Everyone who works with their hands has met a lousy safety manager:
The “bad cop” prig from management who’s never gotten his hands dirty. Who butts in with his clipboard, yells at people, calls them stupid, and makes no effort to understand the real issues facing the team.
The grizzled veteran who scorns management. Who says, “I’m supposed to tell you to wear these fancy, cut-resistant work gloves, but I never do, they just get in the f**ing way.”
The line supervisor who doubles as safety manager. Her real concern is schedule, so when she says, “Make sure to perform the required six-point safety check before you throw those rotors into gear,” she says it with an amusing little wink.
The working grunt who got pressed into the safety role but never studied the subject, considers the whole thing a burden, and tends to shrug his shoulders, like “there’s nothing I can really do.”
EASY TO LIST TRAITS, HARD TO FIND MENTORS
I could rattle off a list of good character traits for a safety manager: Personally cares about the subject. Takes the time to learn the issues of each job type. Gets involved in problem-solving, not just rules-following. Becomes a member of the team instead of a cop standing on the side. Steps back to see the whole picture. Brings worker concerns up to management.
All easy to say, but unless you’ve been there, all kind of abstract.
Indeed, except in the largest companies, trainees never get a formal mentorship with a truly good safety manager. More often, they’re tossed into the role, sometimes against their will. “Hey Pete, wanna handle safety? No? Tough.”
They may get some classroom training before they’re handed a list of rules and protocols—but no one shows them how to act like a safety manager.
ACTING LESSONS FOR ‘NORMAL’
I’m not kidding about the acting part. The right attitude and demeanor are all important for a safety manager: Friendly but firm. Calm in a crisis. Authoritative but approachable. One of the team, but with one foot in management.
Most important, there’s learning to “act like all this is normal.”
Every safety manager must learn to convince other people that caring about safety and following the rules is normal. Not cowardly, not priggish, not exceptional: normal.
Indeed, the entire safety culture of a company, and certainly its safety record, rests on the perception of normal by workers and management alike. If it’s normal to do the six-point check before throwing the rotors into gear, the check will get done. If it’s not considered normal, but an annoying extra requirement imposed by management, it won’t get done. At least, not every day. And not when no one’s looking.
If you go back and look at my bad examples of safety managers, you’ll see a pattern: each fails to define safety as normal for the workers. Instead, safety is annoying and priggish. Slows things down. Always a hassle. Impossible to achieve.
FINDING A ROLE MODEL
To define normal, the safety manager must themselves be perceived as a normal guy or gal who completely believes in the normality of safety, and is enforcing normal rules.
This ain’t easy, and it’s definitely tough to manufacture on your own without seeming fake or forced—at least not without years of practice. You have to have walked the walk before you talk the talk, and you have to be completely comfortable in your role. Posers are spotted fast.
A LITTLE VIDEO INSIGHT
If you’re new to this, or don’t have a good role model on how to “act like a safety manager,” I have 45-minute video I want you to watch. In fact, watch it regardless.
“A Day in the Life: The Safety Manager” offers no narration, no lectures, and no top five tips on how to be a great safety manager. It just follows a great safety manager from dawn to dusk, so we can see how he acts, and we can imitate him. The video was created in 2016 as part of the “I Build America” series.
In this case, the normal, firm-but-friendly guy you should imitate is named Cesar Martinez, safety director at Achen-Gardner Construction, a heavy civil contractor in Arizona. In the video he drives around to utility repair sites: underground pipe replacements, electrical repairs, gas work. It’s dangerous stuff done in trenches and manholes threatened by toxic leaks, collapse, explosions, and flooding. As safety manager, he checks on protocols, and he keeps teams working safely.
Along the way, this Cesar exercises a kind of quiet genius for defining normal. He’s subtle. He’s deep. He’s just another guy. You could do much worse than learning to act like Cesar.
Find yourself 45 minutes, make some popcorn, and watch him:
Things to Observe While Watching a Master at Work
For starters, watch how Cesar’s body language changes every time he arrives at a job site. He walks in with authority, but not in an “I’m here to throw my weight around” kind of way. His body language says, “I’m an essential part of the team, no more and no less. I’m friendly, I’m one of you, but I can’t be ignored.” For example, take a look at: 16:12.
Observe another masterful site arrival at 31:37, again featuring Cesar’s consummate body language. The crew failed to fill out their site-specific safety plan and Cesar handles the error with quiet force. You can see he’s upset, but restraining himself. Watch the section all the way through to 33:38, when Cesar admits to the cameraman that he’s personally upset. Learn from him how to handle such a situation perfectly, including responding in Spanish to the guy down in the manhole who didn’t do his job. No one can be angry after this encounter or think that Cesar is some kind of annoying management dweeb. And by the way, is it critical to his job that Cesar is bilingual? Absolutely.
Notice how Cesar never, ever says, “I know this is a hassle, but…” Instead, he treats the filling out of forms, the inspections, the precautions as simply normal. As simply the way it is done. There’s a great moment starting at 24:41 where Cesar shows a worker how to fill out a long, tedious safety inspection on an iPad. Never does he apologize for the time it takes. Never does he lecture the guy. Nevertheless, he patiently explains the purpose of the exercise. His tone is humble but insistent, respectful and never patronizing: sheer genius.
Getting a Reluctant Worker to Wear Her PPE
Jump back to 15:40 where Cesar deals with a worker named Lydia who failed to bring her protective gear to the site. Lydia makes a half-hearted attempt to assert herself, but Cesar’s quiet, friendly authority collapses rebellion immediately. Again, there’s a personal element: ultimately, she does not want him to be annoyed. Ultimately, he wants to stay her friend:
Personal but authoritative, the way safety has to be.
Throughout the video, notice that Cesar never actually lectures anyone about the importance of safety, and never offers the slightest hint that someone is foolish or stupid for not doing the right thing. They’re all adults. They just need to adjust back to the baseline. Because it’s the baseline.
Not Standing Apart from the Team
The video ends with a water pipe repair in the middle of a rainstorm. The rain threatens to collapse a trench a work team has dug, and a decision has to be made. Most work has been shut down, but on this site they can’t seem to stop the water pressure in a pipe they already cut, and the rain keeps coming. At 38:36 Cesar arrives. The pipe repair is critical, and the scene shows how a good safety manager becomes part of a team trying to solve a problem, instead of just standing outside the team as safety cop: a subtle, but vital distinction.
I could go on, but ultimately, no abstract analysis from someone like me can teach you to be a good safety manager. You have to watch and imitate and learn to act the part. Then you have to get out there and make safety normal.