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When It Comes to Safety Leadership, Watch Your Language

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The Cost of Recklessness

Now, I’m not urging good leaders to speak their minds recklessly. That can be destructive. I know.  

At one point in my career I ran a thriving department of people I loved. (Yes, I said that, people I loved.) The hierarchy was rather flat for it was a group of 12 field folks reporting to me. At some point it was clear to me who was the best of that bunch and would one day fill my shoes. I proudly made it known during one team meeting.

Big mistake.

As soon as that was said, the other 11 people, who I loved to work with, realized they had no chance of advancement. Their motivation was gone and their resentment for “the chosen one” colored the next few years. It was my fault and my words.

A true Alice Hamilton moment is borne of bluntness, not recklessness.

There is a time and a place and an audience.

Here’s what I mean. A vice president once asked me why his unit had one of the worst safety records in the firm. 
Behind closed doors I told him that after working alongside his staff, the people who brought him to such a sad state were unlikely to bring the success he was looking for. That meant some people would have to be moved out of the way and I counted off who.

Rather than a thanks I was shown to the door. That was my Alice Hamilton moment and I would do it again.

My hope is a young engineer or safety manager on an isolated jobsite in Indiana or Texas or Oregon can recognize what a great manager sounds like (they may already have one) and how they might someday fill that role.

Our young managers must accept the responsibility that goes with the title and simply be honest in decision; there is little room in the world for the lukewarm. They must understand nothing can be accomplished by testing waters without ever plunging in. You are either right or wrong.

Our parents were correct. Just be nice but be honest, too, always. Honesty will drive understanding and then respect, and respect will drive results.

Thomas (T.J.) Lyons is a safety manager with Gilbane Federal, the international construction unit of Gilbane Building Co. He can be reached at


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