Leading-With-Safety Journey

Before I joined Bartlett Tree Experts more than 15 years ago, I was president and CEO of a national tree care firm based in the Chicago area. One bright summer day, I was headed to the Baltimore area for a strategic planning session with my executive team. As the plane was on final approach, my pager went off. Yes, it was that long ago, we all wore pagers, this little black box clipped to your belt that would send messages, usually just a phone number to call back. This time, however, the message I received was “911.”

Ben DeVries, local office safety coordinator in Grand Rapids, Michigan
Ben DeVries, local office safety coordinator in Grand Rapids, Michigan, knows that positive energy helps create a “Culture of Caring.” All photos courtesy of Scott Jamieson.

It was our code for a serious accident. When the plane landed, I made a beeline to the nearest pay phone. Pay phones were devices attached to walls in public places so you could make a call to others. I swiped my calling credit card and dialed into my corporate office.

There had been a serious accident in Virginia, and our teammate had been flown via helicopter to a hospital 30 minutes from where I was headed. When I arrived at the hospital, I sat in the emergency-surgery waiting room, reserved for family members of those patients facing urgent and life-threatening surgery. It was just our teammate’s wife, my local manager, our regional manager and me as we waited to hear from the doctor.

Finding purpose

After hours of surgery, the doctor came in and told us our teammate had survived the surgery and the prognosis was positive. He never went back to tree care, but moved on to landscaping and had a family and a wonderful life. The accident specifics do not matter here, but the impact the event had on my perspective around safety changed my life.

The next day, as we opened the strategic planning meeting, it was difficult for me to speak with the team and harder to focus on anything but how we could prevent that from happening in the future. We were a “safe” company, with an insurance modification factor that was the envy of the profession. Yet we all knew there was so much more we could be doing.

Personal-safety vision

After this catastrophic accident, we embarked on a journey to change the way we viewed safety. We engaged a world-class safety firm to help us. The firm had worked with huge companies, including NASA in the aftermath of the Challenger disaster.

We started our journey by creating our personal-safety vision. We took the event that had occurred, the emotion behind it, and produced “No One in Our Family Gets Hurt.” Nothing fancy, nothing complex, but it embodied what we wanted to do around safety and why it mattered to us.

If you have been in this profession long enough, you likely have a story similar to what we went through. Something, somewhere along your journey, has made an emotional impact. The power comes from turning that tragic story that deeply affected you into positive energy and direction around safety. What is key is that it is personal. Your personal-safety vision must be just that, personal. It must mean something to you.

It is said that to get the best results in anything you do in life, it needs to be fueled by your why, your purpose, and in this example, the safety story that has the deepest emotional impact on you. Make it the North Star to guide you where you are headed around safety.

The business case for safety

Safety performance and business performance are inextricably linked. The companies that put the highest priority on safety are typically the most profitable companies. The leadership attributes necessary to have a high-performance company are the same leadership attributes that contribute to a company that has outstanding safety results. I learned the term “leading with safety” years ago from Thomas Krause, who wrote one of the top safety books by that same title. Having a strong personal-safety vision, caring about people, building and nurturing trust, holding people accountable and focusing on results are just some of the aspects around leading with safety that also lead to great company results.

leading a meaningful safety discussion with the entire team on a job site.
Jon Heaton, manager in Minnetonka, Minnesota, leading a meaningful safety discussion with the entire team on a job site.

It is about exposure

One of the current shifts we have made is to view safety through the lens of exposure. In the movie “Jaws,” there is a famous scene toward the end when Quint is about to get devoured by the massive great white shark. After the shark destroys their boat (they needed a bigger boat), Quint is seen sliding into the open, toothy mouth of the shark that has made its way up the stern of the boat. At this point, Quint’s exposure to the shark has tipped over to the point of no return. The exposure is so great, no intervention will stop the catastrophic outcome.

Safety is about identifying and mitigating exposures. When we start viewing safety in this manner, many things come into focus.

We operate in a profession that has many exposures. Simply being elevated off the ground by more than
5 feet is an exposure, and arborists do this, and much more, every day. Identifying the exposure is just the first step. Mitigating, reducing or removing the exposure is what really counts. De-energizing power lines that are too close to a tree is one example of removing that exposure.

Not hunting the shark in the first place would have eliminated that exposure to Jaws in the middle of the ocean, on a boat that was too small and with a shark that was terribly angry and hungry.

Focus on SIFs

Preventing serious injuries and fatalities (SIFs) is where we place our focus. Sure, we do not want to smash a fence or break a landscape light, but what we really want is to make sure no one in our family gets hurt. “Hey crew, what could hurt or kill us on this job today?” is a commonly used question to get our teams looking at the exposures that matter.

Engaging the team doing the work in the discussion of exposures and how to mitigate them is so especially important. When we engage our teams in this manner, we have “meaningful safety conversations.”

These meaningful safety conversations are more than the supervisor pointing out hazards and telling the crew to “be careful.” These meaningful safety conversations are two-way interactions, with the field teammates doing most of the talking. They are meaningful because they engage the field in the dialogue to identify and mitigate exposures. They are meaningful because, if done correctly, they show team members caring in action.

We work hard to create a “Culture of Caring,” and regular, meaningful safety conversations are just one of the elements to building and nurturing that culture. When we engage the frontline teammates in identifying and mitigating exposures that can lead to SIFs, we are following our North Star of making sure “No One in Our Family Gets Hurt.”

Get out in the field to discuss safety with your teams
Get out in the field to discuss safety with your teams where the work happens. That’s the author in the foreground.

Learning from near misses

We take a hard look at potential SIF incidents or near misses. We do field-crew inspections, audits and documentation on a regular basis. And we also do team observations where we look for potential SIF exposures and gather that data to help us create leading indicators, precursors and amplifiers of exposures. If we can measure leading indicators that may point to a future SIF, we can intercede.

The challenge is that SIF indicators can be hidden or hard to see, and this is what makes them so insidious. We know, however, that a significant percentage of near misses and actual accidents in our profession have the potential to be SIFs. So even if an SIF did not occur, but could have with just another “what if,” we take time to investigate that incident as though it was an SIF.

This look helps to give us insights on how we can do the best we can to make sure that near misses or accidents never become future SIFs.

It is a journey

This I know for sure, the path to safety has no end. There is no safety destination, no finish line where you can ever say, “We’ve figured this out.” The catastrophic accidents that have impacted my life have given me motivation to do more and to never stop on this journey.

I continue to work on being a student of safety, meaning I want to learn more and figure out different perspectives to help those around me. And I have so much more to learn.

I carry a medallion in my left pocket at the start of each day, and if I make some positive contribution to safety during the day, I move it to my right pocket. At the end of the day, I can evaluate my efforts, and there are days I fall short. There are statistics, there are numbers and there is inevitability in safety. I can only control my actions, my impact and my reaction when something happens. I am driven around safety by making sure “No One in My Family Gets Hurt.”

What are you driven by?

Scott Jamieson is vice president, Midwest division, based in Schaumburg, Illinois, for Bartlett Tree Experts, an accredited, 49-year TCIA member company based in Stamford, Connecticut. He also is a former TCIA Board Chair.

1 Comment

  1. What a great article. You have made such a big difference in your 15 years! Enjoyed our years together!

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