PIVOTAL MOMENT #1 – I tolerated safety
The first pivotal moment came during my first job after graduating from high school. I worked in a factory that made glass bottles at a time when everything was in glass; Gatorade bottles, milk bottles and prescription bottles to name a few examples.
We were required to wear eye protection supplied by the company which was incredibly uncomfortable. Further, the plant was hot and the glasses tended to slide down my nose. So, I did what any good junior employee would do in this situation, I learned from the senior employees. I clinched the stem of the glasses between my teeth and when I saw the inspector on the floor, I could quickly put them on. That worked great until one day when the foreman walked up from behind me. I should also mention that it was noisy in the factory, although hearing protection wasn’t required. My foreman tapped me on the shoulder, pointed his finger in my face and said “if I have to wear these things, you have to wear them. Put’em on!” I don’t even remember his name, but his words and tone still ring out in my mind today.
That was my introduction to safety as an 18-year-old factory worker. Safety quickly became something I tolerated, something that I endured at best. It was boring. I did not appreciate or understand the benefit. It was enforced on me because we had to, not because we wanted to. That feeling about safety stayed with me for the next several years. which brings me to the next seminal moment in my life.
PIVOTAL MOMENT #2 – Safety became personal to me
Ten years later, I was working as a ramp supervisor at Atlanta Hartsfield International airport. You know these workers if you travel by air. They are the ones that load and unload your baggage and cargo from the planes.
It was a cool fall evening, about dusk when a call came over my radio for Echo 1 to gate A-17. Echo 1 was the ambulance service dedicated to the airport. A call to Echo 1 usually meant a medical emergency. Gate A-17 was across the ramp from me. I glanced up and could see that a Boeing 757 aircraft had started to push back from the gate. It made it only about 50 feet and stopped. I assumed that a passenger was sick and needed to be deplaned. I had some time and thought I would hop on a tug and ride over to gate A-17 and offer assistance. I knew the supervisor well and knew he would do the same for me. As I drove up, I noticed that a couple of guys had gathered around the left rear landing gear of the aircraft. I slowed down as I approached and the thought occurred to me, “we didn’t do what I think we just did.” My fears were confirmed when I noticed the supervisor taking off his coat and putting it on a worker who was lying down next to the landing gear tires. Another coworker had removed his belt and was tying it around the worker's leg. We had just run over a worker with a Boeing 757 aircraft…an aircraft that weighs 250,000lbs empty! At that moment, safety stopped being something I tolerated to something that was very personal to me. The worker did live but lost his leg above his knee. He was 27 years old and had two children at the time.
Within the next year, I formally began my safety career with Delta Air Lines, Inc. I would eventually work in Delta’s Corporate Safety department for the next thirteen years. My job over the years included analyzing incident trends, conducting investigations, inspections and assessments, and writing procedures. Looking back, it was a change management and culture change initiative, although that’s not what we called it.
PIVOTAL MOMENT #3 – I had to make safety personal for others
The third and final pivotal moment occurred almost 20 years after the ramp incident. I was working in the Safety & Risk Control department for the Aramark Corporation. Aramark is a food and facility services giant. Based in Philadelphia, Aramark has operations worldwide and over 200,000 employees. My job was to work with senior leaders to develop a strategy and tactics to reduce the risk of employee injury.
I received a call one late summer morning that an employee was struck and killed by a pickup truck while at work. The incident occurred during the pre-dawn hours in an area with limited lighting and no marked vehicle or pedestrian paths. A twenty-two-year-old mother would not see her two-year-old daughter grow up. After completing the investigation, my thoughts turned to my next big challenge, “how do I get this information out to over 200,000 employees at hundreds of locations worldwide?” “How do I make safety personal to so many employees across the globe?”
Today I work as a safety consultant sharing my knowledge and experience with my clients and the safety profession in general. My mission is to make safety personal for everyone from executive leaders to front line workers and safety professionals. I recognize as most safety professionals do that regulatory compliance, procedures and training only get us so far. By making safety personal and by connecting safety to what is important to the worker we can begin to exceed minimum standards. By making safety personal, we create an environment where workers are following procedures because they want to, not because they have to.