In this new IRMI.com section, learn about successful risk and insurance professionals and how they rose to the top of their industry. This article features construction safety specialist TJ Lyons.
How did you land in the safety industry?
This is a story I love to tell. In my earlier years, I was an industrial hygienist working across New England. A client asked me to sample for formaldehyde related to his work in the textile industry. When sampling the air in one of his warehouses, the owner came over and asked about the gear I was using—a series of bubbling liquids and glass vials. As I was chatting, I looked up at some workers, 20 feet from the floor, toiling on overhead racks without any protection from a fall to the concrete floor below. I said to the owner, "Not for nothing, but if that guy were to fall, he would just be dead" and went back to my sampling.
A few weeks later, I returned to his office with the results (this was before email). He grabbed my arm and led me to his warehouse. In those weeks, he had spent over $30,000 on safety railings with inward swinging gates to protect the staff. He said. "You know, your comment hit home … these are guys I fish and hunt with."
I had offered up something real, something relevant, and something personal. And it made a difference.
What do you consider to be some of the most significant industry trends and why?
Modularization. Though the word "lean" has been captured and abused by many, making structures off-site under controlled conditions reduces the chance for injuries in the field, provides the perfect setting for quality workmanship, and are quick to install. For example, firms that continue to plod ahead welding pipes and flanges overhead off ladders or lifts using winches, rope, and hope rather than build it off-site and install in sections must recognize how archaic that practice now is. When I enter a bathroom in a Japanese hotel, more often than not it was built as a unit, slid into place, and plugged in. Simple is always best, and prefabrication is simple.
What has been the most rewarding experience in your career?
Getting the OSHA Volunteer Protection Program recognition for a construction site in the middle of nowhere, New York. That took all my skill, relationship building, favors, and recognition of others to succeed. I had more pride that day than any other in my safety career. Why? I discovered those same tools are critical to accomplishing anything. It's knowing people and getting to know them (two separate things) and telling people thanks more often than expected—that works wonders in safety.
Who's your hero?
Alice Hamilton. She is considered "the mother of industrial hygiene," a sister field to safety and a pioneer in the early years of toxicology and the often-overlooked damage to workers during the Industrial Revolution. From reviewing lead poisoning of workers making enamel tubs and munitions in New Jersey to protecting workers toiling in mines mining mercury in New Mexico, she highlighted how workers were being hurt and offered practical suggestions on prevention. If you ever listened to the song "Industrial Disease" by Dire Straits, where workers were suffering from lead poisoning, but the factory blamed it on drinking, you will appreciate those times.
A photo of her hangs on my wall with my favorite quotation from her autobiography. It's about the need to say what you know is right and keep pushing rather than allow the system and the "we have always done it this way" barriers to win. She said of her friend:
Julia Lathrop never roused one to a fighting pitch, but then fighting was not her method. (Nor was it mine. I have always hated conflict of any kind, but with me this led to cowardice, to shirking unpleasantness. Never with her.) She taught me a much-needed lesson, that harmony and peaceful relations with one's adversary were not in themselves of value, only if they went with a steady pushing of what one was trying to achieve.
So often, when I have succeeded in breaking down the hostility of an employer and in establishing a friendly relation with him, I have been tempted to let it go at that, to depart without risking unpleasantness. Then I have remembered Julia Lathrop and have forced myself to say the unpleasant things which had to be said.
What advice would you offer to someone new to risk management or safety on how to have a successful career?
Join a local volunteer fire company, ambulance squad, safety chapter, or volunteer at a 5K race. Until you have had a chance to work with people you do not know, as a team, you will find it difficult to succeed. We all have our own biases and habits formed by our parents, where and how we were raised. A great example is the use of sarcasm in the Northeast. Not easily understood by those on the West Coast, it is seen as rude in the Southeast. One must understand that how others think or act may not be wrong—just different.
Working with a volunteer group is the best method of experiencing how to work with others, some that do not think like you, and how to figure out how you will fit in. As a volunteer emergency medical technician for years, the lesson I learned approaching people I did not know in a crisis has paid off in my career. I have learned everyone's job is to help others understand what is going on (or wrong), not just tell them it's wrong. Work with a team to understand why teams work.
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