This month marks the 25th anniversary of National Safety Month, and no one could be prouder than Lorraine Martin, President and CEO of the National Safety Council (NSC). With nearly 40 years of experience in the safety field, Martin is passionate about helping people live their lives to the fullest—and that starts with being safe. For our latest “Faces of EHS” profile, we sat down with Martin to discuss some of her proudest moments in her current role, what the future of work looks like in a post-pandemic world, her thoughts on psychological safety, and more.
Here is what she had to say.
You’ve been the president and CEO of the NSC for several years now, and June 2021 is the 25th anniversary of National Safety Month. What are some of your proudest achievements leading the NSC, and what’s the state of safety like today?
LM: Safety has been a guiding value throughout my nearly 40-year career, [and] serving as the NSC’s president and CEO is truly the honor of a lifetime. Since its founding over 100 years ago, the NSC has been America’s leading nonprofit safety advocate, with a mission to eliminate preventable deaths and injuries, from the workplace to anyplace.
There are many achievements I am proud of during my tenure at the NSC, and all of them center on spearheading national conversations to eliminate workplace fatalities and prevent injuries. By teaming with private and public organizations and a wide variety of stakeholders, we are able to amplify critical lifesaving initiatives in workplaces and communities across the nation.
A few highlights in my NSC tenure, thus far, are all “team efforts” centered on strategic partnerships in which diverse groups of people come together to have an impact. These include:
Creating a first-of-its-kind partnership to solve the most common workplace injury in the United States: Appropriately timed during National Safety Month, the NSC recently announced a 5-year partnership with Amazon to invent new ways to prevent the largest category of workplace injuries in the United States: musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). The partnership is made possible by Amazon’s $12 million contribution—the largest corporate contribution in the history of the NSC—which will fuel our nonprofit mission to keep employees safe in the workplace. Our groundbreaking partnership will aim to prevent MSDs across a variety of industries by engaging key stakeholders, conducting research, inventing new technology and processes, and scaling the results.
Eliminating workplace deaths by 2050: With thousands of workers still dying each year, the NSC is working to change that through the Work to Zero initiative, designed to eliminate workplace fatalities through technology. As part of these efforts, the NSC partnered with the McElhattan Foundation and set a goal to eliminate workplace fatalities by 2050.
Helping employers navigate COVID-19, the greatest workplace safety challenge in a generation: The understanding that employers play a major role in safety is what led the NSC to create SAFER earlier in the pandemic. We gathered expertise from Fortune 500 companies, as well as small businesses, leading safety organizations, and public health and government experts, to help guide employers through the process of safely resuming traditional work operations now and in the future. Employers need a road map. In the absence of uniform guidance, SAFER has stepped in to fill that void. More recently, we’ve been focused on encouraging vaccine uptake and helping employers navigate a safe transition back to a physical workspace beyond essential workers, particularly when some workers are vaccinated and some are not.
Committing to the goal of zero traffic deaths: In addition to my NSC role, I also have the honor of serving as chair of the Road to Zero Coalition, the nation’s largest coalition of traffic safety organizations. The coalition represents stakeholders from multiple sectors who are committed to eliminating traffic fatalities through a three-pillar, multimodal approach: 1) Double down on what works through proven, evidence-based strategies; 2) advance lifesaving technology in vehicles and infrastructure; and 3) adopt a safe system approach,as implemented in countries around the world with proven success. Since its launch, the coalition has awarded millions of dollars in grants to support safety research and innovations; convened members for webinars, meetings, and roundtables around important topics; and tackled emerging issues, like equity in transportation safety.
Of course, none of these accomplishments would be possible without the incredible NSC team and our dedicated members and partners.
The NSC’s annual Congress & Expo is coming up soon, as well. Any highlights or other news that you can share with us about this event?
LM: Last year marked just the second time in our more than 100-year history that the NSC did not hold its flagship conference in-person. The only other time the event was postponed was in 1945 as the country recovered from World War II. We are absolutely thrilled to once again host the NSC Safety Congress & Expo in-person from October 11–13 where health, safety, and environmental professionals from around the globe can learn, network, and compare safety solutions.
As always, we have an incredible speaker lineup for the conference:
- Opening keynote on resilience from Marcus Buckingham, Founder of the Strengths Revolution, Research of People + Performance, and bestselling author
- Occupational keynote from our top 10 speaker Corrie Pitzer, CEO of Safemap: “On the Other Side of COVID-19—Stronger and Safer than Ever!”
- Leadership keynote from Brian Fielkow, CEO of The GTI Group & Jetco Delivery: “10 Leadership Principles to Ignite Your Safety Performance”
This year, attendees will have the opportunity to hear directly from industry leaders about cutting-edge research; game-changing technology; and, of course, life after COVID-19. We also added 12 new professional development seminars to the schedule and are proud to provide safety professionals with more than 90 tailored educational sessions. We will also offer ways to participate virtually during the event. We can’t wait to bring together this tightknit community that shares a common goal of enabling people to be safe so they can live their fullest lives.
We’re all now returning to something resembling normal in the wake of COVID-19. What do you think the future of work looks like in a post-pandemic world?
LM: If there’s a silver lining from the pandemic, it’s that there’s a spotlight on safety. The world’s attention is focused not only on safety overall but also on workplace safety in particular. The risk-based expertise of safety professionals that was key to navigating the past year-plus is needed now more than ever to help navigate the new reality.
We’ve entered a messy middle phase of the pandemic in which some people are vaccinated and some aren’t—and the health risk is still present. Vaccines are the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, and employers play a starring role in the vaccine rollout and safety overall, which is what led us to create SAFER earlier in the pandemic. Employers are in a unique position to remove hurdles to widespread inoculation by offering on-site vaccinations or scheduling and providing transportation off-site, paid time off for appointments and recovery, and increased access to vetted and reliable information.
As the world inches closer toward the “next normal,” we have identified eight emerging trends for the future world of work. This was done drawing on research, interviews, and surveys outlined in our recent SAFER reports and Campbell Institute benchmarking, collaboration with government entities, think tanks and nonprofits, and more:
- Lean, distributed, and asynchronous work teams: The focus shifts from who will do the work to how the work will get done. The global talent pool is ready—employers must be, too.
- New skills and modes of leadership: Hybrid workforces require new skills, and leaders will need to be even more collaborative to effectively manage distributed teams.
- Reduced footprints and enhanced sustainability: We now have a more holistic understanding of what it means to be “sustainable.”
- Dramatically increased transparency: The call for transparency in terms of communication and cultural surveys has changed the game.
- Safety and health embedded at the core: We’ve long known that safety and productivity go hand in hand. Safety is now acknowledged as a core business driver and will continue to be in the future.
- Whole person valuation: The idea that mental health and well-being are critical issues for employers to address. We need to make sure that people at work are able to feel safe in order to be safe.
- Technology as mandate: Early adopters saw technology as a boon during the pandemic, and new modes of working are making technology irreplaceable.
- Thriving partnerships: Radical collaboration both inside and out is required to tackle big problems.
Both connected to the pandemic but also pre-pandemic, greater attention is being paid to matters of mental health and psychological safety in the workplace. What are your thoughts on psychological safety?
LM: Simply put, we need to broaden our definition of safety to include psychological safety, the ability to show and be one’s self without fear or negative consequences, meaning people are empowered to bring their full selves to work. Too often, safety is the privilege of a few and not a right enjoyed equitably by all. Psychological safety isn’t just a “nice to have”; it is an essential component of a culture of safety because people who feel safe do not hesitate to speak up, and voices save lives. As leaders, we are in a key position to challenge this notion and have a critical responsibility to integrate this component of safety into our workplace culture to promote a greater sense of belonging. I like to sum it up this way: You can’t be safe if you don’t feel safe because people who feel safe do not hesitate to speak up—and we all know that voices save lives.
How has the pandemic affected some workplace safety threats that are perhaps a little less visible, such as roadway safety and substance abuse?
LM: While the immediate impacts of the pandemic on patients, families, and businesses are undeniable, we cannot ignore some of the other unfortunate byproducts of COVID-19: deadlier roadways and a worsening opioid crisis. I’ll start with roadway.
Despite a sharp decline in total miles driven in 2020 due to quarantine, roadway fatalities were the highest they’ve been in 13 years. NSC estimates show roadway fatalities soared to over 42,000 lives lost in 2020. The number is alarming, but the death rate is even more troubling. The United States experienced an estimated 24% increase in the rate of deaths per 100 million vehicle miles on our roadways last year. Tragically, this is the highest year-over-year increase we have reported since the council began calculating it in 1924. To put this in perspective, in a year when so many died due to COVID-19, an additional 115 loved ones lost their lives each day on the nation’s roads.
The pandemic also has forced a new era of workplace safety in which employers face increased substance use and misuse, as well as increased mental health distress. This includes depression and anxiety, medical conditions that are frequently interrelated. Over 40% of Americans report increases in mental distress due to the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving employers with their own crisis and resulting in increased absenteeism, negative impacts on productivity and profits, and healthcare costs. Encouragingly, employers that support mental health see a return of $4 for every $1 invested in mental health treatment, according to new research from the NSC and NORC at the University of Chicago.
Impairment has been a workplace safety issue for decades. In fact, 70% of people with a substance use disorder are employed. A recent NSC survey revealed that more than half of employers said they know impairment is decreasing the safety of their workforce. There are a variety of ways workers may be impaired, and they include taking prescribed opioids, even as directed. The pandemic has worsened the country’s opioid crisis, which has challenged employers for several years. With more than 130 deaths each day, a person’s lifetime risk of death from an accidental opioid overdose is actually greater than the odds of dying in a car crash.
We believe this devastating loss of life is preventable—and the latest figures make it clear there’s still more work to be done. That’s why we’re taking action through the Road to Zero Coalition, in which we’ve laid out strategies to end roadway deaths in the United States by 2050. We’re also helping employers deal with the impacts of impairment in the workplace with a robust suite of free resources, including toolkits, to proactively address the opioid crisis.
What advice do you have for current and future safety professionals?
LM: Find a sponsor, a person who has a seat at the table who will speak up for you.
In my career, I’ve had many sponsors, primarily senior executives at the organizations where I worked who believed in me and went to bat for me. One example in particular changed my career trajectory forever. A sponsor recommended that I move to a new aircraft division at a time when I didn’t have much related experience. However, that person saw more in me than I did then, recognizing my strong work ethic, passion, and professional aspirations, and encouraged me to consider the position.
Without this support and nudge in the right direction, I wouldn’t have ultimately led the largest defense aircraft program in history: F-35 Lighting II. This experience illustrates the impact a sponsor can have in your career and how important it is to have people in your corner who see your potential and will advocate for you. From there, it’s up to you to do everything you can to seize the opportunity and make them proud.