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.


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.


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.

Have you tried this safety app?

When I began studying for safety certifications, this was the equation they warned me about. The NIOSH Lifting Equation.

For those unaware of the equation (and I’m a bit jealous of you), it goes like this:

LC (51) x HM x VM x DM x AM x FM x CM = RWL

Thanks to NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health), now there’s both an Apple and Android app for it.

If the links don’t appear, you can find the app by searching for “NLE Calc” on your applicable app site.

Confused by the variables and want a step-by-step description? Here’s a link to Ergo-Plus and they do a thorough job on simplifying the topic.

Want more NIOSH apps?

NIOSH Heat Safety Tool

Sound Level Meter (NIOSH SLM)

Ladder Safety

Do you have a favorite EHS app? Let me know what you use in the comments!

Is Safety Hocus Pocus?

When I was eight years old, I attended a magic show. The magician transformed his handkerchief into doves, sawed his assistant in half and used weird words like “hocus pocus.”

In EHS we say weird words too. We use acronyms such as UST, TWA, TLV, TMS, STS, and STEL. We repeat words like incident (and cringe when others use “accident”), residual risk, and anthropometric.

Prior to the invention of the printing press in 1439, literacy was uncommon. Churchgoers in the Middle Ages listened to readings in Latin, unable to read or fully understand the texts. While passing out sacred bread and wine, priests would repeat strange sounding words. In 1674, the Archbishop of Canterbury, John Tillotson, wrote, “in all probability…hocus pocus is nothing else but a corruption of hoc est corpus (“this is the body”), [a] ridiculous imitation of the priests of the Church.”

I attended an EHS presentation last week where the majority of the audience was not in the EHS business. The speaker continually used safety-industry specific language. With each “DART” and “EMR”, audience members squinted, frowned, and eventually gave up trying to translate. In the end, it was a little too much “hocus pocus.”

How much hocus pocus is in your language?

The next great safety leaders aren’t going to be safety people

It’s a question I get in my inbox nearly weekly. So often, in fact, I now include it in presentations to audiences of safety professionals.

The question is usually phrased, “Should I get a graduate degree in EHS?”

The answer is both yes and no.

The answer is yes: If you think that the way we are doing things is correct. If compliance is the answer. If better workers equals better safety. If more rules and regulations are what the world needs. If you wish to be a superior technician.

The answer is no: If you want to change how we define safety. If you’re tired of blaming the worker. If being a technician isn’t enough. If you’ve taken a course in psychology, education, or engineering and glimpsed what the current models of EHS are missing.  If the risk of being wrong is worth the chance of being right and making a real difference.

The next great safety leaders that are going to exist in our world aren’t thinking about safety, they’re running things like DevOps or artificial intelligence or driverless cars. They’re not going to be safety people, they’re going to be people who understand systems and understand complexity…and that’s kind of a fine place for it to go, that’s pretty cool.

– Todd Conklin, Pre-Accident Investigations: An Introduction to Organizational Safety Podcast # 142

The Hard Questions in EHS

The people who skip the hard questions are in the majority, but they are not in demand.” – Seth Godin

You know those questions you sometimes ask yourself, even for a moment, before the day-to-day tasks take over?

You know the idea you had during the injury investigation, the one that would “never” work at your company?

You know the question the student had during your last safety training, the one you carefully responded to, but nagged you for weeks?

These are the hard questions. The ones we push away in favor of the predictable to-do list. They are the questions which people like Peter Drucker, Joseph Juran, and W. Edward Deming wrestled with to transform business and quality paradigms.

Just what are the hard questions in the business of EHS? Here are a few ideas. What would you add to the list?

-Does training work if people don’t want to learn? Do we only train people who want to learn?

-When do laws and policies to keep people safe inhibit personal freedom boundaries?

-Does safety ever become too expensive? If so, where do we draw the line?

-Are some activities worth the risk of injury and death?

-If OSHA regulations disappeared tomorrow, what would you keep doing anyway? What would be dropped first?

-What’s the number one reason your organization has not ended preventable injuries and deaths? Is that OK? Is that what you’re working on now or are you busy rearranging deck chairs?

What are your hard questions?