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Holding Safety Banner High Is Not Always Easy

I am writing this article while flying across the country via Southwest Airlines. I have spent some time thinking about what I would want to communicate this month. But frankly, as I sit here, I just want to be honest and share my thoughts about what scares me.


Last month, I wrote about our upcoming focus on safety. To remind you, AWCI is looking to hire a resource to build our education and safety platform. It is something we all touch and, if we admit it, struggle with from time to time. How do we change behaviors? How do we strive for safety, production and quality all at the same time? Yes, I know the canned answers to these questions, but then, a person under my supervision steps out beyond those trained behaviors and gets hurt. I become both saddened by the news and frustrated at the same time because it didn’t have to happen, and that person didn’t have to suffer.


Despite working for a company proud of its safety culture I am reminded too often that it is a dangerous industry. We pour resources such as time and dollars at the risk, but there is a human element we can’t always control. Someone’s world view and their personal willingness to take risks must be changed. I know mine has over the years. I don’t take the risks I did as a young man. We need safety to be self-sustaining and not something that has to be “propped up” or energized. We need teammates to look out for each other and hold one another accountable. They need to feel comfortable about shutting a project or situation down when safety is a concern. Each of us say these very things, but workers still get hurt and families are impacted.


Everyone is stretched and busy. While that is a good thing, we are likely to put people in positions they have never encountered before. We must be diligent and focused. When we get tired, someone needs to stand in our place to carry the banner of safety and teamwork. We also must be honest with ourselves. I believe we can become fatigued or grow callused about safety issues. We can lose our passion because someone exploits us with a false claim or because there doesn’t seem to be an absolute answer.


I certainly don’t have all the answers but I am reminded that safety takes strong, unwavering leadership. We can celebrate it one minute and grieve it the next. As we open this forum in the future, I look forward to hearing from other AWCI members who also lay awake at night, thinking about these things. I believe we can make our industry safer by working together, for the common good.


Now go and be safe.

Shawn Burnum is the 2021–2022 president of the Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industry and vice president of operations at Performance Contracting, Inc. in Lenexa, Kan.

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