James MacPherson

Why Safety Needs Rebranding

In this episode, Mary Conquest speaks with James MacPherson. James doesn’t hold back in his passionate appraisal of the world of Safety. Never afraid to challenge the status quo, he shares his strong opinions on rebranding the profession, safety academia, professional associations, training and ‘Trickle-down Safety’. He also urges EHS practitioners to embrace AI and prioritize critical thinking and doesn’t hold back his colorful language as well as his forthright views.

In This Episode

In this episode, Mary Conquest speaks with James MacPherson, the straight-talking host of the influential podcast and YouTube channel, ‘Rebranding Safety’, who also recently founded his own consultancy, ‘Risk Fluent’ (with his wife).

In this unrestrained interview (with some colorful language), James leaves Safety professionals with no doubt about how the profession can improve itself.

After describing his journey, he dives straight into his forthright views about Safety’s image problem and the “bickering” about Safety theory.

James is never afraid to challenge traditional approaches to Safety, but he also challenges the ‘labeling’ of alternative views and clearly defines the role he’d like academics to play.

He doesn’t hold back in his damning assessments of Safety Associations and HSE training and shares his concerns about the prevalence and impact of “Trickle-down Safety’.

James completes his passionate appraisal of the Safety world by urging EHS practitioners to embrace AI, focus on critical thinking and calm down!


- [Mary] Hi there. Welcome to "Safety Labs by Slice." This may shock you. Okay, not really. But "Safety Labs by Slice" is not the only and not the first safety podcast around. Today, I'm chatting with James MacPherson of the "Rebranding Safety" podcast. I'll ask about his journey in safety and how he sees the industry today.

But first, a little bit of background. After a decade of working in safety roles, James McPherson started the "Rebranding Safety" podcast in 2018 as a way to get his frustrations about safety off his chest. It's now the biggest UK safety podcast and has an associated YouTube channel discussing safety practice in the UK.

"Safety and Health Practitioner" magazine has named James a top 10 influencer 2 years in a row. "Rebranding Safety" has recently been voted in the top 10 health and safety podcasts. In 2021, James and his wife, Sherry, started to put lessons from the podcast into practice by founding their consultancy, Risk Fluent. Risk Fluent offers their operational risk approach, which brings modern frameworks to risk, resilience, human performance, organizational learning, and culture to the world of normal work.

In 2023, James and Sherry took over Risk Assessor Pro, an award-winning safety app. They run these ventures together, as well as raising their daughter, Maggie. James joins us from Wellingborough in the UK. Welcome.

- [James] I think that was the nicest, smoothest introduction I've ever heard. Thank you very much, Mary.

- You're welcome. So, you told me before that the podcast "Rebranding Safety" is where your consultancy started. And I'd like to hear that story, but before that, let's back up even further. What inspired you to start a podcast?

- Well, I say all the time it was kind of born out of frustration. It's the truth if I'm honest. It very much was born out of frustration. So I like to do quite I'd say risky sports, and I like contact sports. So rugby, I played rugby for a long time.

Before that, I did martial arts and now I've gone back into martial arts. So I've always done stuff like that and always been surrounded with these kind of jokes of like, "Well, can't do that. [inaudible] and thank me. And also like all of my mates are tradies or business owners, and I just didn't really want to talk about what I do for a job.

So I found it quite lonely. And so I was frustrated with how people perceived me, how people perceived my profession, the work that we do. I didn't think it aligned with what I did and how I saw it. And ultimately, I was frustrated in what I believe to have caused that perception, which is the practices that we do within safety. So I was like...also there's probably the other side of it as well in that I've always wanted to run businesses.

I've always wanted to, even when I was a kid, I was like, I'm going to have a business one day, no idea what it would do. So really I just had to find the career and then eventually that would become the business. So I knew I needed to start building my own personal brand. And I wrote a couple of blogs because that was the thing you did at the time. I'm like terribly, like nearly illiterate. Like, I can't spell at all.

I write how I talk, which is like fast and bitty and all over the place, so you can imagine what my blogs looked like. So I think I wrote three and it took my wife like six months to like proof them. So yeah, it just wasn't happening. So I was like, argh. And then I went on a dog walk one day and I always listened to podcasts, but never really thought I could do a podcast.

So I was going for a walk and there was a podcast by Gary Vaynerchuk, and they asked at the end of the episode, like, what kind of tech are you interested or keeping your eye on? And he said, there's a piece of tech called anchor.fm, where you can essentially just start your own podcast free of charge. So, I got home and I did exactly that.

I plugged my hands-free on my phone and I recorded my first episode, which you can still listen to now. It's still available embarrassingly. And it's just me moaning about safety signage. And then it just went from there. I just did another one, another one, another one. Now, five years later, yes, unbelievable.

- Why did you name it "Rebranding Safety?" And I wanted to ask, does safety have a branding problem?

- So ultimately, I think we spend a bit too much time trying to work out how to name things. So I was kind of just, like, perfection is the enemy of progress. Let's just do something. And I'm very much just kind of once I've got an idea, I just go with it and see what happens and then change it again later on.

So I don't think I put that much thought into it. I had been working on the name for like a company and stuff for a while anyway. So yeah, there was that part of it. There was maybe a little bit of work done before kind of indirectly, but ultimately I wanted to change the way that we were perceived, so therefore it was like the brand of safety. So, for me, it felt quite natural that we were talking about the brand of safety, and that that's what I needed to change.

Well, not I, but we. So yeah, I think everything has a brand. Everything is perceived in one way or another. I often kind of say that when I'm in conversation with lots of other safety professionals, sometimes it gets to this thing where we start branding HR in a certain way, that HR only exists to like fire people.

And I always kind of joke, I'm sure there's going to be like a rebranding HR podcast out there somewhere where they're going, no, it's about being people-centered and stuff like that. So I do think everything kind of has a brand. Like, I would joke with my accountant that all he does is account beans, when actually he doesn't. So I do think we have a brand, and I still think we have a long way to go on changing that brand, particularly in the smaller businesses and in what we commonly kind of affectionately call in our business the world of normal work like construction, manufacturing, things like that.

There is still very much on health and safety.

- On that note, there have been a lot of different, not rebranding, but different ways of looking at it. And there are lots of people...we have seen on our LinkedIn page, lots of people have strong opinions about the different flavors of safety. So there's new view, safety-II, safety differently, and then HOP gets thrown in there too. Are there important differences between these, or are we just finding several slightly different angles to say the same thing?

- So this is where this gets really...it's like the safety version of like really sensitive conversations, isn't it, where people just start getting rid of uppity? I do genuinely think that you need all of them. I do think they are all different. I think a lot of them overlap, which is not necessarily a bad thing. So therefore, some people could sell one or commit to one and potentially be doing all of them, but settling into that one brand, if that makes sense.

So they might say, oh, I'm HOP, for example, and therefore, they're selling it as HOP, but ultimately, there is a bit of safety-II in there and whatever. So I do genuinely see them all as different tools. I kind of the way that I kind of describe rebranding safety is why would you commit to one? Like, you wouldn't go to a buffet and only eat one bit off the buffet, would you?

And ultimately, what bit you need depends on where you are as a company for me and what your position is, and what your risks are, and your maturity, and who you are talking to as well. So, I do think it's all of it. When we talk about our approach within Risk Fluent, we kind of call it operational risk or kind of to trying and design in operational success.

And the reason why we do that is because I don't want us to commit to one, and I don't really want to create another one. So our view is we're just using what works of all of them. So I think, you know, we are due to put out kind of like a guide, which we're calling like...it's at the final kind of design and proof stage at the moment, which is going to be focused around...we're going to call it like a series of actionable guides on risk and culture because ultimately they're the two things we're trying to manage is our risk and our cultures.

And within that, we essentially use a combination of all of them. So we'll break it down into four core focus areas. So there's culture, which within culture, there are a collection of theories, and approaches, and philosophies, and tools that we'll use. Like, leadership is a massive part of it.

You could then break leadership down into like 20 other approaches to leadership. Psychological safety fits within there, but also fits within organizational alone, which is another one of our core focuses. Then you've got human performance, which I think is the one that probably gets the most bickering, the second-most bickering maybe because I probably set some houses on fire when I kind of say this, but ultimately for me, HOP and behavior-based safety are very much the same.

Like in their practices, if you were to look at the way the HOP is sold from say, like Conklin, who's kind of like the gold fiber, I suppose, of that, and then you look at Geller, who is like the godfather of BBS, they're a carbon copy of each other.

They're exactly the same. And you'll watch keynotes of them bickering with each other about the same thing. And it's very frustrating as a practitioner, but they are really talking about the same thing. They just use slightly different words. But ultimately, their practices are the same. So I think the bickering is mostly just on the label. So I think human performance is where most of the bickering comes from.

I think the second bickering that comes from that's unhelpful is safety differently. So safety differently is a phenomenal marketing tool. And has, you know, controversy and bickering and tribalism, it's a great marketing tool. We've used it for many, many years. And I think Dekker did a very good job of that.

And ultimately, there are another academic side that just don't like anything safety differently. I think safety differently and the books from safety differently are very good as kind of a glass-smash moment. They're good at opening the door like a gateway book or a gateway theory to other things. And then that leads you into safety-II, which for me is all about resilience and the ability to respond and stuff like that.

So you can't just have resilience, you also need some form of operational human performance practice as well. Then you've got high-reliability organizations, which is a bit of resilience and a bit of learning organizations, a bit of human performance. So you kind of need all of those as well. So, that's how we kind of come at it is that safety differently typically is a very good way to open the door and get the conversation started.

A lot of Dekker's work is very, very good, a lot of Conklin's work is very, very good, but also a lot of Geller's work is very, very good. So, I think there's a lot of these podcasts where we have a lot of conversation about how bad the practitioners are and how wrong the practitioners are getting it. Not many podcasts are saying...actually, the academics are making this a hell of a lot harder for us practitioners by creating a lot of tribalism.

It's really hard for a practitioner to work out how do we actually do this at work. But yeah, our kind of core focus is really all of them. It's a collection of four core focuses, culture, human performance, organizational learning, and then risk and resilience. And for me, you can't have one of them, we do all of them.

- Well, first of all, so do you think all this conversation about labels and all this stuff, do you think it's kind of wasted air, or do you think it's a healthy debate?

- Yeah, some is and some isn't. I think we're going through like a period of change, so an evolution. So I think the trade-off of that is that you have to have these conversations and some of it will naturally become wasted air. So I just think it is just a natural issue that evolution brings, if that makes sense. We have to bicker.

And remember that academics are supposed to bicker. Like, that's literally their job is to say, this is my theory. And then the other one goes, no, this is my theory and you are wrong and you are... The problem is that academia has now become an industry where profitability is, you know, is commercialized. So we've got an issue now that academia is not really academia, it's a business.

So it's become more well marketed in my opinion. That's probably made this a lot worse, just in my humble opinion. So some conversations are hot air. There are some out there that just write blogs just for the sake of bitching and moaning about...sorry, am I allowed to swear?

I think I checked before. Yeah. Not that I would [inaudible] class bitches as a swear word, but just in case. So yeah, there are some people I think that just like to stir on a blog and they're just a bit angry and grumpy and they'll just never see the other side. And I think that's on both sides of the debate.

But I do think that's necessary for us to evolve.

- Little diversion here, in your opinion, what's the ideal role of academia and practitioners as opposed to practitioners in the safety space? Like, what would you like to see?

- I'd like to see academia do what academia is supposed to do, which is what it does do, which is do some research and out of that research, come up with a theory or a conclusion and say, this might mean this. And then do it again, and then again and again and again. And then do literature reviews on all of the other people that have done all these experiments And you just give us a load of evidence to build up, to start us, when I say us, I mean practitioners, to be able to take that stuff and to try it.

And I think that's the role of a practitioner is to try it and feedback to academia through them doing their research. So it should be, for me, this lovely little ecosystem. The problem, like I say, is it's become commercialized. So, which again, I don't have a problem with them making profit, like everything that costs money, right? You've got to pay your academics.

And I totally get that. I'm not saying they shouldn't earn money, but I do think there's a line. Like, if we're doing all of this academia to make the world a better place, then why does it cost so much for a practitioner to get access to the journals? Like, why is there all of these different journals? Because a practitioner can't just have access to one journal because they're like, oh, this one's a bit of a shit journal, but this one over here is a really good journal.

Well, in your opinion, but this person over here says that's a good journal and this is a shit journal. So, now as a practitioner, I've got to have a membership to like four different journals and you just can't get access to this stuff. So I do think that the roles are really simple. You research and find potential solutions, and then we try that stuff and feedback to you. But in reality, it's really complicated because everyone's got to pay the bills, everyone's got to make profit, everyone's trying to, you know, be wealthy.

And I don't have a problem with that, but it is got so far now that we've kind of like just created so many barriers now to, or paywalls, so to speak, to actually access this. So in a way, what I can literally see happening is that human performance, safety-II, safety differently, resilience is kind of having the same problem that behavior-based safety had in that it's being rolled out incorrectly, or at least not aligned with what I believe to be the true kind of science-based principles that we were supposed to roll out.

Because it's so hard to interpret it, because it's so hard to access that information, so what's being delivered out is this way, way oversimplification of it. The other flip side of that is the response from academia about that is you are all stupid for oversimplifying it, but not accepting that there's a problem with paywalls. And also we kind of have to simplify it because our audiences are different.

So academia's audience is mature safety professionals, a safety professional's audience is a business owner or an operations manager who are not talking in those languages. So we have to simplify it a bit. So there's this whole just like messy cycle and the mess I don't think you'll ever get rid of, but we do have to make that information a lot more accessible, of which I think the "Safety of Work" podcast has done a very good job of that.

I think you had David Provan on this, so him and Drew Rae who have made that podcast have done a phenomenal job at making academia a lot more accessible because they're going through it and talking about it on a podcast, which for me is great because I hate reading academia.

- Yeah, all of that is really interesting. I'm wondering now...there's also a difference between like in academia, you know, experiments are by their nature controlled and in a certain ideal world and there's always more chaos in the workplace than there is in a controlled experiment.

- Yeah, for sure. Good point.

- You've spoken about rebranding safety to a number of different groups now, and then obviously there's the podcast. What kind of reception do you get from safety practitioners when you talk about rebranding? Do you feel positive, negative, confused?

- I think everyone nods their heads and agrees with it. And I've never really had anyone stand up and go, "Oh, no, no." I have had people challenge it. And I tend to find that...when I try and kind of kill them with curiosity, I say, when you get those kind of haters, so to speak, it's just, okay, but where is this coming from?

Typically, we're coming from like different directions, but with the same core understanding, if that makes sense. So we kind of actually agree with each other, but we're coming at it from different ways. I can also be quite provocative, like I kind of moan about Dekker being very provocative.

I can also be very provocative as well. So it's kind of pot kettle, I don't if you understand the line, pot kettle.

- Yes, that's the pot calling the kettle black.

- Yeah. I didn't know whether that was like a proper British thing that no one really understands. So sorry. But yeah, I do think, yeah, most of the time the reception is really good. I think everyone agrees with the problem in that nothing's happening, nothing's changing, and nothing's improving.

I think the world can unite on the agreement that we are still killing people, people are still stressed at work, people are still inhaling nasty stuff. Like, we can all agree we don't want that to happen. What we can all agree, I think, is that it needs to be better, where we struggle is the how. And I think that's where we don't agree.

Because I think everyone's looking for one how and there'll never will be one how because they're all massively different. All of the different cultures in different countries, the different cultures within the country is different, and then the cultures within the organization. And it just goes on and on and on that there really isn't no one answer. So the reception is typically very good.

I think everyone can agree that like the world is a horrible place, but it's kind of better than what it was, but we could kind of still improve, if that makes sense.

- I'm going to get back to the question that I promised to ask earlier, which is, how did the podcast lead to you starting a consultancy? What's the story there?

- Probably three things. One, it was always going to. So I always wanted to run a business. So it was always the end goal. The goal came up a little bit quicker than what I intended it to. And that was as a result of four business redesigns in a row. So four times I was put up for redundancy and realized that when everyone says, "Oh, you're really secure when you're employed and you're not secure when you're self-employed."

I kind of was like, you know what? That is a complete crock of shit. It's exactly the same. So I kind of got fed up of other people that don't know me or even my topic, just completely making random decisions about what my career should look like. So I got to that point.

I would say that the last business re-design went through, we were on path to have a really nice plan. So kind of what we do within the company, I'd actually originally intended to do it within a trade association within the UK because I think I genuinely see trade associations as a really powerful body that can really drive change.

And I thought that if we could take kind of what the Department of Energy did with the HPI manuals in America, if we could take that notion and do something like that with trade associations in the UK, that would be absolutely amazing. And that was my original plan. Business redesign came up, originally it was on a good track and then it just went off the ruse and I put my finger out in the market and just said, anyone that listens to "Rebranding Safety" think they'd send us some work?

Couple of people said yes. And then a couple of people that were running already successful consultancies were like, look, I'll give you some freelance work and we have enough work to pay the bills. And yeah, two years later, I'm too busy and looking for freelancers myself.

- Excellent. Well, that's good. And that's a really interesting point about associations actually, trade associations and also safety associations like the ASSP in the United States and that sort of thing. Do you think that they have...you've said trade associations have a powerful role, do you think that these associations of safety practitioners are doing a good job of providing...


- Did you purposely ask for that question?

- ...providing resources? I did not. I did not intend to ask that question, it came up in conversation.

- No would be the answer if I'm honest. I can only talk about the UK safety professional bodies. And really we have one, we actually have two. But the main one is just so much bigger than all of the others they kind of everyone else kind of powers in comparison.

I do like the approach of the second one because it is more of a broader notion of risk management. I do prefer that at the high level, but as that starts to get into an organization, it really is just a carbon copy of the big one. The big one for me, which I'm not naming because they've got an absolute monster of a legal team, but they've got a monster of a legal team is probably one of the biggest issues.

We're seeing arguments around market dominance. You know, a lot of members are really upset about their voices not being reflected. My own personal experience within that body was just horrible and really disappointing. They just seem to completely ignore all academia.

They don't want to have a conversation around academia at all. They're phenomenally arrogant and they just sit there and drive no change. And I think as a professional body, it's our job to kind of hold ourselves to account. And if our job as is preached to make the working world a safer place, but the statistics we get from the enforcer haven't changed for over a decade, they've not got better for over a decade, is that not an automatic indication of failure?

Like, something needs to change. So for me, it's just we as a profession need to hold ourselves to account. We can't just keep sitting around and saying, no, businesses are not listening to us. No one's listening to sort of... Do something about it then. We're not on the board. We're not on the board.

Get on the board. Why are you not on the board? If there is a profession in a business that shows value, they're on the board immediately. They are on the board. HR absolutely nailed it, got themselves on the board because they show value to the business owner. We are clearly not doing that. And I don't think our professional membership do anything about it.

I think they're just standing there, lovely, profitable businesses that pretend to be charities that are just for-profit businesses sitting behind them. And again, don't have a problem with people making profit. I think that's a good thing we can do with profit. Any business making money can do amazing things with money, could change the world with money.

But ultimately don't lie to me and tell me you're not-for-profit when actually you are.

- Yeah. It sounds like one of the skill sets you would encourage, too, is just a bit of business literacy, like, you know, how to get a seat at the table or build your own damn table, as some people say.

- I think we've got a fundamental flaw in how we train safety professionals as well. And again, that is not a conversation that seems to be had within professional bodies because we make way too much money off of the current way of doing it. But how we are trained as safety professionals completely misses the boat.

So I've not long ago did my diploma. I spit my dummy out for a long time and refused to do it because I didn't think I needed it. And I did it and it was okay, but I don't really think I learned anything. And I was really disappointed to have a whole two-thirds of it on just telling me about hazards again.

And I'm like, you know what? I can Google this. I can Google this. And even better now, I can ChatGPT it, and ChatGPT will give me a phenomenal answer to my exact problem. And why is that the predominant criteria of a safety professional and not risk management and human behavior and understanding communication and cultures and all of this stuff, which is at the core of what we do?

So what we do really is risk management. That is what we are. We are a risk management profession, except all we do is train each other on understanding each hazard, which just doesn't make sense for me. It just doesn't make sense.

Our job is to understand and interpret expertise, which I would call the legal system, academia, and things like that. Also, expertise on each specific hazard because there are people out there who are absolute experts on dust and asbestos and so on. So, it's my job to interpret all of that expertise, understand the operations of my business, and develop a risk management framework that works within those two.

And that's not taught, that's not taught at all.

- And to me, that's sort of a future-proofing of your career anyway. As generative AI comes on board, you know, is there any point in competing in how many facts I can learn when, in fact, what sets you apart is that you're a human and you can make that analysis, which is...

- One hundred percent. Yeah. It's such a good point. Like, if you are scared about AI taking over your job as a safety professional, it's probably a good thing that they take over your job as a safety professional because you're probably a bit shit at it. Like, your job is not to remember hazards and what year the bloody management health and safety at work regulations were written.

That's not your job. Your job is to help the operations of the business to navigate all of these physical risks, these psychosocial risk, all of these cultural risks, these brand risks. And all of these things you are trying to help an organization succeed within operations by navigating through all of those things.

Your job is not to just keep banging on through PowerPoint about some specific hazard. It's about, yes, understanding the hazard to a reasonable level, but not having to be an expert on all of them. And then working out a risk management process. Like, what we do is risk management. Literally, the core of what we do is risk assessment, yet no one's ever taught how to do a risk assessment.

No one is ever taught how to do a risk assessment. It's phenomenal that that's the core tool of our profession and no one actually talks about or goes through an extensive training of, like, risk-based thinking, critical thinking, understanding all of these connections, and understanding human and hazard interactions.

No one teaches that. And the second biggest tool that we do is incident investigation or incident learning. No one's ever taught that in our educational route into the profession either. It's just shocking. Now, people go, "Oh, I've had incident reporting training."

Yes, you have, but I guarantee you paid extra for it. You haven't had it in your core educational route into your business. That's like training a firefighter, but not training them on how to use...oh, shit, what are they called?

- Hoses.

- Breathing apparatus. There we go. You're not training them on how to use breathing apparatus. It's just we don't train our people on the core philosophies and tools that we do in our profession. We teach them about all of these hazards, but we don't teach them the tool to actually do anything about them, if that makes sense.

- It does. I want to ask another question about training that we actually ask all our guests. For future safety practitioners, what do you think is the most important interpersonal skill that they can...whether they learn that in a formal education or that they develop it on their own, but what skill do you think will serve them best?

- Critical thinking. I don't even know if that's interpersonal, but for me, if you can critically think about things, if you cannot respond emotionally, or you can respond emotionally, but you can keep it internal and you can just take a second to just go, okay, thank you for that information.

I'm going to have to think about. But what about this or, but what about that? And that for me in our profession will pay us dividends. Even not even a profession, like, just as a person. I can remember being told to think more critically many years ago, and I think that has done me so much better. To be able to I think so many people will read a book and then just...and I've done it, I've 100% done.

Now, I remember reading Dekker's book for the first time and literally going into work and being like, right, you are all shit. This is how we're doing it now. Rip that up. Rip that up. And I think everyone's been there. But if I had a little bit more critical thinking, I'd be like, "Okay, I'm on board with this and I really like this way of thinking. Where are we now?"

Do all of these little connecting nodes and stuff that's going on and let's start critically thinking and critically planning and strategizing as to how we get to that place instead of just being like, all guns blazing, let's go in. You know, so critical thinking for me would be one of the biggest missing skills definitely within safety, but probably within the wider society as well.

- Yeah, I've been thinking about critical thinking. I think it's the application of context, right? You can get a framework for something, but unless you can apply...it's applying it to a context of, you know, will it work to run in and tell everyone they suck?

- Yeah, exactly.

- And that we're going to restart or, you know, what's our maturity level? Anyway. There's a lot of different things to consider.

- And you know what? I'm so much less stressed when I apply context to stuff. Like, if I'm driving and some idiot just cuts me up and nearly causes the crash, like, old James would've been off for like a half a day. Would've been like really angry because this guy completely cut me up and he's an asshole and oh, if I knew him, I'd beat him up and all of this stuff.

Like, whereas now, I'm just like probably some context to that, maybe that's always he always drive. Maybe that's just how he thinks good driving is. Maybe he was getting annoyed of how I was driving. Maybe I'm not as good a driver as I think. Maybe his wife's in the back of the car giving birth and he needs to get to hospital. You just don't know.

And I try to tell my mom about thinking about context when she's driving. It's not quite working. She's a terrible road rage. Terrible road rage. Yeah. So for me, yeah, context, that's a really good way to put it. Yeah, critical thinking, application context.

You'd be so much happier.

- Now, you've been doing this since 2018, the podcast. In all that time having guests and discussions, has anything surprised you, and do you think the experience of doing the podcast itself has changed the way you think about safety?

- Oh, yeah. I'll take the second half of that question first because that's the easy one, 100% has changed me. And I think you can see it. Like, I can say it, if I listen, I don't really listen back to the podcast at all. I used to when I edited it myself, but luckily, Sherry, my wife edits it, most of it now, all of it actually, bless her.

No wonder she tells me to shut up when I'm finished. She spends all day listening to me in the podcast. Yeah. You can see it. And people have commented back to me that like just my own professional development from episode 1 through to through to where I am now. My own kind of risk maturity and understanding of this stuff and conversational maturity is better. My ability to have a conversation with someone is so much better, I think.

I'm so much more comfortable talking to people than what I was, yeah, five years ago when we started. So yeah, 100% has made me a better professional. And the amount of people that say, oh, I'm thinking about doing a podcast, I like just do it. Literally just do it.

Like, yeah, have a strategy. If you want to have a strategy, maybe if it's going to be a business, have a bit of a strategy, but ultimately just start. Like, you'll be a better person, you will be. My own personal learning style comes from conversational stuff anyway. It's like, so getting people on a podcast and be like, I've read this in a book the other day, I'm struggling with the concept.

What do you think? And most of the time that person helps me work something out. Like, the amount of times I'm in podcasts and I'm just writing things down or making notes. I'm selfish. The podcast is not for everyone else, it's for me mostly, if I'm honest. The other part of your question was who surprised me? I'd probably say what surprised me is, like, don't meet your heroes.

I found like the bigger the name in safety, the more disappointing they were to have on the podcast. I won't name names. I'll leave it at that as a collective. Yeah, the bigger the name, the harder the conversation was. Just the way you felt.

Like, the way I felt like [inaudible 00:37:00] felt stupid coming off of it. So yeah, the more academic the person, the worse the guests I found they are. And what I think I've found more surprising than that would probably be how much someone on paper doesn't look like they'll be a good guest or look like they'll have much to contribute to a conversation actually is probably one of the best conversation.

It's always those guests that you're like, I'm not really sure how this is going to go, that you are just like, wow, what a conversation? It's kind of like, you know, they say like, the best nights out or the spontaneous nights out, it's kind of the same. The guests you're not expecting anything from are just the best ones. But what I will add is that the two people that I thought would be the worst people to have on the podcast surprised me the most of how easy they were to talk to.

And I will name them because I think they deserve it and they get a bad rep on the internet. So one of them was Rob Long, who I still can't stand his blog and I can't stand how he attacks people and has attacked me and I don't agree with what he writes on the internet. However, when I got him on the podcast, he was a pleasure to talk to. He was a pleasure.

And I said to him off air, like, maybe if you wrote your blogs like this, you might get a bit of a better reaction because you're a pleasure to spend time with. Then the next one was Don Cooper. Like, he's very vocal on LinkedIn and can come across really aggressive, but ultimately was an absolute pleasure to talk to on the podcast. And I absolutely loved my time with him on the podcast.

So those two surprise me. Those guests you don't expect surprise me. And then yeah, don't meet your heroes. They would be the three biggest surprises I think I've had off the podcast off the top of my head.

- I think I've had the benefit...as people know, I'm not a safety professional, so I've had the benefit of coming in with no expectations. Not knowing who's a big name or not, right? I mean, as the podcast goes on, I learn, of course, who are the big names, but I interviewed some people that were pretty big without realizing it. And anyway, I've thoroughly enjoyed most of the conversations actually.

All of them really.

- I will add, though, probably my other surprise is how easy it is to get people on podcast. Like, I always thought it'd be really hard, but actually everyone says yes. Like, I'm a massive rugby fan, and I had a professional English premiership-winning rugby player. And he's also won the European championship as well. Phenomenal like any would any rugby fan in England would know him.

And I dropped him a message saying, oh, look, I didn't know you were doing like cultural training and stuff on that. Would you be happy to come on the podcast and talk about the [inaudible]? And he was like, "Yeah, sure." And I was like, oh my god, oh my god, oh my god.

- What do I do now?

- Yeah, yeah. And then he joins the call and I'm like, "Oh my God, it's actually happening." [vocalization].

- Stay cool.

- Amazing. I'm fortunate we haven't been able to get it booked because he's about to have a fight now, but I actually also have invited a UFC fighter on the podcast who has also said yes. But he's now got a fight coming up, so he's like, yeah, not a chance, I'm in camp now. So we'll try and hopefully get a date for that, but there's nothing confirmed yet. But he has unofficially kind of said, yes, he's willing to do it.

They would say yes is probably the other surprising thing I've had.

- Yeah, they like to talk about their ideas.

- Yeah.

- I'm going to switch gears here and ask what do you see right now as the biggest challenge in safety, and I mean safety writ large, the industry?

- I think since...I might have said something different before going into consulting, but now in consulting, I think we have one very big problem in that the majority of, at least the British economy, but I'm going to stab a guess at this is probably the same around the rest of the world, the majority of the economy is very small businesses that cannot afford access to safety information. They can't afford a safety professional.

They can't afford a consultant. This small business...so in England particularly, I don't know what it is like around the rest of the world, but in England, you've got say like a construction site, none of those are employees. Mostly. None of those are employees. I know that some of the bigger companies are trying to push towards them all being employees, which I don't think will be popular, but they're all self-employed and they're all subcontracted through.

As you come down the chain, the business gets smaller and smaller and smaller. So the person who's actually interacting with the hazard is a self-employed sole trader who builds houses for a living, you know, put oilers in for a living, and cannot afford a safety professional. So, their source of information is fed down through, have you heard of trickle-down economics?

Yeah, it's trickle-down safety, and a shout-out to Elisa Lynch who you've had in the podcast as well, I think. But me and her were bitching about this on a voice note interaction. Maybe one day we'll just turn those voice notes into a podcast.

But it was just me and her moaning about stuff. And she said, yeah, this trickle-down safety doesn't work the same as trickle-down economics doesn't work. And I was like, you know what? I've never thought of it, but that is literally it. So these big, big companies are dictating safety down the chain without any consideration of context. So that style of business is completely different to the small, you know, 1-man band, 5-man band, 10-man band is phenomenally different.

So, we are just completely missing. Like, 80% of the economy just have no idea what we are all sitting over here on LinkedIn bickering about whether it's safety differently or behavior-based safety. Do you know what? Sheila the plumber frankly doesn't give a shit. Like, she just wants to know, what have I got to do?

Like, actually, she doesn't even know. She's just doing the job. And she doesn't even know if it's right or wrong, she's just doing the job. So this whole trickle-down safety, I think, for me is our biggest problem. I think there's a simple way for us to fix it as well actually. I think every single safety professional should start making free videos and free content and putting it on the internet and they'll all be like, "Oh my God, but then I won't be able to, you know, pay my way, get a job because we're giving all our information for free."

No, because implementation is very different from information. But we can give the information as much as we can. Yeah. They might need some help with implementation, God, that's easy to say, but ultimately, at the moment, they don't even have access to the information. And some people might go, "Oh, they can go on the HSE website."

It's not the best. It's not the best. And they've got to go there and they're not going there. Like, every other profession or industry goes where the audience is, right? Marketing 101 is go where the audience is. We don't do that. We just sit arrogantly like come to us, we'll tell you the answer.

Like, we're not on YouTube. In America, it is better. There are some more what I would call modern style of YouTube channels in America. I know Ally Safety, she's very good. And there are a couple of others which their names can't come to mind, so apologies for that. And they've grown a lot quicker than it's growing over here in England, which is really nice to see.

And Ally Safety does an amazing job of putting just simple information out there in a very entertaining way. And it's blown up like mad. In England, mate, it's like pulling teeth, like it just won't grow and that's because there's not enough people doing it because the algorithm can't pick it up because it doesn't know what to attach it to because there's not enough of us doing it.

So, people are not seeing it. So for me, that would be our biggest problem.

- I'm seeing a theme of access and lack of access. So conversely, what opportunities do you see on the horizon in the next 5 to 10 years that safety practitioners should be on the lookout for?

- AI is for me the biggest opportunity. Technology is a massive opportunity, 100%. If we do this right, we can really utilize that AI to do many, many, many things. We could make safety more accessible. I don't know if anyone's tried the new version, I think it's called ChatGPT-4, but you can now start giving that problems and it's just getting so much smarter really quick.

So you can give that a problem and it just comes up. I was doing it today. I was trying to refresh myself something about shoring up trenches on the HSE website and I was going through this guide and I was like, oh yeah, I'm not sure. I was like I wonder what the AI could come up with. Put on there.

If I have this, it's this deep, this wide, this... And it was just like [vocalization] and I was like, boom, perfect, thank you very much. And it was literally exactly what I needed, but I've got the ability and the competence to be able to sense check that and go, yeah, that makes sense.

- Yeah, I was going to say you always need that extra step.

- Yeah. But that's why people shouldn't be scared of AI, right? Because it's done it, it's not replaced me. I've still helped my client, but it's made me a hell of a lot quicker. So now I can service more clients and if you are employed, your client is still a customer, it's just an internal customer. So now you can service more departments or more teams or whatever.

So for me, AI is the biggest opportunity and just tech in general. We've got some amazing companies doing some amazing stuff. There's a great company based in England and during COVID, they made like these little smartwatches that help you socially distance.

Then all of a sudden COVID was kind of not over, but it was kind of over. And they're like, shit, we've got a product now that literally is null and void. And what they're turning it into is absolutely amazing. Like, this wearable tech that will let you know where you are at what time and what hazards are in that environment and all of this crazy stuff.

The ability to analyze data is something that we are very poor at. So, we've got our risk assessment app, and really cognitive risk assessment app doesn't do it just as your risk assessment method, statements, incidents, I'm not selling here, don't worry, there is a point to this, and checks.

So I've now got customers putting how they manage their risk into an app, how they do their job into an app, the checks and balances into an app, and when things go wrong into an app. And I'm trying to work with our tech teams to get an AI now that sits in the back of that and looks at all of these things and starts going, oh, hang on a minute, what you said over here contradicts with over here because we're not very good at that.

And even if you are good at that, because as a human you are like your personality is naturally analytical and you enjoy stuff like that, I don't hate it, but some people love that stuff. It takes time. It takes a lot of time. But an AI can do it in an instant once it's learned it. And that for me is just a game-changer. We've got all of these different apps and all of the internet and all of these things, and now an AI can start to assess all of these newsletters that we're getting in.

Like, I'm getting newsletters from IOSH, from WRSM, from HSE, and all of these bodies. I ain't got time to read them all. But an AI can read them all in an instant and an AI can know my business and then go, got a problem. This applies to you. You need to read this. Read this now. We can fill the holes of human fallibility with technology if we do it right.

If we do it in a people-centered way, it can be amazing. If we do it in the old safety way, which is look at this AI, that's a better way to punish the worker, then it's not going to work.

- If you could go back in time to the beginning of your safety career, is there a piece of advice that you would give to yourself? It's the hardest question I ask.

- Oh, it's so hard not to sound really cheesy as well to this, isn't it? Because there's part of me that wants to say the cliche, I won't give him any advice because he's doing all right, but that just sounds mega cheesy. I would probably say just calm down a little bit.

Like, I was a very angry young man. Like, if you listen to the first six months of the podcast, I was just an angry person. And it's took me a long time to calm down, to not take everything personal, to not think. And I still have flashes of it now. It's still a personality trait that I've still got flashes of it now where somebody says...

I was in a call the other day where someone spent 20 minutes explaining to me what a dynamic risk assessment was. And my first emotional reaction was like, motherfucker, do you know who I am? But then I'm like, come on, James, get over yourself. Swallow that a little bit. But I've got the ability now to kind of acknowledge it, swallow it, not let it out, Whereas me 10 years ago would've just gone [vocalization].

So yeah, I think for me, I'd probably just say just calm down. You're doing all right. It'll work okay. But, you know, it's not going to happen overnight, but just chill out a bit, mate.

- I think all of us would probably tell ourselves to calm down a little bit in one way or another. Are there any books or resources that you are finding interesting right now that you want to mention to the listeners?

- Yeah, sure. So I actually haven't listened to it for a while. So not right now, but the "Safety of Work" podcast, which I mentioned earlier, I think is a great source as to break the barrier, so to speak, to get into academia. So for me, that's an outstanding resource. A very similar podcast, but from a more broader...they probably come at it from like a HR point of view more, but the "World of Work" podcast.

Two people based in England. They do very similar to what Drew and David do, but they do it from a more business/HR point of view. And their website is phenomenal. So the "World of Work" podcast. Their website is amazing.

Their podcast is amazing. "Cautionary Tales" podcast by Tim Harford is a very, very popular one. It's very big budget. It's just beautiful. It's just, like, it's very good for learning. There's just so much good stuff you can take away from it. But also it's just kind of beautiful to listen to because it's high budget.

It's just beautiful storytelling and it's an amazing podcast to listen to. So that one for me. Books, I would go with "The Fearless Organization" by Amy Edmondson, which is a very popular book. I think everyone's read that. I never shut up about "Rebel Ideas" on my podcast, so I'd be amiss if I didn't mention that. So that's by Matthew Syed.

I think that's a very good book as well. I'm trying to think if there's any clangers I've missed out that I'm like, "Oh, I should've mentioned that." For me, I think my overarching would be like don't just read one type or listen to one type of thing. Like, diversity of opinion is the best thing. Like, a wide-read person is the most interesting person that you'll ever come across.

- If our listeners would like to reach out to you, where's the best place to find you on the web?

- LinkedIn. We're all over LinkedIn, so there all the time. Obviously, if you Google "Rebranding Safety," you can watch any of our content. Our website is an okay place at the minute, but we've just paid someone a hell of a lot of money to sort that out.

So you could check that out, www.riskfluentltd.com. But to be honest, you could just email me, james@riskfluentltd.com, and if I don't see it, then Sherry will see it and go, "Have you emailed Mary back?" And I'll go, "No."

- We all need a Sherry in our lives.

- Very much so. Yeah.

- Well, that's all for today. Thank you, listeners, for tuning in, rating, reviewing, and sharing Safety Labs. And thank you, James, for such a great conversation.

- Thank you very much for having me on. It's been a pleasure.

- "Safety Labs by Slice" team is what keeps our podcast going. So thanks for everything you do. And that's it for today. Bye for now.

James MacPherson

A Operational Risk professional passionate about building Risk Fluent organisations with Resilient systems, high performaing teams and trusting cultures. A Podcaster and YouTuber changing the perception of safety with Rebranding Safety!

Find out more about James’ work: Risk Fluent Ltd - Health, Safety and Culture consultant

His ‘Rebranding Safety’ podcast and YouTube channel:

Apple Podcasts



James highly recommends these other podcasts for Safety practitioners:

The Safety of Work

Podcast - The World of Work Project

Cautionary Tales | Tim Harford

…and the following books:

The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth by Amy Edmondson

Rebel-Ideas by Matthew Syed