<- Back

As founder and Managing Director of Strategic Safety Associates (SSA) in Portland, Oregon, Robert Pater helps organizations to improve their safety performance and culture through four proprietary safety intervention systems, MoveSMART®, SafetyLeadership™, PersonalControl™ and Direct Attention™. In this interview, Pater describes the philosophy behind these processes and their success in creating lasting and positive change within companies’ safety programs.

Please provide a brief overview of Strategic Safety Associates (SSA) and of your position as Managing Director.

Our focus is to provide innovative solutions to safety problems to help companies move toward highest-level safety performance. We have four processes, each of which apply a system approach to enact long-term change.

Strategically, we have found that any significant and sustaining solution has to simultaneously address a critical triangle of productivity/quality, safety/health and morale/satisfaction. While you can raise productivity at the expense of worker morale or safety, you can only do this for a limited time, like robbing Peter to pay Paul.

And breaking through plateaus of safety improvements requires elevating individual skills along with organizational culture. You have to heighten worker skills and actions for them to act safer, make better decisions and raise their overall performance. But skill improvements in a workforce only last when a company incorporates those cultural changes that reinforce these individual changes in performance. Too many organizations transmit messages of “That’s fine you learned this, now get back to work” or “We showed you once the right way to behave—why aren’t you doing this?” or “That was last month, this is what you should focus on now” and more.

We are change agents—that is the bottom line. The ultimate test is what do people do, not just what they say. Change is the charge of all professionals. We are helping others live and work more effectively and attentively with less risk and greater involvement. We are expecting them to change and to become better and more efficient.

In this environment, most organizations and people are over-stretched. It is not realistic to expect them to suddenly make large changes. Our approach is to help them employ the greatest leverage possible, make small changes that result in large, significant differences and build on these leveraged improvements.

MoveSMART®, our most called-for system of interventions, employs a behavioral approach. Since its debut, MoveSMART® modules for either preventing strains/sprains, slips/trips/falls or hand injuries have dramatically reduced our clients’ lost-time injuries and direct injury costs in many significant ways.

We view ergonomics as improving the fit between people and whatever tasks they do. Given this, there are three ergonomic approaches you can employ:

1. Bring work “closer” to people through job and tool design/redesign.

2. Bring people “closer” to their work through improving mental skills (e.g. attention control, judgment, decision-making, etc.) and physical skills (eye-hand coordination, balance, leveraged strength, safer transfer of forces and more)

3. Both. Although we focus more toward the behavioral side, we also encourage environment modifications that fit the bio-design of workers.

When I founded SSA in 1985, I personally did everything—assessment, program customization and development, writing, training, etc. We now have an exceptional staff that has a significant track record for catalyzing major improvements within organizations worldwide. I feel fortunate to be able to work with Ron Bowles, Paul McClellan, Craig Lewis, Charles Braxton, Rob Russell and others.

During my 21 years of experience in system development and creation, I have worked with many executives and safety, health and environmental (SH&E) professionals. It is important to ensure that strategy, communications and actions are aligned. It is critical that we communicate clearly about realistic expectations—both within our company and with clients. I have a low tolerance for hypocrisy. No “promising the moon” or “bait and switch” with us just to get a contract.

To date, we have not taken out an ad, cold-called or had a booth at a trade show. All of our work comes from referral, people initially contacting (calling or e-mailing) us. I like to think it is because we do what we say we are going to do and are committed to highest-quality performance.

In order to make significant organizational breakthroughs in safety performance, we focus on a “scissors approach.” That is, you can cut through a piece of paper with a descending knife or with an ascending one. But it is most efficient way to use two knives coming together in a synchronized manner—a scissors. To implement this, we enlist senior managers to engage in select time-leveraged activities, supervisors to boost safety as part of their overall daily activities and line staff to be trained as Instructor-Catalysts to train, coach and reinforce peers to learn and then consistently apply new methods and techniques. We have seen dramatic improvements come out of our Instructor-Catalyst process.

You created MoveSMART®, a training and reinforcement-based process that helps to improve companies’ safety rates. How did you develop this process, and how has it succeeded in reducing occupational injuries, accidents and fatalities within companies worldwide?

In 1983, I coordinated the Stress Management Center at Holladay Park Hospital in Portland, Oregon. I was also Vice-President of the Oregon chapter of the American Society of Training and Development. I wound up attending the Oregon Governor’s Occupational Safety & Health conference that year. This really opened my eyes to the need for improving safety communications, training and behavioral skills within organizations.

After developing and making an innovative presentation on preventing slips, trips and falls at the 1985 Oregon Governor’s conference, I was immediately hired by several companies. One thing led to another, work snowballed, I was asked to develop and present other interventions that were within my field of expertise, and here we are. I will also be keynoting the 2007 Oregon Governor’s conference on the topic of high-level safety leadership.

In our MoveSMART® system, our thrust is based on three objectives:

1. Improving skills and behavior.

2. Significantly reducing accidents and measurable injuries.

3. Elevating safety culture by improving communications, coordination and receptivity.

We strongly emphasize encouraging people to become more in control of their own actions/personal responsibility in a positive and exciting manner without creating pushback.

We give people a different outlook and new skills that can help them break through logjams and plateaus. Frequently, we work with large companies that have tried everything and often come to us as a court of last resort. We aim to take them to a higher level of safety performance and culture. Alternately, if a company is only interested in compliance with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) or with other regulating agency rules—we call this “lowest common denominator safety”—we do not think the company will fit well with us. But for those that are determined to make step changes in safety or to aspire to eventually reach the highest levels of safety performance, we can help them make significant strides.

We encourage safety leadership among executives and show them how to achieve higher performance. To this end, I have written a book on leadership titled Leading From Within: Martial Arts Skills for Dynamic Business and Management , which has been translated into five languages. We help executives harness safety as a powerful force toward overall organizational strength.

With MoveSMART®, it is gratifying to provide clients with injury-prevention strategies and skills that help them reduce repeat injuries and break the chain of accident repetition.

The results? Clients have reported injury reductions of up to 83% (25-50% is very common), turnarounds in safety motivation, newly energized safety focus, heightened communication between managers and workers, boosts in involvement and much more. One corporate Safety Director called MoveSMART®, “A quantum leap in safety.” BP Shipping currently considers MoveSMART® “the cornerstone” of their safety and cultural improvement efforts. Paul Manzi, who is responsible for worldwide safety for BP Shipping, wrote a note to another safety professional about his experience in bringing MoveSMART® to his former employer, Cascade General Inc (CGI), a ship repair company for which he was Corporate Safety Director. Manzi said, “As a matter of fact, I was initially against it until I saw what it could do if marshaled correctly. While in place at CGI during my tenure and using MoveSMART®, soft tissue injuries were reduced by about 70%, and we saw similar reductions in claims activity.”

We have many such references—sometimes we hear resounding success stories from clients who related these to peers in competing companies. We have even read strong testimonials about MoveSMART® in interviews in safety journals that we had not previously heard about.

Like MoveSMART®, SSA’s other safety intervention systems, Safety Leadership™, PersonalControl™ and DirectAttention™, draw on industrial psychology, martial arts and other disciplines. Why do these fields in particular have such a positive impact on safety performance, and how do your help your clients to incorporate the right balance of physical and mental skills in their safety programs?

The martial arts I have studied are internally focused. What I have seen from my practice is that people change by first clearly focusing on their own strengths, current limitations, outside supports and lack thereof. From this, they practice practical methods for reaching a deeper level of self-control.

The next developmental step is focusing outside of themselves—how to more effectively influence others, motivate them positively and turn conflict into a creative force for improvement.

On the third level, the focus is on mastering change—how to better “read” changing forces so you can better direct them. This includes the realms of reacting to changes you cannot control, planning for change and becoming a powerful catalyst for improvements.

I feel fortunate that my martial arts study has helped me develop sets of skills for becoming more courageous and creative as a learner and leader.

On a physical level, the martial arts in which I have trained have also been a proven ground for exploring ways to improve physical skills like balance, leverage, coordination and strength. We have applied both these physical and mental skills to our MoveSMART® system of injury-prevention interventions.

Several experts in industrial psychology have influenced me. Kurt Lewin pioneered methods for applying field theory (which originally came from physics) toward helping individuals and organizations become positive change agents. And I spent several years with Jack Gibb, an expert in organizational dynamics, who helped me learn how to work with larger groups (I very much enjoy presenting to large groups at conferences). From working with Jack, my focus is on leadership as a shared function that involves all organizational levels. And for any intervention to really take (like high-level safety), it has to be energizing, exciting, interesting and practical.

You have actively studied martial arts for over 30 years. Do you believe that this training has given you an advantage in working with your clients and in addressing their safety needs? Please elaborate.

First, I think of safety as the ultimate self-defense. In addition to what I have mentioned earlier, martial arts practice has helped me better learn how to learn, how to stay within myself, how to appreciate the changing nature of daily work and life and how to focus on both physical and mental processes to maximize safety, health, enjoyment and overall performance. And to be persistent in finding ways to fulfill a goal. Even when it appears that the odds are against you, it is very possible to prevail with the right spirit, strategy and techniques. I know that problems have solutions, although these are not always readily apparent and sometimes require breaking new ground.

Training in internal martial arts has also reinforced my understanding that strategically, it is critical to enlist, not fight, human nature. In these current competitive times of often working razor-thin, command and control management—which presumes the ability to ever-vigilantly watch and sit on worker actions—just does not apply. And attempting to force safe actions often results in pushback, sometimes on a major scale. This wastes time and resources where there is little available to allow to spiral down the drain.

Consequently, we focus all our interventions on enlisting, not fighting natural drives toward personal control, excitement and seeing personal advantages to safety at work and at home. We apply this strategy on all levels—from my work with senior executives on executive safety leadership to our training peer Instructor-Catalysts in MoveSMART®.

Martial arts practice requires developing reflexive, default habits—very few can easily turn on heightened perception and dynamic responses under high levels of duress or crisis. So, as in internal martial arts, we emphasize applying principles and practices everywhere in all activities both at work and at home.

Martial arts training emphasizes continuous improvement, it is not a one-shot inoculation event. The moment you think you have “arrived” is when you are likely to get hit. Similarly, I have seen many cases in which organizations get too self-satisfied, and their safety performance slips. To attain “mastery,” you cannot rest on your laurels. Rather, you have to dedicate yourself to learning how to hone your skills, perceive changing forces and adapt accordingly.

Like high-level martial arts, high-level safety involves redirecting conflict into positive results. We emphasize making turnarounds. So when training MoveSMART® Instructor-Catalysts, we typically ask our clients to send us their most difficult people, and we teach them how to harness conflict and to redirect it into a positive energy force for credibility and change. These are based on practical, transferable methods and techniques—they are not mystical or esoteric processes. We apply these principles in our own business as well. Again, it is critical that we practice what we teach.

And we have found that many people’s interest—on all levels of companies and throughout the world—is piqued by the martial arts. While not everyone in our company is martial arts-adept, each understands and practices these principles on a deep level.

Companies in over sixty countries have successfully implemented SSA’s four safety intervention systems. When working with an international company, how do you ensure that their specific intervention system meets international regulations and standards?

First, we ask and research the rules that apply to our clients. This takes them to a required level of functioning and covers them from potential audits. But since standards are typically minimal requirements, we have been able to concentrate on how to extend beyond compliance to higher level functioning.

Customization occurs from understanding cultural norms and context in any company, be it international or domestic. So before we work with any company, we conduct thorough assessments of their culture and the methods they use, and we also research their regulations and standards. Our goal is to improve upon their current practices. And since each client is different, we always customize our systems to their objectives, concerns, history of what interventions they have previously tried and to what degree this has or has not worked and anticipated internal and external forces that might affect any solution.

We have worked in every continent (outside of Antarctica) and have found gratifying receptivity to what we do everywhere we go. Perhaps this is because we emphasize threads that are common to everyone (similar physical/biological design, desire for control, etc). And we research and study the “differences.” For example, it is interesting to discover how safety is looked at in different countries and cultures.

And we have learned a lot about the do’s and don’ts of translating training materials and other communications into different languages.

Do you ever encounter any resistance from executives, managers or supervisors with respect to ergonomics? Why or why not?

I encounter resistance all the time. However, during the last three to five years, I have never seen such committed safety interest from senior and other high-ranking executives. Our job is to show them what organizational safety can really do for them in terms of heightened receptivity to leadership and change, involvement, productivity beyond presenteeism, morale and much more.

Since these managers frequently over-focus on trailing indicators, we typically work to show how they can get very positive results in the short term with minimal time investment on their part, while attaining even stronger performance over a longer period. This involves exciting them about safety, setting high expectations for their active involvement as well as for returns on safety in many ways, helping them agree to leading measurements that reflect positive movement towards longer term objectives.

For example, it can take six months to realize trailing indicator paybacks and significant injury reductions from a strains/sprains intervention like our MoveSMART® Strength & Control module. After all, the soft tissue injuries you see next week have usually been building for some time in the past. But you can also immediately recognize improved worker interest in trying new methods, anecdotal reports of lessened strain and tension, higher involvement, reports of using MoveSMART® methods in home hobbies and activities—all of which indicate that the process of positive change is germinating.

We see some executives who are suspicious of soft-tissue injuries because these are often “subjective” in nature (totally unlike a compound fracture). Others think that a significant number of strains/sprains, slips/trips/falls or hand injuries are just faked and that workers are looking to bail out of work. Our job here is to either help them dispassionately see a realistic level of non-compliance that exists in their company and/or help them to develop a culture in which people are not looking to bail out of work.

Others believe you can “incent” or bribe workers into being safe. They do not see that even if these methods truly motivated people to a higher level and over a sustained period of time—which they do not—these workers still will not know what to do to improve. You can want with all your might to rescue a loved one from an angry ocean, but you still must know necessary swimming and rescuing techniques.

Some managers believe that safety is not a real issue because they believe their products and processes are benign. They often do not see the true toll of hidden hazards like cumulative trauma, static positions or worker disconnection.

Other executives consider injuries a cost of doing business. On the other hand, some managers are complacent and believe that they are already doing well.

We have worked with all these “types” of safety resistance and much more, and almost all can be overcome, often to a high degree of buy-in.

Based on your experience with SSA, which factors do you feel most greatly influence safety culture?

Safety culture is a surround system of what really goes on within an organization that people generally do not talk about. For example, what really gets managers’ attention and what gets ignored? What do you have to do to cover yourself in your job? What are the pet peeves of managers or supervisors? Do they take a lasting or a “fast-food safety” approach? What is the organization’s safety history? How are employees viewed—and how do they believe they are valued? Is safety seen as a necessary evil or as an opportunity for heightened organizational strength?

Safety culture depends on events in the past that still affect everyone right now, the level and kinds of mixed messages communicated, client expectations and to what degree executives and all leaders on both the management and bargaining unit side (when present) promote pro-safety leadership or conflicting agendas.

We work with several companies whose clients are other large companies—contractor safety and government regulations are very important to everyone. For example, we have worked in the oil industry for over twenty years, and this sector has had an almost complete safety cultural turnaround. Not terribly long ago, in the “upstream” portion of the industry, those who worked near the well site and had all of their fingers were considered wimps or worse. Now the oil industry is adamantly pro-safety.

Real and significant change is possible. It is happening all around us all of the time. Our role is to help companies reduce those behaviors that get in the way of higher performance and replace them with strategies for engaging and aligning everyone toward powerful safety.

On average, what kind of ROI can companies expect to see after applying one of SSA’s safety intervention systems?

Most of our clients have previously had difficulties or tried other approaches that did not work. Others have gotten a fair amount of success but have hit a plateau of not getting better. At a minimum, we expect to see a 25% reduction in costs. In addition to reduced direct costs of injuries (and again, we have frequently seen those go beyond 50%), we expect to see significant increases in involvement, attention towards safety, receptivity and positive safety relationships (e.g. more effective accident investigations, activated executive safety leadership, improved supervisory relations, reenergized commitment in safety committees, etc).

SSA also supports and promotes safety at home. How does this approach help to change your clients’ perception of safety?

It is critical. The more resistant people are to changing things at work, the more we tend to focus on showing how to reap the benefits of safety in their personal, off-work lives. We teach them how to help people they care for—children, older relatives, others—live safer and more secure. How can they apply an understanding of ergonomics toward making better purchasing decisions and how to be better safety directors in both their personal and professional lives?

We see safety as a nexus point. For us, high-level safety is not about preventing things from happening that no one believes will really happen to them. It is about living your life alive, alert and having the energy and skills needed to do what is important to you.

Real highest-level safety functioning occurs when people do not care whether they are being observed or know they are not, yet still employ best safety practices. That is one of our goals.

Soft tissue injuries are often cumulative in nature. People get their accumulations of tension, like the proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back,” at home as well as at work. It is critical to help them perform at-home activities while minimizing tension loading.

And many people are creatures of habit. They are not likely to lift one way at home and another way at work. So our role is to help them “move smart” in everything they do at work and at home.

You have spoken at numerous conferences and have published several books and articles. What new developments in safety do you believe warrant further study or exploration? Are you currently producing any works or pursuing any research projects? Please elaborate.

We are always creating new articles and developing new programs. I also present at many ASSE-sponsored events. We have just redesigned our behavioral hand safety intervention to a much higher level, and we have received good results. We recently upgraded our Balance FallSAFE® system for preventing slips/trips/falls. For the last 15 years, we have worked on ways to boost safety in the aging workforce, and we plan to introduce a dedicated system for preventing injuries with an aging workforce in the fall of this year.

We believe that a lot has been done externally to make organizations safe, but we want to further develop what can be done internally—how do you manage attention, judgment and stress and make better decisions? How can you better control your body with minimal effort for maximum results? A Manufacturing Vice-President of one of clients (a global Fortune 100 company) remarked, “Ninety percent of our safety efforts has been successful. To attain another 1% improvement, it is about us, our people and our culture.”

We also see the need for safety to have a greater tie-in to high-level health in SH&E programs. In addition, we want to help senior executives have the needed tools to lead safety more actively and effectively. Leveraging executive safety leadership, as well as professional and personal leadership development, is critical for everyone. Principles of personal control and how to influence other people during times of duress are critical if you want to take a lead in safety performance.

Further, we emphasize bringing leadership development to all levels of an organization.

Other important focal points include developing more effective contractor safety as well as helping companies with geographically spread sites find ways to attain consistent safety results. And we think we have particular expertise in boosting safety with people who work outside of controlled plant environments such as those who make deliveries, spend most of their time on the road or work on their clients’ turf.

We see a growing movement away from external monitoring toward learning how to self-monitor and to make needed course corrections and small adjustments for heightened safety and performance. This is critical to assuming personal responsibility for one’s own actions.

You are a professional member of the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE). Do you feel that your membership has given you special insight into the needs of your clients? Why or why not?

I highly value my membership in ASSE. Our interest is in helping others stay ahead of the curve and in creating leverage while using minimal time and resources to make the greatest impact. As an ASSE member, I have the opportunity to observe what other leaders are exploring and learning about. I have been able to meet and interact with many high-level professional leaders. And the opportunity to continually create new presentations for sophisticated professionals helps me challenge myself to further hone practical methods for catalyzing high-level change.

In my time as a member, I have presented at a wide array of ASSE national and regional conferences, chapter meetings and in audio conferences. I have written five articles for Professional Safety and many others for both the management and transportation practice specialty newsletters. The ASSE also published my manual on safety presentation skills. I have found that society membership is a great way to reach people in your field and to be continuously stimulated and positively challenged.


Robert Pater founded Strategic Safety Associates (SSA) and the MoveSMART® process based on his education in industrial psychology and organizational development, his extensive work with corporations and organizations worldwide and three decades of training in several martial arts.

He has also presented extensively in the field of safety leadership. Pater has worked with groups at all levels of organizations and now focuses on consulting with and presenting to senior executives, managers and organizational professionals.

He has keynoted and presented at numerous association conferences, and he has also developed custom keynotes and presentations for a wide range of corporate conferences. Pater has been interviewed on his approach to leadership on ABC World News, CNN as well as on many other television and radio shows, and he has been profiled in Investors Business Daily , Training magazine, Darwin , Entrepreneur , Success magazine, The Motivational Manager and others. His articles have appeared in such publications as Professional Safety , Safety + Health , Industrial Safety & Hygiene News , Occupational Health & Safety , Compliance and Nation’s Business . He also writes a monthly column, “The Safety Catalyst,” for the magazine Occupational Hazards .

Pater has authored three books— Leading from Within: Martial Arts Skills for Dynamic Business and Management , The Black Belt Manager: Strategies for Creativity, Power and Control and How to Make High-Impact Safety Presentations . He is a Professional Member of the ASSE and a member of the National Safety Management Society.

Pater holds a bachelor of arts degree in organizational development from Queens College in Massachusetts and master of arts degree in psychology from the University of Redlands in California.