‹ All Episodes

NSC Live: “Eliminating preventable deaths in our lifetime.” with NSC President Debbie Hersman

October 24, 2018 | 27 minutes 28 seconds

Series host Jill James sits down with the President and CEO of the National Safety Council, Debbie Hersman. Together they discuss safety legislation, being a “worst case scenario mom”, and the new mission of the NSC - eliminating preventable deaths in our lifetime.

Links and Show Notes

American Staffing Association and NSC Certification

Transcript

Jill:

Welcome to the Accidental Safety Pro podcast. We are here live at the NSC conference and expo floor. My name is Jill James, and today my guest is Debbie Hersman, the president and CEO of NSC. Thank you so much for being with us.

Debbie:

It's great to be with you, Jill.

Jill:

So you and I are the same age, and both worked in government for a while. Me with OSHA, you with the NTSB. My work was sort of regional, yours was national, oftentimes a world stage. Did we ever think when we little girls that safety would be in our realm? And I'm curious to know, what was your accidental path to get you to where you are today and where you came in?

Like so many people, when I was in college and when I was growing, I didn't even know there was a job, or such thing as just safety, and it really was by accident when I served as an intern on the hill, then I went and I worked on Capitol Hill and my boss was a senior member of the transportation committee, and so I ended up working on transportation safety legislation, and I really saw through accident investigations and looking at best practices and writing legislation, directing agencies to do regulations, that you could really change things for the better.

There was a train derailment, actually, a collision, in my boss's district, and it resulted in the people on board actually burning to death because they could not get out of the train. They were train passengers, they couldn't open the exits to get out, and the emergency responders could not break the windows to get in, and it resulted in writing legislation after the investigation understanding what happened that changed how many emergency exits have to be, how they're marked from the outside so people can get in, and how they have to be easy to open.

And seeing that is really that example to me that safety is something that can change people's lives, and most of the time people don't know it. They don't understand what's happened or what has been done to make them safer. But it was really the beginning of a journey for me that ... then on a legislative and then to the NTSB and now at the NSC, it's been awesome. I've gotten education in safety my whole career.

Jill:

Yeah. Did you have a hand in that legislation early on?

Debbie:

I did. The train actually had originated in my boss's district, and he was the senior member of the railroad subcommittee, and so I had an opportunity to work with the NTSB investigators, and that's where I really learned about NTSB.

Jill:

That's wonderful. It reminds me a little bit of Francis Perkin's story, the labor secretary, and how she was observing what was happening at the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, and then I often think of her as being sort of the mother of egress and emergency lights and exits and things because of what she observed and then what came after that. And so maybe similar with you, when we're riding in trains and we think back to our roots and how we had a hand on changing that arc. That's pretty fabulous. That's pretty fabulous.

Debbie:

And I think safety professionals probably pay attention to things that most people don't, and so I am no fun to go on a vacation with or a trip with.

Jill:

Me neither.

Debbie:

I always tell my kids, okay, this is how we're gonna get out if something happens, and this is if we're on a boat that has a canopy, I'm like, just swim away from the boat, don't worry about us, just get clear of the boat, and so pretty much nobody wants to go and do vacation with me because I'm always like, we're not gonna do that, we're not gonna do that ...

Jill:

I am so thrilled to hear that, because it validates how I walk through the world. And I wanted to know the same thing about you particularly with transportation. Just on my flight over, my plane had to do a hard restart, shut the computer down, unplug and plug it back in again, see if everything works, and so my safety eyes were paying attention to the exit lights that came on in the plane. You walk through the world differently, and I notice that every other emergency light came on, and I thought, I wonder if that's normal or I wonder if we need to talk about that. Are half the emergency lights out or not? I wasn't sure. But same thing and same thing with my kid as well. We talk about situational awareness a lot and knowing our exits and do you have them accounted for. So I'm happy to hear you do the same.

Debbie:

And it's even just wearing the right attire sometimes. We're at the biggest annual safety show and surrounded by a lot of PPE and other stuff, but I've got three teenage kids and a riding mower and I think about how you have to have the right equipment, you have to have the right protection all the time no matter what you're doing, because there are risks and it just makes me crazy in the neighborhood when I see people out mowing the yard in flip flops or something, and I think people just don't know sometimes ...

Jill:

Right, and make an assumption.

Debbie:

Yes. Well, and then they're in a risky and unsafe situation, and so just not disabling things that are supposed to protect you, and I think a lot of times people see some of those safety protections as a nuisance and they try to work around them, and we understand that the reason why those are there is because people have either gotten hurt or they've gotten killed.

Jill:

Yeah, and our job is to continually educate, though sometimes people are like, can you just stop being ... My son calls me worst case scenario mom. "Mom, not everything is a worst case scenario." I'm like, except I've seen it. I know that. So in terms of safety cliches, you've been at this a long time, I've been at this a long time, which safety cliches kind of get under your skin? Like you're just sort of weary of hearing them?

Debbie:

I don't know. Tell me about what yours are.

Jill:

"But that's the way we've been doing it for thirty years and nothing's happened." That one comes up all the time. Or "It's just a ten-second job. I'm only gonna be there for just a few seconds."

Debbie:

Yeah, I would say the one that worries me the most is "We're a very safe operation" or "We have a great record," because unfortunately, some of the worst things that I saw when I was at the NTSB for ten years were things where organizations had just received an award for having a great safety culture or having a great record and then something happened, and I would say that is just so devastating for any organization, but I think especially when organizations think they have achieved something and they can let their guard down, and I think for so many of us we have to recognize that safety is a journey. There is no one destination for us to arrive at once and for all.

Jill:

A one way to do it.

Debbie:

Right. And there's always gonna be new hazards. The world evolves, your employees, your workforce evolves, and so just understanding that you've got to continue to be vigilant and not let your guard down.

Jill:

Right. So NSC has a new mission. Eliminating deaths in our lifetime. Is that what it is?

Debbie:

Yes, eliminating preventable deaths in our lifetime, yeah.

Jill:

So tell me more about that. So what is that about and how are you supporting safety professionals in that effort?

Debbie:

Absolutely. So many, many organizations really make an effort to try to work to zero fatalities. They want all of their employees to go home safely, and at the end of the day we are, at the National Safety Council, kind of just a larger manifestation of that, and so when we say we want to get to zero preventable deaths in our lifetime, that seems like a really audacious goal. We have over five thousand workplace fatalities in the US per year, almost forty thousand fatalities on the road. But what we really want to people to understand is, we don't need anyone to worry about the big number. We're gonna worry about the big number. We just want people to worry about their number. We want them to worry about ...

If it's motor vehicle fatalities, worry about your family, because you want that number to be zero. If it's workplace fatalities, worry about your company. And if you work in a really big company and that seems too hard for you, worry about your site or your team, because you want that number to be zero. And if everybody can achieve that mindset of how to eliminate those preventable deaths wherever they occur but focus on the small number, then we'll get to that big number, but I think that the biggest challenges that we have is really overcoming that, where people feel like we can't achieve these gains, but we know we can. In aviation, until the Southwest incident that involved the passenger being partially ejected, we had gone for nine years in aviation without a US domestic carrier fatality.

Jill:

It's possible.

Debbie:

It is possible.

Jill:

It is possible.

Debbie:

Even if it's for a day or a week or a month or a year or multiple years, that's where we want to drive it, but really helping people to understand we know how to do the right interventions. It's hard. It is, it's hard. But we can do this using data, using best practices. We know we can address this.

Jill:

And engineering control methods. You were pointing out yesterday in the opening session about the traffic fatalities just in the Houston area where we are right now and how many years it's been. You can compare and contrast that to aviation, like you're saying, and we know it's possible in one industry and we know we can do it in the next with the right applications.

Debbie:

That's right, and we're here in Houston, and Texas has not been a day without a fatality on their roadways since 2000.

Jill:

Just amazing.

Debbie:

Yeah, my oldest son was born in 2000 and I just took him to college and I think, every single day for his life there's been someone in Texas that's died. And how do we start? How do we start with a city or a state and then the country? We've had some states that have gone a month without having a fatality on their roadways, and so we've gotta celebrate those wins.

Jill:

Yeah, we do.

Debbie:

And I don't think we talk sometimes about how many days that we've had where we haven't lost somebody, and I think how many workers ... We often talk about how many days it's been since we've had a horrible injury, but what about how many days that it's been that we've sent somebody home safe, or how many workers have avoided an injury because of the things that people have put into place?

Jill:

You're right. We don't have enough of those celebrations, because our world is only when things go bad. And the rest of the time safety's just kind of that nuisance, that coasting kind of thing, and there aren't enough celebrations. So I'm with you to be celebrating the successes more so that we know that we're making a difference. And maybe that helps professionals have a bigger voice at their table wherever it is they are. I'm curious to know about temporary worker safety. Is there anything the NSC is working on right now that can support safety professionals or that safety professionals should know about when they're trying to do what they can at their workplaces for temporary workers, which have such alarming rates of injury and death on the job?

Debbie:

So clearly you've tracked the statistics and you know that that cohort is really at risk, and it's at risk for a lot of different reasons. A lot of times companies might be contracting out some of the work that's most dangerous, but you also are getting people who are coming onto your work site, English may not be their first language, there may be a lack of basic training in certain areas, and so the National Safety Council actually several years ago looked at this and we said, what can we do to try to advance best practices? And we actually worked with the American Staffing Association to create a program so that staffing companies can go through a process to see what OSHA best practices and what industry best practices and say, what's that handshake that occurs between the temporary employees, their association, their company, and then the host company? What needs to take place? Who's responsible for training? Where can you find information? Who do you talk to if you have a question? Who's responsible for each part of that? So it's oftentimes in anything that we do, the handoffs, the shift changes, those things, is where things get lost.

Jill:

It gets messy.

Debbie:

Yeah, so you're making assumptions. Maybe sometimes you're thinking they'll indoctrinate them or they'll train them when they get on the site, or maybe they're thinking they did it.

Jill:

The other ... Yeah.

Debbie:

So we have this program and it is really great because it allows companies to say, this is what we're gonna be responsible for, this is what you're responsible for, and this is how we both protect those workers because at the end of the day, the host company doesn't want something to happen on their site.

Jill:

That's right.

Debbie:

And the contract employer, the staffing association, they don't want something to happen to their worker, and so they wanna be able to continue to deploy them as needed. But you've gotta have that right fit.

Jill:

You do.

Debbie:

And that's one way. But there's a lot of ways that we can all make a difference. But that's one way that the National Safety Council said at a national level, how do we institutionalize some of the national best practices? And working with an association was the way to reach multiple companies.

Jill:

Right. So say the name of the program again so people listening can know where they can go.

Debbie:

Yeah, so the American Staffing Association and the NSC have a certification program, and it's really a safety standard of excellence. And so it's, how do you identify best practices? And you go through an audit and you learn some of that.

Jill:

That can be really empowering to the employer who's hiring the staffing agency when they've vetting if they have an opportunity to vet who they're gonna contract with. Maybe someone who's willing to work with them or has gone through on the other side as well.

Debbie:

And that's what we really want, is to create that as a differentiator to say, if you are trying to look at companies, and many times you're putting out bids and you're looking for things, you want a safe company to come on your property. You want somebody who's using best practices. And so that can be a differentiator, and if enough host companies are saying we want you to have this before you even come on site, then that gets the whole industry lift up. And many times it's host employers that are setting the standards. And so understanding that that's out there is important.

Jill:

Very good. I think our listeners might be interested to know, what's the relationship like between NSC and OSHA? You have an alliance together, I believe. But I think that safety professionals might just be interested to know, how does that work and what's the relationship like right now and how does that help the profession?

Debbie:

So this is a great thing. We have an alliance with [inaudible 00:15:22]. We have an alliance with OSHA. And what this really means is that we will work together cooperatively when it makes sense for us to do that, sharing each other's information. So for example, OSHA campaigns like Safe and Sound, trenching safety, they may have pushes at different points in time where they're trying to get more information out ...

Jill:

[crosstalk 00:15:43] emphasis program, okay.

Debbie:

Exactly. And so we'll work closely with them. We have 15,000 member companies, and so our reach is able to be a force multiplier for them. We can also use their excellent resources, and sometimes when new regulations come out, we're really looking to OSHA to help our companies understand what to do. We've had webinars to talk about some of those changes where they speak to the companies, are able to ask them questions directly, and so it's been a great process, but I'd say right now one of the biggest challenges that we see, they don't have an administrator at OSHA.

Jill:

Exactly. I know, I keep checking the org chart.

Debbie:

We're two years in at this point and Scott Mugno's been nominated, but his nomination is sitting in the Senate waiting for confirmation, and so I think that that's really hard, and then looking at inspector vacancies and seeing at OSHA that they really need to fill those. Those are critical positions. And so our alliance is fantastic. It allows us to have deeper communication with them, deeper connections. They attend our events and we're able to spread the message and make sure that we're giving out good information to support them, but we also recognize that they're gotta be staffed appropriately, whether it's inspection programs or the BPP program or other things that we might work together on, they need the resources to do it, and so we will actually even advocate for full funding for OSHA through writing letters to Congress and say, make sure they get their budget.

Jill:

Because we need it. We need it.

Debbie:

It's important. What we have here and what we have as our member companies are companies that want to do the right thing, companies that are committed not just to meeting the regulation, but exceeding it. They're generally going above and beyond.

Jill:

It's wonderful when that happens.

Debbie:

Yeah.

Jill:

Yeah. So you were talking about staffing levels earlier about OSHA, but staffing in safety in general is something that I feel a shift in with retirements that are happening from many of the people who started out in the profession. My mentors were all men from the military years ago, and we're seeing this shift change. But we're also seeing more and more people who don't have backgrounds and training in safety who are doing the work. And they're good at it, but they're often overwhelmed. Safety professionals are overwhelmed. Are the people who get the jobs ... How they can get educated, how they can learn more. And events like this can do that. What other resources are out there for people who are just getting started and really want help on educating themselves on safety? What does the NSC have for people just getting started?

Debbie:

So I'd say one of the things that I've heard so often is when somebody is the accidental safety professional, they might be in a different group or team and they also get assigned safety responsibilities. I was just speaking with someone who's retired but was here this week and is part of the Campbell world class team, and they said when they were assigned safety responsibilities one of the first things that they did was come to an NSC conference and expo and build a network and meet with so many other people, and they said some folks just really took them under their wing and just adopted them, but I will say we are facing kind of a cliff when we see a lot of experience-thinking professionals, the ones who are the mentors, retiring.

Jill:

That's what I'm feeling right now.

Debbie:

Yeah, for sure. And that is a challenge for us as a profession. But I think it's also an opportunity, because we see safety being again distributed in other spaces, and when we talk about things like the opioid crisis, it's about working with HR professionals that may be responsible for the EAP programs and may also be responsible ... But what are the health care benefits that allow someone to get into treatment and recovery? So understanding that as we start to deal with some of the big issues that in the past were seen as just the safety issues, some of the latent issues or some of the contributing issues are not just within the safety team and having to work with other parts of the organization, but we know a lot of HR professionals are accidental safety leaders too.

Jill:

Absolutely, and they're scrambling and trying to ... They have so many other things to do and we're trying to teach them along the way as well. And what about women in our practice? I look at it as a STEM practice, and what can we do and what are you seeing by way of encouraging more women into the field?

Debbie:

So it's a fantastic opportunity for women, and I would say I'm sure you agree with me. I think it was to my benefit actually being one of the few women in transportation and being one of the few women in the safety arena. I think I got so much support from my male mentors and male colleagues and they really lifted me up. So I felt like I had every advantage. But that's not the same for everyone out there. And so when I came to the council, we actually established a women's caucus. It's part of our division. So a lot of women are part of different divisions, whether it's transportation or construction or business administration. But we also said it would be great to have a place where women can come together. They focus on mentoring. They focus on professional development. They look at opportunities. So as an example, we've said, even on our board, I've said we want to recruit more women onto the board of the National Safety Council, and a lot of times that means you've gotta think about, how do you help people advance through that process? How do you give them speaking opportunities at events?

As an example, we had someone who was probably a little bit younger speak at an event yesterday than probably we would have had, but it was a women that had an opportunity that she probably wouldn't have received, and I think a lot of times you have to think about how you give people opportunities, and I know that that made all the difference in the world to me when people said, you need to do this. And I know I looked sometimes in the mirror and said, I don't know if I'm ready for this.

Jill:

Same.

Debbie:

And there were a lot of people that said, no, you're ready and you should do this. And I think especially for the men out there, really encouraging the women to try something new, and I think women are very often anxious about failure. They don't wanna let you down. They don't wanna disappoint the team. And so they won't raise their hand to do something until they know they can nail it.

Jill:

It's so true. Even asking women to be part of this podcast, and it's with absolute diligence that I have equal representation of males and females throughout the country on the podcast, and when I'm making an ask of a female, more often than not they want to know a lot more about what I'm going to ask, what I'm gonna talk about. I don't wanna get stumped up ... Wanting to make sure they know everything they possibly can. I'm like, we're just gonna have a conversation. It's okay. And so, yeah, I think we can certainly as females be mentoring. I know that I personally mentor a couple of women who are younger and had to ask myself at a point in time, am I a mentor now? I've reached this part of my career, can I do that? Do I know enough to mentor someone? But it is really creating opportunities and speaking to experience.

Debbie:

But, you know what, mentorship comes in all forms, and I think you don't have to be senior in an organization.

Jill:

That's true.

Debbie:

You don't have to be close to retirement to be a mentor. I very often have been mentored by people who report to me, and I think we always have to recognize that we can learn from other people. People have different life experiences. They have different backgrounds. They have different technical experiences. Their educational backgrounds can be very diverse. And I think recognizing that ... and I do think young people feel a lot more empowered probably than we did when we were a junior to speak up.

Jill:

I would agree. Yes, exactly. I think our millennials ... I have learned so much from the millennial generation. I remember walking into a job early on thinking, oh man, the entire department is millennials and then there's me. How's this gonna go? And I was immediately blown away by their boldness, their expertise, their wisdom, and I was going to them, and I'm just like, this is so great what they're doing now.

Debbie:

I think they are very bold, and I think that that can be ...

Jill:

In a good way.

Debbie:

Yes. And I think that can be a challenge sometimes culturally when you have different generations in the workplace, but I think if you get to the point where you really embrace that opportunity, they can help you up your game in a way that you really don't know you need to.

Jill:

Absolutely. So with the conference and expo, what's your favorite thing or what do you look most forward to doing when you're here being part of?

Debbie:

I love to talk to people who are in the profession, and so just walking the show floor and getting to meet people and hearing about their experiences, but the speakers are so great. I was just at Corrie Pitzer's opening this morning, his talk, and I was taking pictures with my phone of his slides, because ...

Jill:

You were learning.

Debbie:

There's so much to learn, and that's what is so awesome about this profession, is the knowledge is improprietary. The technology, the sharing, the systems, the processes, even the catchphrases and the way that people are advocating for safety. They're always willing to share it, and I just feel like it's a fantastic welcoming, inclusive profession and you learn. You get to be a lifelong learner. And I think whatever's going on in society, whether it's cell phones or fatigue or whatever, you get to experience it in the safety profession, and so a lot of what you learn isn't just about what you do on the job, but you take it home with you too.

Jill:

That's right. We can apply it. And you're so right about it not being proprietary. And we're such a small cohort, so many of us even know one another, someone who knows someone, and we're so willing to share, and I think that's one of the exciting pieces of this career path should people choose to do it, is that there's always gonna be helpers and to be able to support one another.

Debbie:

Absolutely.

Jill:

Yeah, so thank you so much for being with us today.

Debbie:

Oh, my gosh.

Jill:

This has been so nice. Thanks for sharing your story, and thanks for making the time to be on the Accidental Safety Pro. People will love this.

Debbie:

Well, thank you so much. I'm definitely one of those accidental safety professionals, and I think like that Robert Frost poem, there's a path in the woods and I picked the one less traveled and it has made all the difference for me, and I hope that there's other people who get into this profession and love it as much as I do.

Jill:

Wonderful. Thank you so much.

Debbie:

Thank you.

Jill:

Thank you. If you'd like to join the Accidental Safety Pro and follow along with us, you can do that on the podcast player of your choosing. If you'd like to reach out the us, you can email us as social@vividlearningsystems.com. Thank you for listening and thank you for the work that you do to send your workers home safe every day.