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Every single person is a safety leader: Keynote

By Amanda Silliker

Jeff “Odie” Espenship, a former United States Air Force fighter pilot, opened the Western Conference on Safety in Vancouver with a powerful personal story, reminding the 750 delegates that every single one of them is a leader.

Espenship flew the A-10 Thunderbolt in the Air Force. After six years in the service, he began his career as a commercial pilot, and also flew a plane on the airshow circuit.

When he went to air shows, Espenship often brought along his brother, Johnny, who was responsible for a few operational tasks and rode in the back of the plane. The type of plane they toured with — the 1943 T-6 “Texan” — required the propellers to be turned nine times to check for hydraulic lock before takeoff. This job, which took about 30-seconds to complete, was one of Johnny’s tasks. One day on the way to a show, Espenship and Johnny were going through their pre-flight checklist when they saw a thunderstorm on the horizon.

Johnny went to check the hydraulic lock, as he always did, but Espenship said “Don’t worry about it, let’s go.”

Johnny did not protest, since his brother was the experienced pilot in charge, and off they went, landing safely in Atlanta.

About six months after that, Johnny was flying in that plane with a pilot to an airshow but when the pilot tried to land the plane, there was a catastrophic engine failure, killing both Johnny and the pilot.

An investigation later found the entire bottom cylinder on the engine was blown off and the type of failure they found inside that engine had signs of hydraulic lock. Turns out, the pilot was in a big rush to get to the show and the propeller check was never done.

While Espenship’s first instinct was to point his finger at Johnny, whose job it was to do the check, or the pilot, he knew he had to take responsibility for this accident.

“I basically taught my brother how to break the rues. I taught him ‘situational compliance’ — we’ll comply with all those policies and rules that we’ve got, we know what they are, until the situation in our minds dictates something else, and then we’ll go that way. And 99 per cent of the time we get away with it.”

People often don’t understand the influence they have over others, said Espenship, and it took the death of his brother for him to realize his.

“Every one of you is a leader,” Espenship told the conference delegates on April 20. “The basic definition of a leader is this: Leaders influence the behaviour of others, period. It could be a good behaviour or a bad behaviour… And many times as leaders we fail to appreciate the size of the shadow we cast when we walk onto that job or into the office or when we go home to our families.”

Leaders in the workplace are tasked with creating and maintaining a safe work culture, he said.

“Your workers will work within the noise of the culture that you create.”

Foe example, all workers need to know they are expected to speak up when they see an unsafe practice.

“How many accidents do you prevent when you speak up? All of them,” said Espenship.

Not long ago, Espenship and his buddy Matt were on a long motorcycle trip. At one of their break stops, Matt was about to make a quick 100-yard trip to go get some water. He just had his baseball cap on and was about to head out, when Espenship handed him his helmet — and his friend thanked him.

“I said ‘Hey man, you look really cool in that hat, but you’d be a lot safer in this one,’” Espenship said. “In that moment, we just reset the job culture, didn’t we? If it would have been 100 yards today, what would it have been tomorrow?”

Safety professionals need to make sure there isn’t a wide gap between “what should be going on and what’s really going on” on the job site.

Espenship reminded the OHS professionals in the room that they never want to receive a call about a workplace fatality of critical accident where they think ‘”Oh I knew that would happen.” There might be an employee, a piece of equipment, a rule, a procedure that your gut tells you isn’t quite right and could cause safety concerns.

“It’s something that’s lost its integrity. Now’s the time to fix it,” he said. “You are laying that foundation for today, for 20 years from now.”

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