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Vol. 11, No. 8

A Tribute to Frank Bird Jr.,
A Man All SH&E Professionals Should Know

By David Wilbanks, CSP, CRSP, MPH

It has been a long time since I took an exam to be recognized by my peers as a safety professional. Many things have changed about that particular certification process over the years, as have the processes for many similar certifications around the globe. But their intent remains the same—to be the gold standard for evaluating one’s preparedness to practice the discipline.

At this point in history, I must pose a question: Regardless of education, nationality, industries served, context of work or complexity of experience, shouldn’t any such examination include the question: Who was Frank E. Bird Jr. and what was the significance of his contribution to safety?

The luckiest among us have on occasion been in the company of those who possess certain and special gifts, not just knowledge and experience that is unique, but also a presence that gives their message undeniable voice. Frank Bird had all those qualities and more.

I first encountered Mr. Bird when I was a safety supervisor at a steel mill in 1987. His company, International Loss Control Institute, had been retained to provide observations and suggestions for achieving excellence in safety that included leadership training sessions. By good fortune and because of our mill’s proximity to his greater Atlanta residence, Mr. Bird personally led the session I attended.

It was good fortune, indeed, as he’d long before achieved the status of “guru” to industry at large and because he’d essentially relinquished most all direct client work to his many staff professionals in the U.S. and abroad. I’m certain that every attendee—except, of course, for me—wished to be anywhere but at a mandated 2-day safety training session. But everyone quickly submitted fully to him and almost at the very moment at which he began to speak.

The term forged means to be formed by heating and hammering into shape. Forged steel is hardened. Mr. Bird was raised in the Pennsylvania Dutch tradition and in the center of the steel industry that once dominated the U.S. economy. He worked for many years as safety director for Lukens Steel. It was there that his basic beliefs about safety management were forged, and it gave him the ability to forge every last one of us during those 2 brief days. I was 24 at the time and the oldest among us was 65. All sat with rapt attention, momentarily speechless.

Mr. Bird didn’t lecture from on high about the importance of our respect for human life—our mutual commitment to the health and welfare of workers was a given. All were as moral as he in that context, as he made clear. He did not recite to us our inadequacies as leaders, then show us pictures to prove it. Nor did he rail against the basic deficiencies of our employees’ substandard behavior patterns and prescribe a simplistic model for their remedy. Placating is easy for most, but satisfying steel mill managers and supervisors who arrived at the training already somewhat hardened is another task entirely—a task for which Mr. Bird was well suited. His message? It’s the “system.”

But what is the system? Well, everything—from how we introduce a new employee to the organization to the standards to which we hold them and ourselves. The system cannot be separated from quality. One does not inspect for safety at the end of the process any more than one should hopefully inspect for quality at the processes’ end. It must be instilled throughout. This meant it must be measurable. If critical variables for quality could be measured, so could critical variables for safety. The product of safety was the product of quality. Without safety, there could not be quality because quality could not exist in a sea of uncontrolled variables—and what is an accident (or defect) but the product of uncontrolled variables? Without quality, productivity is of no value and without safety, there cannot be quality.

Mr. Bird easily compared and contrasted the teachings of Crosby, Deming and Juran to his own tenets and in the clearest ways. His art was to teach, to make the theoretical manifest in imminently practical ways. He never condescended but always challenged his audience no matter its make-up. His brilliance was to promote safety as a basic, inseparable component of the entire system rather than allow its important work to wither in isolation as a mere policing function. He gained many followers by his message that “safety” was linked to any relevant measures of a company’s success, including profit.

Particularly compelling was his unapologetic belief that the goal of safety was not the prevention of all accidents. The more useful term from his perspective was “control.” Control included prevention but also made explicit the reality that not all risks are equal and so all cannot receive the same measure of resources required to eliminate them. Mr. Bird also noted that because some measure of risk was inherent in living, some measure of risk would always remain in the workplace. Rather than confusing the moral imperative of safeguarding life by this admission, he clarified how best to hopefully pursue it—through risk management. This was the work of the manager and supervisor. This was the work of the professional. This was the work of all employees. This was the work for all intent on contributing and it belonged to each of us, regardless of title.

I am told that Frank E. Bird Jr. faced an early and definitive decision as to how he would spend his life—become a missionary or work in industry? I heard from more than one lifelong friend state that upon his formal retirement Mr. Bird actually had chosen mission work, only in the guise of industry. He was a missionary if ever this world has known one. His work was to teach us and his mission field was not confined to the northeastern reaches of his native steel country nor to the nation that he served in World War II; nor was it limited to North or South America, Great Britain or Europe, Asia, Africa or Australia. No, it included even (literally) the earth’s arctic circles.

In every respect, my career has been shaped by my time in his presence those 2 days and later as his employee. Because of Frank E. Bird Jr., my work has prevented unnecessary pain and suffering. I can also tell you that despite his influence, I have failed in stark ways, as the haunting memory of the mother whose 18-year-old was lost forever at the mine site where I served as safety manager continually reminds. Were Mr. Bird to hear this recollection, I imagine he would seize the opportunity, not to judge me harshly but more likely to encourage and challenge me to do something useful with this bitter memory. His oft-cited refrain echoes in my mind today—and it is perhaps one of several reasons why I am never satisfied with any measurable progress, however significant: Good better best, never let us rest, until our good is better and our better best.

Frank E. Bird Jr.’s life is now over, but the depth and breadth of his contribution serves not only as every SH&E professional’s harshest critic but also our most gracious friend. Returning to the question I posed early on, every SH&E professional reasonably should be able to meaningfully answer it—and we really should insist that they do.