good people.” As EHS professionals we must believe this simple statement to move past the blame and the fault-finding to a place where the worker is once again the most valuable and necessary piece in the system. And we cannot get there by attributing incidents to bad people.

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No endorsement of study material is intended by the giveaway.


Hiding Under The Covers

The military training exercise began as a way for the Air Corps to gain publicity (and congressional funding) for airplanes. The rivalry between the Navy and Air Corps only aggravated the event.

In 1937, the capability of the Air Corps, an early name for what would become the U.S. Air Force, was unknown. The Navy scoffed at the Air Corps’ challenge to find a ship on the open sea and accurately strike it with bombs. In what would later be called “Exercise Utah”, the USS Utah sailed off the coast of California and the Air Corps, with its load of colored water bombs, was ordered to find it.

After a day of failed attempts, and ten minutes before the deadline, a squadron of B-17s struck the Utah with the water bombs. A day later, the bombers repeated the strike from a higher altitude.

Military senior leaders were awe struck. The exercise report was never released and therefore no lessons were applied to change military planning.

Four years later, the USS Utah would be struck again, this time at Pearl Harbor and with live bombs. It would sink, never to rise again.

Is your organization learning or hiding under the covers?

Are lessons learned or downplayed to save face?

Is ego more important than mission success?

The Grass is Dying (so check your sprinklers)

Well before sunrise, I throw on running shoes and take off. Then I see the water. Not a river or lake, but water in the street. The sprinklers are broken. Some are pointing into the street, some have been decapitated by errant landscapers, and others simply don’t come up anymore.

The grass dies. But no one checks the sprinklers. Some people even blame the grass.

Do we do this in EHS management as well?

Do we see safety plans (sprinklers) fail and blame the workers (the grass we care so much about)?

Do we build perfect management systems, implement them, and walk away feeling proud…only to fail to come back at night to check on how it really works?

How do your sprinklers work? Do you have water running in the streets too?


When Truth No Longer Matters

“These incidents are the direct result of the incompetency, criminal negligence and almost treasonable administration of the national defense by the Navy and War Departments.” – Col Billy Mitchell

In most organizations, we do things for the right reasons.

Then there is safety.

In safety, too often we convince ourselves our intentions matter more than the result. For example, after a mishap resulting in injury or even death, leaders (and safety advisers right behind them) implement programs, training, engineering actions, and PPE policies. And we feel good. After all, we’ve taken on the problem, right?


When an organization’s sole impetus for action is blood (or an OSHA citation), we have failed. Not we the organization, but we the safety profession.

We have failed to tell the truth.

Col Billy Mitchell, in the quote above, was responding to the frequent deaths of pilots in the early days of military aviation, deaths regarded at the time as “just part of the job.” Soon after, Mitchell was convicted at court-martial for his words. According to the prosecutor, whether or not he was telling the truth was irrelevant. If free speech were allowed, the military would turn to chaos. The prosecutor went on to say,

“Is such a man a safe guide? Is he a constructive person or is he a loose talking imaginative megalomaniac?… Is this man a Moses, fitted to lead the people out of a wilderness?… Is he not rather the all too familiar charlatan and demagogue type…and except for a decided difference in poise and mental powers in Burr’s favor, like Aaron Burr?”

Billy Mitchell’s words and actions would go on to inspire many others, to include Gen Hap Arnold, who would later create a safety branch in the Army Air Corps and then to lead the Air Force as a separate military service.

Does truth matter? Does it matter enough in our profession?

Failure is now impossible

“Financial and commercial crises, or ‘panics,’…with their attendant misfortunes and prostrations, seem to be mathematically impossible.”

–U.S. Comptroller of the Currency (in 1914 after the Federal Reserve Act was signed into law)

The Federal Reserve was the answer. The economic panacea to end all recessions and bank failures. Then came the Great Depression.

Other crises and recessions would occur. In those moments, we’d remember, change a few laws, and promptly forget again.

Here’s a 2006 article about why banks no longer fail. “Why Don’t Banks Fail Anymore?

In 2008, 25 banks would fail in the Great Recession, followed by 440 others from 2009-2012. Wikipedia Source

In your organization, where is failure impossible?

What’s been overlooked because it’s “safe”?

What process was dangerous and now “hazard-free”?

Is it worth another look?

Does being an EHS expert even matter?

In “The Death of Expertise”, a 2014 essay published in “The Federalist”, and now expanded in a recently released book of the same name, Tom Nichols openly questions a culture where everyone’s opinions about anything are as good as anyone else’s.

Google and Wikipedia have now grayed the area between the expert and the laymen. And while access to information provides huge overall benefits, when laymen with little information and a loud voice (Nichols gives the example of Jenny McCarthy and vaccines) speak with equal value as medical experts, the benefits are reduced.

Are experts always right? No.

But discounting years of training, experience, research, and education based on a Facebook meme, Wikipedia note, or Reddit response may not be a path to a better tomorrow.

Does this expert/laymen conflict and the “death of expertise” effect the EHS profession?

Have you seen it in your work?

Are We Creating Dummies?

One of the mistakes at Pure [Pure Technologies] was that every time we had a significant error, sales call didn’t go well, bug in the code, we tried to think about it in terms of what process could we put in place to ensure this doesn’t happen again and thereby improving the company. And what we failed to understand was that by dummy proofing all the systems that we would have a system where only dummies wanted to work there. Which is exactly what happened. So the average intellectual level fell and then the market changed…and we were unable to adapt to it.”

Reed Hastings, co-founder and CEO of Netflix, to Reid Hoffman on the “Masters of Scale” podcast

This is an almost taboo topic between safety professionals. While some in the profession may whisper about “defeating Darwin”, when you read much of today’s EHS professional literature, the perspective seems to be that if managers and EHS professionals created the perfect system, then employees of all sorts (good, bad, and even a little indifferent) would no longer be killed or injured. In shorthand, if you have a hazard it’s the system and never the employee.

For some, this idea is the EHS profession. For others, this is the problem with the profession.

Intuitively, we know that who works in an organization matters. Work ethic, integrity, persistence, intelligence, demeanor…these qualities make or break organizations.

But in EHS, we seem to sometimes forget this concept. Some of us continue to seek the perfect checklist and the completely hazard-free process.

Are we helping to attract and retain the best people to our organizations or are we really just creating a management system that restricts and confines, thereby selecting and retaining only the lowest common denominator?

NOTE: “Dummy” is not meant in this context as demeaning in any way, but simply as a talking point. Insert your own version of the word as needed.