Leading the Safety Adventure

Safety and Ergonomics Specialist Grace Thai isn’t afraid to push the limits while making sure to stay safe.

There is always place for those who approach their field in different ways, as long as they're effective. Grace Thai, Manager of Safety Management Systems with Hawaiian Airlines immediately comes to mind. If there is a default mold for the average safety professional, she breaks through.

In his famous bestselling career development manual, Richard N. Bolles contends that people are first drawn to a field because its inherent approaches mirror what they already believe. Then, years of immersion in their profession reinforce their mindset. Most of the safety professionals I know (including myself) tend to lean towards a risk-averse lifestyle. As I’ve mentioned in previous seminars, it’s unlikely to see many safety pros who would go bungee jumping or leap out of a perfectly good plan. (However, if they do, they would thoroughly read the bungee cord manual and likely want to tie on multiple bungees as a backup before they leap.)

This cautious approach to life can disconnect us from those we most want to influence. It leads to supervisors, who are ultimately responsible for fomenting positive change, getting frustrated with and even blaming workers for seemingly disregarding safety policies, procedures and practices. “What’s the matter with them? Don’t they care about their own safety?”

As mentioned before, Grace is different. Not outwardly so, however. She is communicative, high energy and has a positive “can do” attitude. Grace has a bachelor’s degree in Kinesiology, followed by four years as a Safety and Ergonomics Specialist with Honda of Canada Manufacturing, which achieved groundbreaking results in injury reduction. Then she moved to Honolulu to work with Hawaiian Airlines as a Safety Manager. She accomplished all this, before she was 30 years old. Here are some comments previous supervisors said about her:

“Anybody would be fortunate to work with Grace.”

“Grace is an amazing person and a huge piece of the ergonomics program at Honda Canada.”

“She builds relationships with people very easily.”

“She was highly successful both on an individual level, supporting our ergonomic coaches, but also on a programmatic level, building support from other leaders.”

The thing that sets Grace apart though, is that she has bungee jumped, sky-dived and more. She even went to Kenya at 22 to teach women in the Korogocho slum how to set up and run their own businesses. Grace is a first-rate safety leader, but under her calm, even-tempered demeanor, she is also personally one of the most adventurous safety professionals I know. She’s not an adrenaline junkie, but she does work to seek out activities that frequently take her out of her comfort zone. By not fitting the stereotype image of the safety professional showing up to enforce the rules, she comes off more relatable to those she leads. This helps her in communicating and persuading others to live and work safer. How, she wonders, can she expect others to learn individualized risk management if she can’t relate to taking some considered risks herself? What can those of us more risk-averse safety professionals learn from Grace that we can apply to becoming a more effective leader? Consider these seven ideas:

*Embrace her concept that the right training is more designed to make risk management better, not to attempt to eliminate all risks.

*Help others become their own risk assessor by supporting and asking guiding questions, rather than laying down rules, Grace tends to illuminate potential consequences, then moves to, “Let’s walk through this together. Where do you see this possibly failing? What could go wrong?”

*Have stepwise expectations of internalizing change. She says, “What I want out of our conversations is for them to critically think through what they’re doing and have the skills to perform an honest risk assessment for themselves—not to take it blindly, or not to challenge it just to rebel.”

*Use personal experiences to get ideas and beliefs across. Think of any risks you’ve taken or still engage in—whether physical or mental. Remember the thrill, the excitement, that rippled through you. Relate this to others who want to take risks so they feel more alive, more vital—especially those who see themselves in humdrum jobs. How it is possible for you and them to balance working with risk exposures along with caution. How can you help them consider where preparation and the right training can benefit them to be as safe as possible without washing away excitement in their lives?

*Make safety, safety training and coaching as honest and energizing as possible. Grace has shown demonstrations of kinesiological principles that help others become more accomplished at their favorite sports and hobbies. Think through what you might do to help make safety more interesting, where people are inspired rather than loaded with another list of “Don’t dos.”

*Reduce safety jargon. Even when talking about the concepts of risk, Grace doesn’t use that word.

*“Remove the hat.” She makes a point to look people in the eyes and talks person to person, rather than from and to roles of safety professional to employee or supervisor. We’re all different—and may not be as adventurous as Grace Thai. But we can apply some of her principles to also realize significant and lasting safety results.

This article originally appeared in the September 2021 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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