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“The Buck Stops Here!” – The CEO as the Ultimate Safety Officer

A few years ago, I had the good fortune of joining a super team of scientists at a for-profit chemistry lab. The team invented new organic and inorganic molecules for a wide array of industrial and consumer applications. I was very excited to be joining this team of smart, dedicated individuals as their new CEO.

On my first day on the job, after a group meeting with all our scientists, I met with our Director of Environment, Health & Safety and Facilities, Dave.  Dave was a talented and diligent professional, but he was somewhat intimidated by the brilliant PhD scientists in the lab. First, Dave reviewed his various tasks as facilities director with me (e.g., keeping the lights on and the HVAC equipment working). As he was finishing his overview Dave added, almost as a footnote, “I also go through lab safety training with all the scientists. I try not to bother them too much. And since you’re the CEO, you don’t need to go through the training.”

“That’s very interesting, Dave,” was my response. “I really think I should go through the same safety training that everybody else does. I need to know what we all need to do. And in case I wind-up doing some hands-on lab work, I need to be trained.”

What was going through my mind? It’s true that individual scientists needed to be vigilant about their own safety, but as CEO, everybody’s safety was ultimately my responsibility. If we had an incident, I would be on point to make things right. I pictured getting a phone call on a random Saturday night from the local fire department and hazardous materials response team. I imagined the next two phone calls that I never wanted to make: 1) to emergency contacts if personnel were injured, and 2) to my Board of Directors.

I thought to myself, “not on my watch”.

So, I went through all the lab safety training. I also ended up doing hands-on lab work as a “research assistant for a day”. What I discovered was that by being very visible to the team about safety, the scientists became more diligent about their personal safety and the safety of others. And fortunately, we did not have any major incidents on my watch.

As a leader in your organization, there are many things that come at you during the course of a day. I was no different, so to make sure I stayed vigilant about safety, I adopted a simple mantra. Every morning, I would ask myself: “What is the one thing I can do today to make sure my people, planet, property, and profits are safe?” This mindset worked for me. Whatever you choose to do, don’t forget that “The Buck Stops Here!”


Photo courtesy of The Harry S. Truman Library and Museum and the National Archives. Used as public domain material. http://www.trumanlibrary.org/buckstop.htm

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