Call them the wise guys. Respected experts. Passionate about protecting people on the job - and about helping you succeed in safety.

Dan Petersen has worked as a safety executive and consultant since the 1950s, authored 18 books, and offers a sweeping view of what works and what doesn't in safety.

Peter Sandman is one of the world's preeminent risk communicators, advising businesses, governments and activists how to develop messages and programs that capture the true nature of risks.

John Henshaw balanced passion with savvy for more than two decades as a health and safety executive in corporate America, and is doing the same now as the head of OSHA.

ISHN interviewed these renowned authorities about new and old challenges facing safety and health pros. From the interviews, we've culled 25 insights to remember. . .


1) Find your niche- There are two roles for safety that make sense and you've got to pick one.

One is, I'm part of the senior management. I represent concerns about safety in all relevant company decisions. I need to know early on what's happening, or what's being thought about, so that I can input into the decision its safety implications.

The other contender is, I'm a professional. I'm off in my corner managing safety. No, I don't need frequent access to the CEO, but what I need is very substantial autonomy. I need control over safety so that when I make the safety decision, people who don't know anything about safety don't get to second-guess me or overrule me.

What doesn't work is if you're strung out halfway between them. Policy decisions get made without you and safety decisions get overruled for policy reasons. That's intolerable and that's where safety becomes substandard.

- Peter Sandman

2) Stand tall - The job of the safety professional, in part, is to stand tall for safety. If you're not getting much management pushback, the odds are overwhelming you're not pushing hard enough. You've got to expect management pushback.

Now a corollary to that is you've got to have a code with your management for those times when they just can't push back. It seems to me you've got to have a way of saying to management, "Look, we both understand that I push a whole lot more safety stuff than you're prepared to do, and you want me to push more than you're prepared to do. But this one you've got to do. If you don't do this one, you're in deep trouble and I'm on the edge of quitting. This one I'll go to the mat for." You need this code. You need an agreed upon signal that this has got to be one of the ones you win.

- Peter Sandman


3) Raise your profile- All through our history, we've kept a low profile with management. There was no comfort in going to the CEO's office. We didn't know what to ask of the CEO. That's changed now. Companies have chosen more competent managers for safety who communicate better.

What should you ask the CEO? It starts with role definition. Once defined, then it's relatively easy to work out the activities that the CEO should be doing. Whether it's getting out with focus groups, walking around the floor. It's fairly easy to define what you want the executive to do.

But first, he must perceive a role in safety for himself, like Paul O'Neill when he was at Alcoa. A lot of executives don't perceive a role.

- Dan Petersen

4) Ride the seesaw> - Take advantage of the fairly high likelihood that the CEO is ambivalent about getting involved in safety.

That is, on the one hand, the CEO doesn't think much of safety as an appropriate focus for a high ranking Harvard MBA. On the other hand, the CEO kind of realizes that a bad safety record can really damage the bottom line, can really damage reputation, really cost contracts, etc. So the CEO is simultaneously feeling both sides of the ambivalence. He's on some kind of seesaw with respect to safety.

Well, whenever there is that kind of ambivalence, whichever side of that ambivalence, whichever seat on the seesaw you take, the person you're talking to is very likely going to take the other seat.

So if you go to your CEO and you say, "Safety needs more of your attention," the CEO is going to say, "I don't do safety, I'm a CEO."

So instead you go to the CEO and say, "Look, you're much too busy for this stuff. I figure the most I can get out of you is ten minutes of your time to brief you on the very high-level stuff, because you're the CEO and safety is not your main thing." Odds are very good the CEO is going to say, "You've got that wrong, I need much more information than that. I want to give much more attention to safety than that."

- Peter Sandman

5) Offer absolution - How does the safety person get around a CEO's sense of guilt about safety - "Prior accidents can't be my fault" - and ease that sense of guilt? Offer your management some kind of absolution. Say to a manager, "You know, there's no way we could have known five years ago what we know now about how we could do A or B or C. It's not like we've been systematically blind and ignoring things our peer companies were paying attention to."

If it's credible, you can make this case. If the company is behind, the company is behind. But if the company is not behind and the technology has just changed, or the knowledge base has changed, or industry norms have changed, then I think you can offer a kind of absolution. You can do this without accusing the manager of feeling guilty.

- Peter Sandman


6) Tap the intelligence- The biggest challenge today is to break away from traditional safety thinking. Think about how companies can be improved through interpersonal relationships. Concentrate more on relationships than on physical conditions and standards.

The only way you can do this is to tap the intelligence of the employee. If they are not a part of what you're doing, you're missing out. Everyone must feel part of a team. They can really get turned on, and have fun, too. I'm not talking about peer observations. Safety pros can facilitate processes of safety improvement teams, process safety ad hoc teams; there are any number of ways to use people's brains to make things better.

- Dan Petersen

7) Go one-on-one - Safety is about one-to-one interactions, supervisors to managers, supervisors to workers, managers to workers. Safety is about these interactions happening every day. It's people every day looking out for each other. That's how safety is achieved. Not by writing down audit protocol. Pieces of paper don't save lives.

- Dan Petersen

8) Shoot straight - A client brought me in and asked, "Why are our employees ignoring our demands, our messages that they've got to work safer?" One of the things the company was aggressively saying was, "Safety is our number one priority." I started talking to employees and asked, "Why is management's safety campaign failing so badly?" Many employees said to me, "Well, they don't really mean it."

What management did, and it helped, was to change their message to employees. They stopped saying "Safety is our number one priority." What they started saying was something like this: "Look, as you all know, our number one priority is return on investment. Profitability and productivity are the things our shareholders judge us by. Those are the things we live or die by. At the moment, one of the most powerful barriers to profitability is our poor safety record, which is costing us a fortune. Now it is also costing our employees far too many accidents, so that employees' lives are damaged and sometimes ruined.

That message worked. Employees said, "OK, we get it," and they started working safer.

- Peter Sandman

9) If it's stupid, say so - Frankly, sometimes safety rules are stupid. When a safety rule is stupid, but you have to do it because otherwise you're in trouble with the regulator, the right thing to say to employees is, "Look, I don't think this is a serious risk either. But they passed a regulation, and let me tell you about the risk that is serious. If we get caught ignoring this regulation we're going to be in deep trouble. If you're the one who gets us into deep trouble, you're going to be in deep trouble. Do I think the regulation is important? No. Do I think it's important to obey the regulation? Yes. For these extrinsic reasons."

When you say a stupid rule isn't stupid, you don't persuade anybody. You also undermine your credibility about the rules that aren't stupid.

- Peter Sandman

10) Get it on the table - Take people seriously when they say this won't affect me. Ask them what they mean. "Do you mean that you think nobody is really at risk? Do you mean, well yes, this might affect other people, but there are reasons why you in particular are invulnerable?"

That one's pretty common. It's pretty common for people to think, "Jack may get hurt and Susan may get hurt but I won't get hurt." If that's what they think, it's very, very useful to get that on the table, because it usually doesn't hold water as a conscious belief. It only holds water as an unconscious belief. So make it conscious.

- Peter Sandman

11) Go ahead, scare 'em - The most straightforward, the most obvious way of dealing with people who are apathetic about a risk is to scare them. Scaring people has had a bad press. There is a myth among safety people that fear doesn't work. And it's not true. Fear works fine. Excessive fear is another thing.

Fear is a "U" curve. In general, if I'm insufficiently afraid I won't take precautions, and if I'm excessively afraid I also won't take precautions. So you just don't want to use fear appeals across the board. Fear appeals will worsen denial. But for people who are genuinely apathetic, fear appeals are terrific.

- Peter Sandman

12) Harness horseplay - There's a lot to be said for making safety not an individual responsibility, but rather a group responsibility. If you say to employees they're accountable for their teammates, they are jointly accountable, it seems to me you bring esprit de corps and morale issues to bear on the side of safety. If you have groups that work closely together and are fond of each other, if you have them be accountable to each other and have them work to accumulate a group safety record, then I think resistance to accountability is much easier to cope with. You're harnessing morale on your side. You're harnessing altruism on your side. You're harnessing even horseplay and teasing and peer pressure to be on your side.

- Peter Sandman

13) Be a better parent - We tend to imagine people's response to safety is mostly a response to the risk. Sometimes it isn't. Sometimes it is mostly a response to the precaution.

Look at our history. We go through several decades of what feels to us like overprotective parenting. And then we get to the job, we're adults now, and the safety person is very likely to come on to us in a way that makes us think, "Son of a gun, it's mommy all over again."

Instead of coming on like a parent, you come on like a better parent. Give control wherever you can, using group norms rather than individual norms. Give choices among ways of meeting the performance spec rather than the tech spec. These are ways of sharing control.

Try to make the precautions less onerous. Also, acknowledge the ways in which the precautions are onerous. One of the worst things parents do is say, "The medicine doesn't taste bad," when the medicine does taste bad.

Once you realize outrage about the precaution is very common and very real, use your parenting skills to be more gentle and more understanding and more compassionate and more gracious about safety.

- Peter Sandman


14) Make the connection- In the best companies, they believe, but they can't prove, that there is a tight relationship between safety and culture. Safety improves management-labor relations. You also use it to push employee involvement. It's super not only for safety, but quality, morale, productivity.

Compliance only starts you on your way. Most companies see that safety can improve all aspects of their company. But it is a very bad message to say safety is about dollars. The real message is: "We are doing these things because we care about you, the company cares about you." Don't even talk to me about doing safety for money. I don't think there is much value to talking about safety that way. Cost-benefit is not how executives make decisions on fuzzy issues like safety.

- Dan Petersen

15) Don't be insane - When you say safety is a value, and we're doing safety for reasons that are not dollars and cents, you can stereotype that to mean the cost per life saved by safety innovation should not be relevant to the decision whether or not to make that innovation. That's an insane argument. The safest factory shuts down.

No one wants to optimize safety by shutting down. No one wants to drive two miles an hour on the highway. No one really means to say, "Do things the safest possible way regardless of what that does to productivity." No one means that. And since productivity is measured in financial terms, you simply can't make safety a value that is not conditioned by money. You can't.

- Peter Sandman

16) Own the temptation - A safety professional doesn't have to pretend to be more interested in profitability than in safety. But you do have to acknowledge that profitability runs the company, and that profitability should run the company. It would be very self-defeating, I think, to refuse to make a profitability-based case for safety improvements that really are profitable.

The safety person can own the temptation and then forswear it. They can say to management, "I'm tempted to say to you that this is about saving people's lives, and it's more important than the economic argument. I'm tempted to say that, but I'm not going to say that. I want to say something that is a little different than that. What I want to say to you is the economic case for safety is subtler than the economic case for marketing. It is an economic case, but it's more indirect and subtler. And I'm going to need some time to make it to you."

- Peter Sandman


17) Define reality- The most important step you can take is to assess the reality of the organization. Define reality. What's going on here? First, you must do this to see what needs to be fixed. What works and what doesn't work. You can do this through interviews and perception surveys. Second, you plan what to do to integrate safety. Third, you get involvement, get employees on their own doing things the way they think it should be done.

You need to be able to get a feel for an organization. Get a feel for where people are at the bottom of the organization. Don't talk only to the managers at the top. Hourly people are the only ones who know what's going on in the organization.

- Dan Petersen

18) Reinforce the resolve - Every owner has to realize that accidents can be avoided. Senior management needs to have the resolve that we can fix safety problems. We can establish a process to fix this and have a safe workplace. Then pull together the right people from the organization, convince them of the same idea - every injury is avoidable, it is not something that just happens.

The good companies, the ones that are built to last, have got this kind of culture, this kind of understanding. Injuries and illnesses can be avoided and should be avoided. Management is committed to avoiding them, and everyone insists that this must happen.

Once you get this belief, once you get people committed, then you just need to get people engaged and working on the issues and solving the problems.

- John Henshaw

19) Study "what ifs" - Look at near misses, look at first aid cases. Good companies who are really showing good results around value-added safety and health are doing near-miss investigations. When they see something that could have been an accident, where just by luck somebody was not hurt, they study the incident to see how they can avoid a more serious problem.

Being proactive is where the real productivity and quality gains come into play. When you're proactive you convey to your employees that they are valuable assets, just like the machines they maintain on a regular basis. You're maintaining the employees. You're maintaining the operating system. You're maintaining the attitudes and the culture.

All this produces a better quality product in the end. Your employees focus on getting the job done, as opposed to just putting in the time. They participate in the process, they participate in the organization. They are a player in the organization, as opposed to just a pawn of the organization. This is how to get the job done not only safely, but quicker, more efficiently, and at a higher quality.

- John Henshaw


20) Don't rush to fix- A whole host of variables usually go into the cause of an incident. There is not only engineering work that could be done. It's not only a matter of having a positive understanding of safety and health, and the value it adds, and the commitment to reducing injuries and illnesses. There are also behavioral variables. And it's not just the worker; it's the behavior of management, of senior managers, of middle managers, supervisors. It's the attitudes of managers, supervisors, and workers. All of these have to be dealt with.

The quick fix is usually, "Just put a device in place," and that's it. Well, that quick fix is not going to last. It takes culture, it takes attitudes, it takes behavior, it takes commitment, it takes understanding the value. People won't do it unless they see the value, and that goes for the worker, the supervisor, on up to the CEO.

- John Henshaw

21) Don't rush to judge - The easy answer is, "Whoever took the action caused the incident." That obviously is too easy of an answer. The reality is there are a lot of variables that led up to that incident. The employee had to be encouraged by a supervisor. Or a supervisor may have ignored an unsafe circumstance that could've grown over time to create the incident.

It's the attitude of the supervisor, the way the supervisor, manager, or CEO communicates; it's what they stress, what they focus on. It's what the employees feel are the real issues at the facility. If they don't believe that senior management believes in safety and health, then no matter what managers say, no matter what policies they have in place, the employee is going to say, "No, what really matters is something else."

The employee possibly is the direct cause in some cases. But the cause of the incident goes all throughout the organization. It may be management systems. It may be attitudes, culture, commitment. It may be engineering defects. It may be a lot of different things.

- John Henshaw

22) Outline the outcomes - Part of the problem with safety is we tend to have very rigid safety rules, so our specs for safety performance are tech specs (technical specifications) rather than performance specs.

People are always much happier implementing performance specs than tech specs because they are then making decisions about how to achieve the performance goal. Whether it's on the individual level or the group level, rather than saying, "Here are the 15 things you must do, you're accountable for doing them," you're much better off saying, "Here are outcomes that need to be achieved. Here are some ways of achieving them. You're accountable for figuring out which ways you can use, and for making sure that you use them."

- Peter Sandman

23) Scrutinize the numbers - Clearly, from my business experience, as you focus on numbers, you also have to establish quality assurance measures. The accuracy of injury and illness reporting is worrisome to me.

Get your employees engaged in recordkeeping and you have less opportunity for gaming or underreporting or inappropriate reporting because you have too many eyes watching you. You have too many eyes scrutinizing everything in the process.

Recognize that when you use incentive programs you put pressure on the numbers to the point where you could get fictitious numbers or inaccurate numbers. So you've got to be very careful with that.

- John Henshaw


24) Look for stress points- We don't pay anywhere near enough attention to how downsizing, radical changes in jobs, longer hours are tremendous factors affecting the morale of people.

In the last 10-15 years I've never seen the number of pissed off and angry people working in companies. It's a no-brainer. You pay less attention to their work, their schedules, people are cross-trained to do stuff they don't want to do. You have skilled mechanics doing cleanup work because the cleanup people have been laid off. You have a whole range of management decisions affecting people.

I don't think these factors - how work is organized today - are on the radar screen. Our history in safety is we only do what we are forced to do, not what's right. We only do things we're told to do.

- Dan Petersen

25) Pay attention to morale - Employees for very good reasons hide their outrage. In times of layoffs, the evidence is overwhelming, employees who were complaining a lot are much more likely to get laid off than employees who were not complaining a lot. So the main reason you don't see employee outrage is because employees don't want you to see it.

What happens is that outrage goes underground in the workforce, until it becomes extremely high. What should you do? We know a very high percentage of people who 'go postal' have precursors. And the precursors are ignored. What is the safety professional doing about the precursors? Is low morale on the safety person's agenda? If it isn't, then he's ignoring a piece of the safety problem that is a bigger piece than it was.

- Peter Sandman