Questions for a 30-year safety professional
June 5, 2014
During National Safety Month 2014, the U.S. Army Combat Readiness/Safety Center will highlight achievements and perspectives of members of the Army's first class of Career Program-12 safety interns, who finished training in 1984. Patti Tilson, manager of a safety and environmental team for the Federal Aviation Administration's Eastern Service, is the first intern profiled for this series.
What drew you to a career in safety?
My interest in occupational safety stemmed from an accident I had while working a college summer job at a manufacturing plant. One of my tasks involved putting a bottle under a clamping device. If you didn't line the tops of the bottles correctly, they would explode into sharp pieces. Unfortunately, I had a bottle explode in my hand, and the wound required multiple stitches. When I returned a day later, the machine had a Plexiglas case installed around it with a small opening for a hand. The engineer had fixed the problem of flying glass, but workers' hands were still exposed to the hazard. I thought there had to be a better answer.
At that time, the Occupational Safety and Health Act was only about 8 years old, and my university had just begun offering a master's degree in safety management. Based on my experience with on-the-job injury, I was very interested in the concept of a new career field that sought to effectively manage health and safety risks.
What was the most important thing you learned or took away from the CP-12 training program?
The CP-12 program was just an idea when I was hired. I was actually recruited from my university and selected as one of Army's first safety interns. My class arrived at Fort Rucker, Alabama, in 1984 and began working and training with some of the Army's most experienced military and civilian safety professionals. The men and women at the Army Safety Center shared their experience and knowledge to ensure we had access to the best on-the-job training possible. We participated in sophisticated accident investigations, explosives training, program reviews, incident analysis and construction safety.
The program was expanding and a new class was beginning the following year, so our internship continued when three of us transferred to U.S. Army Europe. There I worked with incredibly dedicated safety professionals who taught me about field hazards, motor pools, river crossings, rail loading and fire protection. That field experience provided the foundation for my safety career.
As a senior safety mentor, what do you try to inspire in younger safety mentees?
Safety professionals are in the unique position of representing both management and labor interests. You must constantly balance the needs of the organization to complete the mission cost effectively, while simultaneously ensuring employee safety. Your job is to develop and integrate the risk controls necessary to protect personnel and assets. It requires special skills to communicate critical facts and identify what risk can be accepted. All risk is not created equal.
To address high risk factors, you should use all your tools and develop a comprehensive plan to address the task. In cases of low risk, you empower the task manager to work the issue and require local actions.
Safety is more than slogans and compliance regulations. What is your safety philosophy?
Being a successful safety manager requires a mutual respect for the mission, safety standards and employees. I have a basic philosophy of more safe/less safe/unsafe, but less safe does not equal unsafe. In days of shrinking budgets, financial resources have to be deployed in the most cost effective manner, and even the safety program must be strategic in how we prioritize and execute compliance initiatives. Our most successful initiatives have phased implementation, upper level management support and measurable metrics in common. Phased implementation enables our team to evaluate and assess what works and then improve any aspect that requires adjustment. This approach allows management to trust the plan and assist us with measuring achievement through metrics. When management considers safety professionals an integral part of the team, everyone is successful, the mission is accomplished, and employees comes back to do it again tomorrow.
(In addition to her professional achievements, Tilson holds a master's degree in safety management, bachelor's degree in business administration and the Project Management Professional credential.)