“The common welfare was my business…
The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water
in the comprehensive ocean of my business.”
~The Ghost of Jacob Marley
For two decades, I’ve been talking about people getting up in the morning and heading off to work with the goal of going home alive and well at the end of the day. For many, the pandemic upended that simple view of reality: working for a living meant getting up and heading to the kitchen table for a morning Zoom call.
But there are those of us working for a living who get up in the afternoon and show up back home the next morning. Shift work: something I am well-acquainted with. My father once worked as shift superintendent in a DuPont plant: days, evenings, nights – and weekends. Straight out of high school, my career in the chemical industry started on midnight shift.
No matter what the work schedule, for things related to safety most days go according to plan, and everyone goes home alive and well. But not all days: there are days people come home hurt or hurting, or worse, wind up in the hospital.
As you know, there are still days when people never come home.
When serious harm happens to someone at work, normally there’s a call to the house. It’s one of “those calls”. Circumstances dictate that a leader pick up the phone and make as tough a call as a leader will ever have to make. All the other business bad news – production, cost, quality, customer – pales by comparison.
That onerous duty typically falls to the front-line leader: they are there, on duty, and they are the boss. In many cases they are personally acquainted with the family. I know of cases where they were family.
Personally, I’m of the view that were the senior executive the one required to make that call, or go to the house and break the news face-to-face, the world would be a safer place to work. Ponder the implications of that, you will begin to appreciate what “being accountable” really means in the real-life practice of leadership.
What if nobody calls?
Working On Your Own
We live in a service economy, but we are totally dependent on industry to live our lives. Look around: all those things you can touch came out of factories, mines, mills, and plants. Without industry you wouldn’t be able to turn on the lights or back the car out of the garage.
Roughly one in five of us works in industry. It’s tempting to picture industry as being a big fenced-in site with buildings and smokestacks, parking lots and gates, and a lot of people showing up for work every day. That’s pretty much how my three decades of industrial employment looked, going all the way back to day one.
But for many working in industry, the workplace looks nothing even remotely like that. It’s a construction site, a pipeline right of way, an offshore rig, a basket-lift parked next to a power line or water tower, driving to work on equipment at a customer’s plant. Jacob Dean serves as the perfect illustration: employed as a pumper in the oil and gas industry, his job was to check and service equipment scattered across the West Texas oil patch; a pickup, tool-box, clipboard and cell phone defined his reality.
In the service economy, the biggest industrial hazard is very likely to be driving. But set foot on an industrial job, there are complex and serious hazards to be found everywhere. Each industry has its headline making hazards to contend with and every industry shares a set of common hazards to contend with, things like hand tools and ladders.
Understanding those hazards and looking for those hazards is a key element in the practice of industrial safety. But as important as those functions are, if the right things aren’t done to make sure the hazards do no harm, knowledge and recognition count for nothing. This is not an academic exercise.
Found on Jacob’s job was a deadly serious hazard: hydrogen sulfide, a chemical compound often found in oil and gas deposits that can and has been fatal. At low levels, you can smell H2S a mile away. At high concentrations, it overpowers the sense of smell – and can kill in a moment. In West Texas, where the hazard is commonplace, an H2S detector is as big a part of the dress code as boots.
A couple of years ago, near the end of his shift, Jacob received an alarm from a pumphouse. He drove up to the building, parked his pickup outside, and went in to look at the problem. His H2S detector was left sitting in the front seat.
Once inside, he went to work fixing the problem, but failed to recognize and deal with the biggest problem: H2S in the line connected to the pump. He died on the spot.
Nobody was around.
As you would expect in a workplace fatality like this, there was an investigation. Actually, more than one, as the United States Chemical Safety Board decided to jump in, and they didn’t have primary jurisdiction.
The benefit from the involvement of an independent agency like the CSB is the rest of us get to find out what went wrong, even when the truth is ugly. That is the point of it, but you have to wait around to read their report. For this one, the CSB produced a video re-enactment. You might be thinking, “I don’t work in the oil patch, and we don’t deal with H2S. No sense wasting my time looking at that.” That would be a mistake.
Long story short, in the opinion of the CSB, this tragedy was the product of causes that will sound distressingly familiar to every industrial leader on the planet: inadequate facility design, equipment not maintained properly, insufficient safety procedures, lack of employee training, failure to enforce the rules, and failure to wear PPE. If you ever wanted proof that things like that matter to safety, this case provides it.
The CSB laid blame squarely on the shoulders of “the Company.” They got that completely wrong.
Every one of those causes reflects a decision, and a decision is a choice. Companies don’t make choices; people working for companies make the choices. Go back and read the list: every cause reflected a choice somebody made. As to who, it’s stunningly obvious: management’s fingerprints are found all over the causes of this tragedy. They get to live with that.
Unfortunately, so does the Dean family.
The Worst Part
As bad as all this is, you have yet to hear the worst part of this story.
This happened late in the day, and Jacob was working alone. When he didn’t call or show up for dinner, his wife, Natalee, did what any good spouse would do in the situation: she started worrying. Then, she did something not every spouse could do in a situation like this: put their two kids, ages 9 and 6, in the back seat of the family car and go looking for her husband.
They lived in a small town, and Jacob worked for a small company. She knew where to look, and it didn’t take long for Natalee to drive up to the pumphouse and park right next to Jacob’s pickup. Then she did exactly what you would expect: got out of the car and went into the building looking for her husband.
The kids stayed in the car.
You know how the story ended. When the local Emergency Response showed up at the site; they didn’t go near the building without first suiting up in full respiratory protection. They recovered two bodies. The kids in the car were not seriously harmed.
Every workplace tragedy has a ripple effect through the lives of family, friends, co-workers, and yes, leaders. That is the Case for Safety: the reason why safety always comes first, no matter what anyone might say, or do. The Case is made at home.
Take the Case to heart. Undoubtedly Jacob’s former leaders do – now.
Endings – and Beginnings
If you’re a regular reader or former student, you know all about what we call Moments of High Influence©: situations that are an everyday part of life in the business, but ones where followers are sitting up, paying attention, and ready to be influenced. Whether by intuition or through the process of analysis and reasoning, for generations, the best leaders have understood the phenomena and taken full advantage of their Moments.
Consider that a gift the best leaders have given the rest of us. You don’t have to be a genius at leadership to take full advantage of the gift, but you do have to do something to make the most of the Moments you are given.
The year’s end provides more than its fair share of Moments. It’s the occasion to celebrate the holidays, and reflect on the year that’s coming to a close. Two big Moments there.
This year might have been a good one, but perhaps it wasn’t. If everyone on your watch went home alive and well at the end of every work day this year, no matter how anything else might have turned out, it was a good year.
Finally, with the New Year comes promise, a fresh start, and the opportunity to do better.
Carpe Diem! Seize the Moment!