Where Can We Find Empathy

As I have traveled down the rabbit hole of empathy in the workplace, there is a common theme: healthcare. Rightfully, so the first place that empathy researchers are focusing is in hospitals and doctors’ offices. It makes perfect sense that healthcare workers should be a group of people who have empathy for others. There are some who do it much better than others.

I recently read a book about Appalachia coal mining called Soul Full of Coal Dust. The book is a deep dive into the trials and tribulations of miners trying to get black lung support. The coal companies would hire expensive attorneys who would then hire expensive doctors to refute black lung claims. One such doctor actually never diagnosed black lung in all the cases he reviewed. When interviewed he was steadfast that miners were trying to take advantage of the system. The system in which would give miners around $750 to $1000 a month. Even when shown the governmental standard slides for diagnosing black lung, he argued it was not.

In my opinion, this was a doctor who went to medical school for prestige and profit. This was not someone who had a great deal of empathy or even basic care for other humans. If there was a profession that I think should have the greatest amount of empathy it would be those that directly impact the life and death of others. So, it makes sense that researchers first focused on these professions when looking for empathy in the workplace.

The research is interesting as it hints that empathy is needed but may not be something that can be fully learned and accepted by all people. Instead, there are suggestions for how to standardize patient contact to create a feeling of empathy. There were ideas for frequency and duration of contact, methods of questions to bring out the needs of the patient, and methods for attentive patient care. In a broad sense, it was not learning empathy but learning how to engage with people on a human level. I found this interesting because in the business world, empathy is not nearly as valued as in the medical field. Maybe there are some ways that we can use this knowledge to help create better leaders.

Safety Mentorship Tools: Xmatrix 2

It’s X-citing

It’s X-hilarating

It’s X-treme

It’s the X-Matrix.

As leaders and from my personal experience leaders of safety programs, we are responsible for the one-year plan, the metrics to improve, and setting a long-term vision for the department. I personally love an X-matrix to help evaluate and visualize the process of setting these goals. I was very skeptical at first of if this process would actually work. What I found was that once other team members and leadership have seen the vision and agree, the x-matrix helps to keep everyone focused.

One of the troubles that I have seen and heard from other safety people is the overall leadership’s ability to quickly change priorities. In safety, they are focused on the fire that is in front of them rather than the reasons for the fires. For every injury, there is a sudden and intense focus to drop everything and fix that issue. I will be clear here, for every injury there should be urgency. An urgency that helps to drive a root cause and robust corrective action. But a new injury should not completely change the fundamental trajectory of the entire program’s strategy.

I have seen it so many times, where an incident occurs and then there are fast and unwarranted changes to system programs. One of the first principles of lean during a problem-solving event is to ask “if there a standard?” If the answer is “yes.” The next question is to ask “was the standard followed?” If the answer is “yes”, the standard needs to be updated. If the answer is “no”, the focus should be on the motivation and environment to encourage or discourage the use of the standard. The immediate reaction should not be to completely reinvent the entire program.

I have digressed, through. Let’s talk about how to complete an x-matrix. This exercise is best completed in a small group where the team understands the operation and the needs of the department. Many times, the safety person is the only person in the department. In that case, it is all yours to control. The process works through filling in the bottom five topics, then working clockwise. There are five topics per section. There can be fewer, but I would never recommend more. When thinking about strategy, you do not want to become ineffective by having too much to do. Focus on what is important and work the plan. I have found that five is the right number.

The bottom section is where the process begins. This is where you focus on the five items that will be your 3-5 year breakthrough objectives. Breakthrough is the keyword here. These are items that in the next 3-5 years that will create big gains on your department and the safety of your organization. Think about changing culture, driving learning, and systemically reducing risk. I love the idea of “begin with the end in mind.” If you have a great safety system in place in 3-5 years, what would it look like? What systems would be in place? What engineering changes would be implemented? These are the 3-5 year objectives that can make a big difference.

Next is the left-hand section of the matrix. This is where we would take a closer look at the next 365 days of progress. What is it that you need to get done this year that gets you closer to your 3-5 year objectives. We cannot fix it all today. Safety especially is about culture and motivation. As much as we want to do it all today, it is not something that can happen. This section is about this year. What is nice about this section is that you can use it to create headings in a year-long Gantt chart and set tasks under each of those categories to show progress. The tools work together to help create the vision, long-term strategy, and actions to drive the change.

Moving to the top section, we want to define the top-level improvements or priorities. These are the values of the organization or department. For example, it would be items like no injuries, no spills, robust corrective action process, everyone reporting hazards, etc. This section for me has always been about the culture that I want to see that aligns with the values of the organization. It is important to not forget that safety should be a core value.

The final section to complete is the right-hand side. These are the metrics that we want to improve. Think about your current safety key performance indicators. Generally, I do my best to focus on proactive measures. How many hours of safety learning? How many hazard reports were filed? What were the audit scores? Were incidents investigated in less than 24 hours? I also will admit that normally I do add reduction in injuries. Even though it is a lagging indicator, it is a KPI that I want to vastly improve. I want fewer and fewer injuries until there are none to report. I do not simply want a number. I want a system and culture that has created an organization that does not hurt people. This section is not to define your KPIs, it is only listing the KPIs that you are planning to make the most improvement in during this 3-5 year journey.

Now that we have discussed how to fill in the x-matrix, I will discuss in the next blog the tiny blocks that are around each section and how these are used to bring the x-matrix to life. All these items that we just spent so much time thinking about and filling in are now going to be interrelated. It is an interesting and eye-opening X-perience 🙂

Mentoring Soft-Skills: Time Management and Prioritization: The Bullet Journal

One of my talents that have helped me in the role of various safety leadership positions is the ability to prioritize and execute plans. I may not be able to make a good-looking poster. I may not be able to fix or repair things around the house. I may not be able to create a fun team activity. But, by golly, I can make a dang fine list, prioritize it, and check things off of it. 🙂 HaHa

Safety people have so many competing priorities, it is so easy to become awash in the needs and requests of the organization. It is easy to find oneself treading water rather than swimming to a destination. When we get down to it, everything we do should be in the spirit of helping prevent harm to our people. When thinking about all the safety tasks in that way, everything becomes urgent and important. Yet, we have to come to terms with the fact that we cannot do it all and there is no way we can do it all right now.

It is so easy for a young professional to get tangled up in all the requirements and responsibilities. I have found it vitally important to help guide and mentor with showing methods of helping to declutter and set priorities for the work. Planning is sometimes frowned upon while doing is vastly rewarding. For us to keep ourselves functional, planning is a valuable exercise. You should be able to set a daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, yearly, and multi-year plan. These planning processes not only help keep the safety programs on the course, but they show other leaders the larger plan that is at work to drive improvement.

I am a big fan of the bullet journal. My iPad, the GoodNotes app, and my Apple pencil have been amazing tools to help me improve the way I organize. During meetings or while performing work, I will take notes of items to remember or to act on. A blue circle is around a bullet is something I want to learn more about or research. A red square means that it is something I have to act on. A green highlight means that I have completed the task. I like that it is both visual and color-coded.

An example of my bullet journal process.

I can import documents and take photos to add to my notes. Some nice premade calendars can be imported and use hyperlinks to take you to various sections of the notes. Generally speaking, I will create a notebook per year and have it roll for the whole calendar.

Having it all digitally prevents me from having volumes of notebooks sitting around as I used to have. I am a lefty, so digital pens assure I do not smear ink all over the notebook or my hands. It has done nothing to improve my handwriting, though. :-). The digital notebook is also backed up to the cloud and has various search features and cross-functional ability to other apps. Over the years, I have tried various forms of apps and methods to help me stay organized and on track. The use of the bullet journal has been just one part of the total process.

I expected this blog post to be encompassing many tools that I use regularly to keep myself on track. These are also tools that I love teaching to others. I was only able to make it through one tool in this post which is a strong indicator of how much I do like organizing and time management. Anyone else an INTJ? As we continue this journey of being safety mentors, it seems that we will be exploring more time management and prioritization tools together. Are you as excited as I am?

Covid 1: Safety Guy 0

It has been a little bit of a disappointing week. My voice is not holding up well enough to record a new podcast this week.

Starting New Year’s Eve, I began to have some mild symptoms like a sore throat and dry cough. A couple of days later, I was feeling like I had a mild cold. I then was notified that I had a possible exposure from my last travels of the year.

I used a home test and was surprised with how fast that it showed I was Covid positive. Starting Tuesday, I had lost my sense of smell and thus taste. I feel ok other than being very tired, and my voice comes in and out due to congestion.

I was shocked to find out that I was Covid positive as I am above average for cautious, and fully vaccinated. I am happy that the symptoms were mild and I am recovering quickly.

In other Covid news, the Supreme Court heard arguments today about the OSHA ETS and is expected to have a ruling soon.

Now to close with some good news. If you are interested in hearing more about building a sustainable safety culture, be sure to sign up for the Safety and Health Magazine’s webinar that I will be a part of later this month


Or if you will be attending the 52nd Annual ATSSA Convention and Traffic Expo, I will be conducting a talk on creating safety awareness.


Safety Mentorship 3 – Making Time

Hi! I am Mark, and I am a firm believer in standard work.

So many times I hear others say that their work is just too unexpected and random to have anything standard about it. They are convinced that they should not be limited by standardization. The work of a safety person is variable and standard work can be derailed with just one report. And yes, I was one of those people. I found that standard work was fantastic for environmental programs as they were very regimented with paperwork and inspections, but it usually came in the form of a compliance calendar. It was only later that my mind was opened to what standard work could really be.

I was working for a site that was implementing a standardized system that was part of an overarching corporate system. The mentor that was assigned to our site completely sold me on the benefits of standard work. Instead of poo-pooing the suggestions, I embraced the idea that certain things had to be done on a regular frequency. I found that when I thought about the daily and weekly items that I needed to accomplish there could be a cadence that could work.

A little bit of background about me as a person. I am not someone that embraces chaos. I like things to be orderly. I like things to be simple and easy. It makes me happy to find new ways to make my work and life easier. Even early in my career, I believed in the idea that I needed to plan and do all the things I could predict because it was inevitable that there would be something that would come up that was unexpected. I like having a plan and sticking to that plan. There is something satisfying about making a list and then checking things off that list.

Some of the basic ideas that I first embraced as part of standard work were keeping my email inbox at 0 unread messages that were greater than 24 hours old, tracking how many meetings I was able to attend that were scheduled in advance, assuring that I was able to tour various departments each week and to make one-on-one time for each of my team members. The last one is critical to being a good leader/mentor.

When it comes to being a mentor or a leader of people, we have to make sure that we not only allocate time for them but make time for them. This means that if for some reason they are late or not at the meeting, we go find them. We make it a point to show that this time is important to both our development. I have found time and time again that I have grown and learned from helping those that I am mentoring achieve their goals. I may not fully understand their goal or the path they want to take in their career or the organization. When that happens, it means I have to start asking and digging for the information they need.

Making time to be a mentor cannot be just a focus on the person when they are present. There is preparing for a meeting, conducting the meeting, and then following up with any needs from the meeting. It is a significant and necessary investment in the lift of a mentor. As leaders, the most valuable resource we have to offer is our time. It is crucial that we use it wisely and that we are taking the time to show we are making the investment.