Gold Medal Safety

An Olympic-sized metaphor and a Bermuda Triangle incident help to keep safety culture fresh

“Safety performance is not a priority. Priorities change. Safety is non-negotiable. It’s a core value. Every day we need to eat, sleep, get dressed, work hard, get paid, be safe. We lead safe teams because we care. We build safe cultures because we care. Safety is what we do.”  -Adam Kreek

12 years, 2 million practice strokes, 7,200 practices sessions, 13,000 hours on the water.  

Olympic training statistics are remarkable. I know. I lived it. However, when discussing Olympic results, one measure of success and failure is often overlooked: how many workers died in preventable safety incidents to create a successful Olympic experience?

For me, it was 24.

Ten workers died preparing the Beijing Olympic facilities where I competed and won in 2008. Fourteen workers were killed to produce the Athens Olympics where I competed just four years earlier.

Serious incidents can occur even in the safest cultures. These workplace fatality numbers break my heart, especially when we take into account the many more life-changing injuries hidden behind each fatality number. How could an event that is designed to celebrate the best inside all of us, create so much harm?

But there is hope.

Olympic Safety

The London Olympics pursued safety with an overt Olympic mindset and delivered the best safety performance on record for a summer games. Had they been the average, London 2012 would have killed four workers to construct the athletic facilities. Moreover, the accident frequency rate on site was 0.16 per 100,000 hours worked – less than the building industry average of 0.55 and less than the all-industry average of 0.21. In a high-risk workplace, Olympic constructors for London 2012 had fewer serious incidents than office workers during that time frame. The construction safety efforts also achieved 30 periods of one million hours worked without a reportable injury, plus five periods of two million hours and two periods of three million hours without any reportable incidents.

And the statistic that stood out to me? Not one worker died due to workplace neglect.

Why was London’s Health and Safety record head and shoulders above the industry?  A review by General Lord Dannatt hit the nail on the head. “Health and safety was not just an annoying millstone hung around middle management’s neck, but it was the enabling theme of operational efficiency leading to completion under budget and ahead of schedule – with no fatalities.”

Now, that’s an Olympic record to strive for.

Gold Medal Safety

Recently, I spoke to a large global engineering firm on the topic of safety leadership and building strong safety cultures. The room was filled with talented executives in the fields of mining, power generation, construction and engineering, and they appreciated the new angle that I brought to the workplace safety dialogue. We discussed ways to build, sustain and reinforce a culture of Gold Medal Safety at every level of the organization. The tool I brought? A powerful story and metaphor that keeps the safety leadership conversation fresh.

My story? I grew up an average kid in an average town and made my fortunes on an oil drilling rig, where I almost died in a safety incident. I used my paycheques to fund my Olympic dreams but lost in my first Olympic campaign. Four years later, I went to the Olympics and won gold. Five years after my Olympic victory, I rowed across an ocean in a self-supported vessel and lived because of our strong safety culture. After serving a leadership role on the Canadian Olympic Committee, I became aware of the safety issues associated with Olympic construction, and am inspired by the safety record achieved at the London 2012 Olympics.

After passing around my Olympic Gold Medal, I asked the audience to think about their next gold medal moment. Then, I talked about Gold Medal Safety.

What’s Gold Medal Safety? A Zero-Harm worksite.

Zero-harm can seem as daunting as winning an Olympic Gold Medal, so we need to have the courage to dream this big. Aim for perfection, accept excellence. That is how you win the Olympics. That is how you build a strong safety culture. That is how you win in a competitive marketplace.

The insights, questions and stories below will help safety leaders and their organizations build and sustain Gold Medal Safety at every level of an organization.

No Excuses

Organizations with low safety leadership justify their poor safety record with a couple of arguments.

The first is about cost. “We can’t afford it,” they’ll say.

How much does a human life cost? How about a life-changing injury? While most of us cringe to consider this thought, the above argument suggests that an employee’s life is not worth the cost of stringent safety measures. Moreover, what are the legal cost of workplace death or serious injury? What damage will the loss of life or severe injury incur on your corporate brand?

Companies with the worst safety records also struggle to meet quality standards and on-time delivery.  Bottom line: safety is not only the moral choice; it’s good business.

The second excuse for accidents is that, as humans, we can’t be perfect.

Mistakes are bound to happen, but if we have a healthy safety culture, nobody gets hurt.  Equipment can break. People can’t. Sometimes, we cannot prevent accidents, but when they occur, do we have a culture of safety that ensures no one gets hurt?

And if your goal is not Zero-Harm let’s clarify what your goal is, and then see how hard we can work to hit that goal. Do you only want three major incidents and one death? Let’s look for volunteers to be hurt and injuries so that we can be sure to hit those numbers…

An Olympic-Sized Metaphor

Olympic rowing times keep getting faster, but the rate of improvement is slowing. It takes increasing effort to achieve the next world record.

Men's eight man rowing times from 1900 to present. Improvements are smaller and require more effort over time.
Men’s eight-man rowing times from 1900 to present. Improvements are smaller and require more effort over time. Data from World Rowing.

Interestingly, we have found a comparable rate of advancement in safety records. The problem? Even one dangerous incident is too many. How do we ensure the downward trend does not become asymptotic and merely create a low-harm environment?

How do we achieve Gold Medal Safety and make that final drop to Zero-Harm, ensuring that every worker goes home to their families?

Mining fatalities from 1900-2016
Mining fatalities from 1900-2016. Like sport, improving safety culture becomes harder and more gradual with each year’s improvement. Data from US Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Hitting Your Goal of Zero Harm

What makes for a safer environment? It’s focusing on the little things that matter. To win Olympic gold, athletes, coaches and their support staff must make hundreds of tiny adjustments to technique, technology, leadership and social interaction.

To achieve the Gold Medal of Safety, we need to have the same mindset:

  • How can you make on-site meetings more effective?
  • How can you better empower all employees to use the lines of communication?
  • How can you take better advantage of near misses and other safety moments?

Roughnecking It

Before competing at the Olympics, I funded my sporting journey by working on a drilling rig – and I’m lucky to be alive.

We welcomed a new driller on-site who quickly became too aggressive in operating the controls. While tripping pipe, the driller pulled a giant pipe out of the hole too fast, and it swung across the rig, straight for my head. I escaped the pinch-point, but the two-ton piece of steel knocked off my hard hat. I froze as the steel kelly clanged loudly against the derrick. I was one inch away from becoming a pancake.

He yelled at me. “What the fuck are you doing? Get back on the tongs!” I was green and young. I looked back with terror and did what he asked.

Thankfully, I had an older crew with me on the drilling floor, who reported the incident to the Tool Push foreman who corrected the situation. I’m grateful to have benefited from that safety leadership. Otherwise, I would not be alive today.

The older and wiser we become, the more responsibility we must take:

  • Are you being a safety leader and looking out for less experienced and younger crew?
  • Are you a younger worker and aware that your youthful ambition can fuel unsafe behaviour?
  • Do you have the courage to speak up and exercise safety leadership?


Unexpected Ocean Expedition

Five years after my Olympic victory, I helped lead a deep-ocean rowing expedition that rowed a 10-meter research vessel from Africa to America. Our crew embraced a Gold Medal Safety philosophy called: Don’t Die. And I’m glad we did.  73 days into our expedition, we capsized in the Bermuda triangle due to inclement weather. No one was injured. No one died.

Our three rules were tongue-in-cheek, but the meaning became very serious every time we experienced a broken oar or another safety incident on the boat.

  1. Don’t die
  2. Don’t kill your mates
  3. Don’t sink the boat

We committed to caring for ourselves, caring for each other and caring for our equipment. And, despite the disaster, our expedition crew received commendations from the US coast guard for our preparation, training, safety tools and safety procedures aboard our vessel.

Sometimes, we have little control over accidents and bad luck, but with diligence, planning, the right safety culture and leadership, lives are not changed from irreversible injury nor are lives lost.

Safety was no accident.  It came from thoughtful preparation. We accessed training, planned thoroughly and analyzed risk. Did you know that riding a motorbike is more dangerous than ocean rowing? And life insurance is costlier for a dentist than it is for an Ocean Rower??

Onboard we had back-ups for our backups and a full array of safety equipment, including a sea anchor, emergency life raft, Mustang inflatable life vests with tie-down ropes and an ACR Artex emergency locator beacon for each rower.

Like any megaproject, we started small and worked our way up to the trans-Atlantic project.  We began with one-day trips in manageable waters, accessed the best training we could find and worked our way up to multi-day trips in more massive ocean waves. The final step to prepare for our Trans-Atlantic row was a 24 days expedition to circumnavigate Vancouver Island.

Our team was motivated to be safe, and we team took the time to prepare appropriately. The planning and preparation for this expedition took five years. A lot happens in five years. By the time we launched to go across the Ocean, I had a two-and-a-half-year-old son and my wife was pregnant with our second child.

Who Cares?

Despite our training, experience and analysis, my wife asked me to undertake an exercise that raised my bar for safety leadership. “In case you die,” she asked, “I want our son to know why you did this. Can you write a letter to our son that he could read, just in case you don’t make it?”

This letter was the hardest letter I have ever written in my life.

I know what the letter did for me.  It strengthened a muscle not intuitive to ocean rowing: the opinion muscle. Writing this note drilled into my heart the reason for caring. Deep, unabashed caring gives us the courage to speak up, and the courage to exercise our opinion muscles.

When the waves would get too high, an oar would break, or the boat felt unsafe, my voice had no hesitancy.  Courage came from remembering how much I cared about my family, how much I cared about my teammates, and how much I cared about keeping my teammates safe for their families.

Is this an activity you could replicate in your safety training?

  • Imagine if each member of your construction crew, or work shift, had to write a letter to their child explaining why their job was meaningful enough to take their life. What would it say?
  • Imagine if the foreman had to write a letter to the family of the worker who died on-site explaining why the project needed their loved one’s life to be successful.  What would it say?

Preparation, Communication and Commitment

A big Olympic build, the improvements Olympic sport over time, reaching for massive goals, a near miss on an oil rig, a Bermuda capsize and a heartfelt letter to a son and daughter.  Each of these stories and metaphors had a significant impact on me and had an influential impact on the safety professionals who heard them. What will you take away to strengthen your safety leadership?

To keep improving our safety culture, we must do the little things that matter very well.  We must commit fully to achieving a Zero-Harm working environment. Then, with proper preparation and a well-developed communications toolkit, we will have a safety culture that reaches safety gold – a caring work environment where every worker goes home alive, safely and without life-altering injuries.

Adam Kreek is a management consultant, Olympic Gold Medalist and executive coach. He leads executive retreats for corporate, government and not-for-profit organizations worldwide, and offers action-oriented keynotes, workshops & seminars.

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