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PETERSEN'S PAGE: The measure of a man

March 1, 2007
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Times being what they are, with environmental health and safety professional fields fragmented, work more fast-paced, with less time for reading and strategizing, I don’t know if one individual such as Dan Petersen will ever command the collective attention he did for more than half a century. EHS jobs are less secure, grassroots meeting attendance is falling, and many pros now work on their own. So the notion that a man like Dan could speak for a profession seems an “old business model,” you might say. Dan passed on earlier this year, and in this final Petersen’s Page column we try to show how one man did indeed touch so many. — Dave Johnson

Within the practice of safety, Dan Petersen was recognized as a thinker, a leader and a teacher upon whose principles much of today’s safety culture is based.

Workers are safer today due in large part to Dan’s invaluable contributions, including his challenge to safety professionals to study the impact of management system failures on workplace injuries.

This concept opened the door nearly 30 years ago to instill safety as a core corporate value and elevate our profession within the management decision-making process.

Alan C. McMillan, President and CEO, National Safety Council

Dan was one of the few who shared his knowledge with others. I remember when I published my safety culture book, he was one of the few who allowed me to reprint/modify his material. He was not concerned with me using his ideas or misrepresenting his ideas.

James E. Roughton, MS, CSP, CRSP, CHMM, CET, Certified Six Sigma Black Belt

I only had occasion to speak with Dan once and was humbled by his knowledge and willingness to spend his time with me. His legacy lives on in all of us who are truly concerned about the safety of workers, and struggle to find effective answers and techniques. His sage observations can only guide us toward finding real solutions and motivate us to keep seeking ways to improve.

Jenny Mandeville, Safety Compliance Officer, Arizona OSHA (ADOSH)

A wise man once said, “To look over the horizon and glimpse the future, one must stand on the shoulders of giants.” I am fortunate to have had the opportunity. We’ve lost one of our giants.

James “Skipper” Kendrick, CSP, Director, EHS Training, Textron Inc.

Dan was on my board when I was ASSE president and I have always respected him but not known him real well. I didn’t realize just how parallel Dan’s thinking and writing were with mine until recently. I should have spent more time talking to him. I’m sure many people will feel the same way as they reread his books and articles and reflect on how accurate and even prescient his comments were and even now are.

Don Eckenfelder, Chairman & CEO, Social Operating Systems, Ltd.

From my graduate studies in the early 1980s to now in 2007, I have read all that I could by Dan Petersen. Dan’s work was always insightful and practical. His breadth and depth of knowledge will be sorely and sadly missed.

David Sarkus, MS, CSP, President & Founder, David Sarkus International, Technical Editor, ISHN

Dan Petersen did more than anyone to make safety a respected and effective profession. I doubt there is a single safety professional in the world who hasn’t read at least one of Dr. Petersen’s books on safety management. And he authored the first book on behavior-based safety in 1989 entitled, “Safe Behavior Reinforcement.”

I had known of Dr. Petersen’s scholarship for over a decade when I first met him at a safety conference in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1988. My talk followed his opening address, which made me quite nervous. I was scheduled to follow the renowned Dan Petersen — “the safety guru.” I recall well that Dan referred to the research and scholarship of others throughout his speech. Unlike every keynote I had heard from a safety consultant heretofore, Dr. Petersen cited the source for various principles, concepts, and procedures. He never pretended to be the originator, or the owner of a concept, but rather a teacher who shows relevance for safety leadership and injury prevention.

Dan Petersen was our safety steward, possessing all qualities of the very best leaders — from charismatic self-confidence to compassionate empathy, honesty and integrity. But the leadership quality I remember and respect most was his humility. In our many conversations, Dan was never assuming nor presumptuous, but always open to hear other ideas and perspectives.

We have lost our safety-leader exemplar, and I have lost a special friend.

E. Scott Geller, Ph.D., Alumni Distinguished Professor, Virginia Tech, Senior Partner, Safety Performance Solutions

Dan was a great friend, a true professional and a mentor to lots of us who are trying to make the world a little safer. Dan was a true giant in the field of safety. What made him so great was his willingness to share his knowledge and experiences. While a giant, he was always willing to step down to help anyone who asked for his assistance. We talk of making a difference — Dan did that every day.

This is a void in the safety profession that will not be easily filled, if ever.

Eddie Greer, Eddie Greer & Associates

As a safety professional practicing in the Phoenix area for the last 25 years, I have had the pleasure of knowing Dan professionally for a long time. I first met him in the 1980s when he was consulting with Procter & Gamble on their behavior-based safety systems. Over the years, I often contacted him to speak at local safety conferences and at ASSE meetings. If he was in town, he would do it and do it for free. Although he was a good speaker, Dan was actually very shy. Still, his speeches and opinions tended to spark some very passionate discussions.

I’ll always remember one of the first things I took away from a Dan Petersen session in the ’80s. He said that we should manage safety in the same way we manage other aspects of the business — a very radical thought for that stage in the evolution of safety management. Even though I heard him speak many times, I always learned something new or looked at an issue from a different angle after I listened to him.

I will miss the person and the safety professional.

Vicki Allen-Buglisi, CSP, EH&S Manager, Aircraft Interior Products - PAZ, Goodrich Corp.

No one has come close to the influence Dan had on the safety profession and on me personally. As a reasonably young safety engineer at Eastman Kodak’s Kodak Park plant in Rochester, New York, in the mid-1970s, I had read everything Dan had written and was trying hard to pass his message to my management.

When the opportunity came for safety to be a part of a major management workshop, I invited Dan to speak. He accepted; we put his flip chart concepts on color slides (a first for him) and he kept 300 senior managers enthralled for a morning. When he was done, he looked like a celebrity with managers crowded around him for a personal word. Before he left, I shared with him a conceptual approach I had developed. When he later asked me if he could include it in his 1980 “Analyzing Safety Performance” book, I was thrilled.

Much later, I asked him to review a draft of my book. His response was warm, gracious and supportive. Always open and helpful, attentive, brilliant of mind, and consistently on-target. I’ll miss him.

Lawrence H. “Chip” Dawson, Dawson Associates, Rochester, N.Y.

I first worked with Dan in the mid-’80s, on a project with a large food company that he had worked with for many years. I was asked to put together a workshop that he attended and supported. Dan was an interesting mix to work with — on one hand he was very open to everything new and wanted to bring his clients the benefit of whatever was out there; on the other he was also skeptical of anything that looked like a “package deal” or had too big a price tag.

He loved to see new research that he thought was applicable to the needs of his clients, and he wanted it with “no fluff.” In my mind that quality was his biggest virtue. He really put the needs of the client first. The safety world will miss Dan Petersen, not only for his contribution to content, but for his strength of character and integrity.

Thomas Krause, Ph.D., Chairman of the Board, BST, Inc.

Dan’s work in the practice of safety influenced a large number of safety practitioners because of the logic in his writings. It has been my privilege to refer to him as a colleague. We maintained a continuing communication, especially when I wanted him to know I was quoting from his books or articles. My last conversation with Dan occurred in July 2006, several weeks after he had a stroke. We reminisced about the identical conclusions each of us had drawn through our research into the characteristics of incidents that result in serious injuries. Dan truly has been a giant in the practice of safety.

Fred A. Manuele, CSP, PE, President, Hazards, Limited

Dan was good to the profession and filled appearances wherever he went. He was certainly an energizer and kept us “pros” on our toes and helped drive programs that somehow were otherwise stalled. He was the genuine article.

Steve Damsker, risk control manager, Atlanta, Ga.

During the course of Dan’s career he taught so many, both verbally and through his writings. Throughout my many years in the safety field, whenever Dan’s name came up, it was always with great respect for the man and his work. He has definitely made a positive impact on our chosen profession and he will long be remembered.

Rich Moscato, President, The Rimco Group

I only attended one of Dan Peterson’s “live” seminars and, of course, read many of his writings. I always thought of him as the Peter Drucker of Safety — an insightful spur to taking action, to thoughtfully attempt new solutions where current strategies didn’t work.

But what most impressed me about him was that he, though an engineer by training, also valued approaches outside of his paradigm. For example, he understood and pioneered the importance of behavior, stress, attitudes and management leadership on safety performance — well before anyone else.

He’s impressed me as a true leader and change agent, and as an honest person. Didn’t put on airs, was straightforward, down to earth. A great professional.

Robert Pater, Managing Director, Strategic Safety Associates & MoveSMART®

I had the opportunity to hear from Dan and read his printed views many times. I think his most interesting and controversial position was that OSHA was unnecessary and, in fact, an impediment to achieving real safety excellence.

While I believe that OSHA has benefited safety and health and certainly has benefited the S&H profession, the profession largely continues to regard OSHA as a professional essential. That, in turn, has tended to consume our productive and creative energies that we could/should be devoting to influencing that excellence.

Dan really hit on a significant concern in his view of OSHA.

Thomas W. Lawrence, Jr., CSP, P.E., Principal, RRS Engineering

I had only met Dan face-to-face for the first time in 2006. I was at an all-day event he taught at in Oregon — perhaps one of his last public events. He and I had lunch together that day so I could get to know him more personally.

Dan was an incredible systems-thinker and clearly saw the relationship of safety to overall business operations and results. In fact, the most memorable statement he made that I took away from that day was, “Safety is a by-product of how well an organization is managed.”

I feel blessed to have gotten to know Dan and I truly loved his ability to shake people up a bit. He did not enjoy, nor leave alone, the status quo when he knew the status quo of hurting people to get business done is an unsustainable and unacceptable model of doing business.

Bob Veazie, Quality & Operations Manager - Nypro Oregon

A few years ago the company I was with sent the director of operations and two plant managers to the Behavioral Safety Now conference (in Florida that year). Upon returning from the conference, the director of operations called me into his office and explained that he had gone to a session with an excellent speaker who really motivated him... so much so that he purchased one of his books and read it throughout the week. He was then able to really understand our strategy for safety improvements, and support our drive for behavioral safety more fully. From that point on, safety improvements became a very visible value within our culture!

The speaker was Dan Petersen.

I spent many hours with Dan discussing the keys to improving safety performance and one point I will always remember was that he advised me to be honest with people.

He could never understand why people always complicated safety. I remember him advising me to set up clear accountabilities so people understand what is expected of them. Then make sure management and supervision execute against the standards. Measure proactive activities, not just end-of-the-pipe results. Involve your line employees, make your system flexible and, most importantly, make sure your efforts are perceived as being positive. Such a simple concept, yet so hard to get right.

I will miss Dan’s counsel, his stubbornness at times, his leadership and most of all his friendship.

Dave Johnson, Director, Global Health, Safety & Environment, Honeywell International

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