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Powerful Safety Messages: Spoken and Silent

In September 1994, my career in safety and human performance had yet to begin. At the time, accepting a temporary position in safety was my way to “get out of Dodge,” which was the Customer Information Center at the local gas utility. Having spent four years as a call center representative and another four as a supervisor in that same call center, I distinctly remember the day that the company’s safety and training manager offered me a temporary opportunity to help rebuild their safety program. He barely had the words out of his mouth – “How would you like to …?” – when I emphatically said yes. Not because it was something I had dreamed about doing; it was simply not my current position. All I could hope was that it would last longer than the anticipated 18 months.

By now you’ve likely guessed that, indeed, the position lasted much longer than 18 months. Little did I know that taking that risk would lead me to find my passion for safety. As Mark Twain said, “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”

In my long safety career, I have given numerous presentations and listened to many others at various conferences and programs. Often, the presentations I’ve delivered or heard from others have involved serious injuries, the kind that put people in the hospital or worse. Many of the speakers used a “what if”’ approach. What if the worker had worn their protective equipment, or what if they had used a challenging or questioning attitude, the idea being that perhaps the worker could have avoided the incident and all the pain and suffering that went along with it.

The best presentation I ever heard was during a local utility’s safety days. Tom (not his real name) had been struck and run over by a bucket truck – twice – and lived to tell his story. During the presentation, he spoke about the incident in great detail, walking us through the very painful events of that day. Tom told us of his co-worker who laid down next to him on the cold ground and wrapped him with a blanket to keep him warm. He related how the incident affected not only him but his crew members. He talked about how the incident changed his career options because Tom could no longer work as a journeyman lineman, the top of his trade. And of course, the circumstances took a toll on Tom’s family. He revealed how his son struggled with the unsafe actions he had taken. He shared his fear of not seeing his children grow up. He also shared his concern that he would miss walking his daughter down the aisle on her upcoming wedding day. Tom’s story was impactful to such a degree that I asked if he would speak at a conference I was helping to plan. He agreed to deliver that speech and has also spoken to many other groups. Recently I called to ask if I could recommend him to speak for another group, to which Tom responded with a big yes. I asked him how he was doing and was pleased to hear that not only had he been able to walk his daughter down the aisle at her wedding, but he is now anticipating the birth of his first grandchild.

Speaking with Tom also reminded me of an experience I had at a utility safety leadership conference years ago. The master of ceremonies at the event announced a change in the agenda. One of the key speakers, a utility CEO, needed to leave early and wanted to explain why. The CEO revealed to the audience that he was unable to stay and deliver his presentation because there had been a fatality at his company. He went on to explain that when he was notified of the fatality, the person on the other end of the phone told him, “It wasn’t our employee, it was a contractor.” In my head, I can still see the look on the CEO’s face and hear the disappointment in his voice. His words left no doubt that he did not agree with that assessment. “That’s my employee,” he said, “and I need to go home and do whatever I can for his family and the rest of my company to make sure this never happens again.” Of course, this was not the presentation he had planned to give, but it remains one of the most powerful safety messages I have ever heard.

I’m very thankful that I was given that opportunity back in 1994 to take a risk that guided me to find work that I am passionate about. Through a few twists and turns, I found work in safety and human performance that has kept me engaged and encouraged me to challenge myself. It also continues to validate the message on a plaque on my desk that reads, “The best way to predict your future is to create it.”

About the Author: Patricia Fischer, CSP, CUSA, is a human performance senior analyst with PMF Consulting LLC. She currently supports several projects for the Electric Power Research Institute and has contributed to white papers and technical reports for these EPRI projects and others. Fischer has worked in utility safety and human performance for nearly 30 years, most recently at American Transmission Co. and We Energies.

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