Who’s My “Safety Hero?” A Story About Fatherhood, Courage and Safety
by Phil Molé, MPH
National Safety Council (NSC) designates June of each year as National Safety Month (NSM), and as part of NSM this year, they’re inviting us to name our safety hero: the person who most inspired us by their example. For me, that’s an easy one. My safety hero is my dad, the late Philip J. Molé.
With National Safety Month in full swing, and Father’s Day this weekend, I wanted to talk about an important lesson I learned from my dad, and one that I feel is important to share because I don’t often see it discussed, even when we’re talking about “heroes.” Namely, I’ll be talking about the importance of courage to being a good safety professional. Along the way, we’ll take a look at the early days of the EHS regulatory era, investigate an unsolved ‘80s mystery involving my family, and discuss why safety professionals need to be ready to be brave, but structure their safety management practices so they don’t often have to be.
Background: My Father’s Beginnings
My father, Philip J. Molé, was born in 1926, the son of Sicilian immigrants who came to the US not long before WWI. He and my mom were high school sweethearts who met while attending Waller High School (now Lincoln Park High School) which coincidentally, my daughter now attends. He served in the U.S. Navy during WWII aboard the military cargo ship USS Trego.
After my parents married in 1948, my dad began working for a local manufacturing company but by the end of the 1950s, having earned an engineering degree, he’d started his own manufacturing company. He developed patents on many different appliances and equipment, including variants of revolving police lights, mosquito lamps, and the color projectors families of the day often set in front of their aluminum Christmas trees. Even after he lost his first company through the machinations of his partners, he gathered himself up and started another one. This time, out of the basement of my first childhood home.
He’d continue doing this through most of the 1960s. In 1968, the City of Chicago hired my father as an Assistant Director of the Department of Environment, where he applied his engineering background and manufacturing knowledge to environmental issues such as stormwater management, air pollution and water pollution. In 1972, the year I was born, he became Director of the Cook County Department of Environmental Control.
Life in the Early EHS Regulatory Era
During the early years of my childhood, I’d sometimes visited my father at his Cook County office on First Avenue and Maybrook Drive in Maywood, Illinois. I knew my dad had a position of authority, and I probably conflated that with my own views of him as a parental authority. That is to say, I assumed that when he made decisions, everyone just accepted them whether they were the people who worked in his department or the businesses who had to comply with environmental regulations that he and his department created and enforced.
This was still early in the era of EHS regulations, with federal EPA and OSHA established just a few years prior during the early 1970s. Of course, many regulated businesses did not welcome the oversight, since they’d long maintained operations without sufficient controls to prevent releases of hazardous chemicals—chemicals which presented serious hazards to their own workers, to the environment, and to communities impacted by air and water pollution.
Today there is a great deal of specialization within the EHS industry, with a growing number of professionals focused solely on “safety”. Some of these safety professionals actually question “EHS” as a discipline and wonder (as I once heard one of them put it) “Why safety is always combined with all of these other things.” I can only say that growing up when I did and seeing the work my father was doing, I witnessed the connection between workplace safety, environment and what we now call “corporate responsibility” from an early age. I can also say that the people angered by my father’s oversight of their operations saw that connection, as well.
Many companies saw safety and environmental regulations in-general as a threat, potentially saddling them with fines and legal liability in the event of violations. Investigations led by my father found that many companies had been exposing workers and their communities to concentrations of hazardous chemicals that were significantly over regulatory limits imposed by air emissions permits, or by OSHA permissible exposure limits (PELs). Some of these companies and the individuals involved actually targeted the officials who enforced these emerging EHS regulations. My father was one such target.
The “Strange Times” Begin
I still remember when I became aware that my father had enemies. It was early 1981, close to the time of my ninth birthday. We’d received a handwritten threatening note in our mailbox, referring to my father’s position at the County and implying that his enforcement actions against companies would result in bad things happening to him. Within a few days there was another note, and a few days after that, another. They’d be a regular occurrence for the next several years. In one of the more disturbing instances, we received a note shortly after my sister got married in June 1981, describing details such as the style of my sister’s wedding dress that only someone who’d been there could have seen.
These were strange times. For a while, we’d see a red sports car outside our home at around the time we’d receive these letters, and a couple of times, the driver of the car drove quickly away when he realized we’d seen him. Once when we were on a summer vacation in Fox Lake, Illinois and I was out walking by myself, I could’ve sworn I saw the same sports car slowly following me as I walked through a parking lot. I took a path through buildings and walkways with plenty of zigs and zags in it to get back to my parents. Was I being paranoid? To this day, I don’t know. How do you define “paranoia” when there really are people out to get you?
For a while we had surveillance cameras set up, and even a private security guard spending days and sometimes nights sitting in the living room near our front door. A private investigation firm got involved, investigating license plate numbers of possible matches for the car.
We never identified the culprit. Sometime around 1983 or 1984, the notes and other odd occurrences just stopped. The last two years or so my dad remained at that job were largely quiet ones, and when he did leave around 1986, it was due to frustrations with county politics and not the attempts to intimidate him. Through everything that had happened, he never once even considered calling off an investigation of any company, “going easy” on issuing violations, or leaving his job due to the harassment.
Only much later, when reviewing newspaper articles about my father after his death in March 2014, did I Iearn that the intimidation tactics I’d personally seen were not the only ones my dad had endured during his time on the job. The Chicago Tribune reporter who wrote the obituary for my father referenced a March 1971 Tribune article he’d found in the archives stating that my father was, at that time, the city's chief witness in an air pollution control hearing involving a large local steel company. My father reported in 1971 that he’d received five threatening phone calls in advance of his participation in the hearing, as well as two broken windows on his car. My father had conveyed that “he wasn’t worried about it” before continuing his testimony.
Lessons in Courage
Like many children, especially those growing up when I did, my father didn’t seem like an ordinary man to me. He always seemed so sure of himself, so fearless. In talks I had with him many years later, when I was an adult, I started to understand that this wasn’t so. He endured setbacks, and that he’d had a lifetime’s worth of insecurities. I understood this even more after he died, when I found a number of handwritten notes he’d written to people, including my mother, while cleaning out drawers and cabinets of his house. Turns out, that time when he lost his first company coincided with his mother’s early death, and the combination of the two had given him a nervous breakdown. Later, those years of harassment while at his county job had taken an additional psychological toll on him.
Only after reading those letters did I finally really get it. My father hadn’t done the right thing (even in the face of threats and intimidation) because he had no fear. He did experience fear, and lots of it. He was afraid for himself and for his family, but he did the right thing anyway, and that’s what courage is all about.
I realized that in my own life, I had tried to do the same thing – I just had mistakenly assumed that the kinds of fears I had to face had never been experienced by my father.
Sometimes we talk about the world of EHS as if it’s all a matter of knowing the right things, following the regulations, and learning about and implementing evolving safety best practices— like whatever the latest and greatest safety management approach acronym is that represents the current “state of the art” in industry thinking. There is value in many of those things, but that model of EHS misses a key ingredient. To survive in this industry, unless you are either extraordinarily lucky or very limited in the scope of your job duties, you need to have courage.
It takes courage be told by a company executive what the outcome of a safety investigation “needs” to indicate, and knowing better, to refuse to write the report as dictated. It takes courage to recognize that a new policy getting rushed through by a facility’s senior leadership will have a disastrous effect on safety, and to call a meeting with them to tell them so. It takes courage to repeatedly stand up for employees when management wants to frame them as the reason they were injured, rather than the workplace conditions and procedures management forced upon them. That’s just a sampling of some of the tough decisions I’ve made, some of them many times.
Be Safe, So You Don’t Always Have to Be Brave
As my own personal examples show, you don’t need to be an enforcement official like my father was to need bravery in the EHS world. Safety professionals need to realize that in an imperfect and unpredictable world, they’ll sometimes need to stand up, be brave and do the right thing.
But as those examples also show, there were obvious issues with safety management systems and culture that led to situations where courage was unfortunately necessary. Remember that our EHS systems and culture go hand-in-hand. For example, when we make it easy for our employees to be directly involved in investigating safety incidents, and the results of those investigations are transparent and readily accessible, we’re more likely to have greater accuracy and ethical integrity in our investigations.
Safety is important for many reasons, including regulatory compliance and company bottom line, but let’s not forget that it’s an expression of a deep and very human value. It’s about care for others, and ensuring they get home at the end of each day in good physical and psychological health so they can live the lives they’re working to support. Keeping that in mind, we shouldn’t start our approach to safety by asking what we have to do – we should start by asking who we want to be, and then ask what we need to do to live that.
This is a question we need to ask at the organizational, as well as the personal level. That is, if we want to be the kind of company where our employees have a voice in safety management and genuinely believe that management has their back, what would we need to do to be that company? For those of us who personally identify with that value, what would our own job actions look like to support it, and what kinds of safety management practices would we advocate?
We’d want to make it easy to do the right thing. We’d want to share responsibility for some of our key safety tasks like inspections, incident investigations and job safety analyses (JSAs), and ensure that all of our workers have fast access to the safety data sheets (SDSs) for chemicals in their work areas. Safety meetings would be a priority so we can get the feedback from workers we need to improve safety, and we’d make sure we were efficiently managing them. Since so of our many safety tasks generate corrective actions, we’d want simpler, more effective ways of initiating actions, prioritizing them and managing them through to completion. Finally, we’d want visibility of all of our safety data so that we can share our progress on safety goals, build trust in our systems and enable better decision making.
My safety hero, my father, taught me that sometimes you’re going to need to have courage to be an EHS professional. My own experiences in managing safety have added a new lesson to that: Purposefully build your safety management programs and practices to center the proactive approach and workforce engagement you need to prevent bad things from happening in the first place. Keep things running so smoothly and easily that you’re seldom called upon to prove you’re a safety hero by putting out fires – literally or figuratively.
Be safe, so that you don’t always have to be brave.
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