Mission Zero: Safety Pro Shares Lessons Learned From Two Decades in Safety

'When you’re sharing safety from the heart, it’s real, emotional and sincere. That’s how important safety has to be.'

Deborah A.P. Hersman
November 21, 2018

NSC President and CEO Debbie Hersman sits down with Don Mersberger, retired Johnsonville Sausage safety leader.

A few years ago, I visited the Johnsonville Sausage facility in Sheboygan Falls, Wisc. In the image above, Don Mersberger is at the center, the resident safety all-star with his “Mission Zero” Packers jersey.

Earlier this month, Don retired after 19 years managing safety across six Johnsonville plants.

As you might imagine, a sausage factory can be a risky place to work. There are so many things that can go wrong, and so many hazards to address. In the workplace across the U.S., we’ll see nearly 5,000 deaths this year, most of them preventable. Nationwide, a worker is injured every 7 seconds.

But how do we perceive risk at work? And how do we make sure that others see and act on those risks? Don Mersberger is someone who is incredibly passionate about safety. He exemplifies what it means to keep each other safe, and what it really means to care about safety. I think we can all learn some lessons from his nearly two decades passionately driving towards the goal of zero.

Debbie: It’s rare to see someone feel so strongly about anything in their life, let alone worker safety. Can you share with me the most compelling lessons you learned from nearly two decades as a safety leader?

Don: Everybody is a on a different journey when it comes to safety.

I believe that every person has safety in their head in some way, but some have not really committed to safety in their heart. When safety moves to the heart, then it becomes real. This is when you’re willing to help others who might not be working in a safe manner. This is my perception of how it works.

When you meet an individual that you would like to have a relationship with – it starts in your mind. Over the course of time, something changes that relationship and it moves from your head to your heart, and eventually it turns into a love story. When you fall in love with a person, it changes you. Safety can be the same way. When you’re sharing safety from the heart, it’s real, emotional and sincere. That’s when you become concerned for others and focus on the members being able to go home safely to their family. That’s how important safety has to be.

When you make a choice, you always have to understand what the consequences are. If the choice is wrong, it can affect your family, your relationship with your spouse and the course of your life if the consequences are severe enough. Safety really has to come from the heart.

Debbie: What are you most proud of from your time at Johnsonville?

Don: In my 19 years at Johnsonville, I worked with four different production plants on their safety, particularly ergonomics, machine guarding, pinch points, along with lockout/tag out procedures and numerous other job-related issues. We made a commitment to go an entire year without a recordable injury or missed time from work due to an injury. Everyone participated in our goal to accomplish one year of working safe. No matter what position you held with the company, we were all focused on achieving that goal.

It took us four years to get to that point. Working with safety teams, management and the vice president, we put together a video giving everyone authority to stop the line if they see anything that isn’t safe. We always focused on safety first. I could see the change in how the members worked. Every time I walked through the plant, I witnessed members helping one another regarding safety. I am so proud of what we’ve done. It wasn’t what I did, it was that the members believed in the concept of moving safety from their head to their heart and really applied it on a daily basis. They believed in themselves that they could do it, and as a result we had two years of zero recordable incidents. Our motto is to make sure that everything we do is done safely.

Debbie: What is your hope for the future of the safety profession?

Don: If I could live my life over as a safety professional, I wouldn’t change anything. I truly believe people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. My sincerity and compassion were my contributing attributes of personally connecting with everyone, which in turn proved to the members that I genuinely cared about their well-being. It aided in their willingness to learn more about safety.

My goal is, if I walk into a plant with 135 workers, over the course of time, I’d want to see 135 safety leaders when I walk out. Then I know the principles of safety hit home. Widening the circle of safety was my top priority. Just like in football, it’s not the quarterback who wins the game. It takes the entire team to win the game, and that’s my safety philosophy.

Deborah A.P. Hersman

Deborah A.P. Hersman is the former president and CEO of the National Safety Council.

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