Lessons from a Life in Safety: #6

Lessons from a Life in Safety: #6

Be a Business Language Learner

About 2 years ago, a CEO named Trevor asked to meet with me.

Trevor is CEO over a family of companies, across many states and business lines, from construction-to-manufacturing-to-agriculture.

Trevor came to my office and said, “I keep reading in articles that safety starts at the top. Well, I am the top, and I have no idea what that means, can you teach me?”

“What is the safety job?”, he asked and, “How do I measure it?”.


If you’ve been working in safety for any time at all, you know that question is what everyone hopes for—it’s like food for the weary safety professional’s soul.

A leader who is serious about safety, knows it’s part of their role, and is asking smart questions about how to measure it’s success…? That’s a treat!

For an hour, Trevor and I talked. I shared with him what I call the 4-Pillars of Safety, foundational minimums that need to be in place. I told him how to measure against those safety program essentials, and Trevor took notes. We framed questions he could ask of those in his organization doing “safety” work, so he could assess as a leader if the work of safety was on the curve, behind the curve, or ahead of the curve.

Here are two things I know for sure about the importance of being a business language learner in this field:

  1. Don’t assume your leaders understand your job. Your job is to teach them at a 30,000-foot level. They don’t need the minutia, just enough to support your work confidently from their perspective. And if you’ve positioned yourself as a trusted advisor, smart, ethical leaders will support you.
  2. Share information and make requests in a way your leadership understands, making the right, safe decisions, easy and obvious to reach.

Back when I worked for that administrative company, I was the first safety person in a 65-year history of the company.

The job was nearly insurmountable. One thing I needed was to off-load safety training.

I needed to implement a repeatable, consistent method to keep up with annual requirements and new employee training in high turn-over positions. I didn’t have the band-width to develop and deploy training along with my other duties.

I found the safety training online I believed to be the best. Because I had no budget, I needed to pitch the training subscription fee to a leadership team made up of 20 people from all of the affiliate businesses.

Somehow, I had gotten the leadership team to agree to a quarterly safety meeting when I first started the job, so that was where I made my pitch.

My manager, who was the Director of Human Resources, warned me ahead of time not to get my hopes up because the leadership team rarely approved anything at a first ask and always wanted to know more.

I leaned into my strength as a decent storyteller. I told them a story, weaving in as much business language learning as I could to explain where the company was regarding safety.

Since they didn’t know what minimal safety compliance even looked like, I laid out the 4-Pillars of Safety from a high-level, taking a quick dip on the pillar of training to explain they were behind the curve.

Then, I explained what it would take to get on the curve—that I had found a solution I believed in and why.

I told explained the price per employee for training instead of the annual fee, because it was the best reflection of cost savings, framing the expense in terms of work groups they were connected to.

They agreed, voted in favor, and I had my training solution! My HR Director was stunned, so was I.

Know your audience, speak their language, assume nothing.

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