Safety culture Leadership

2015 CEOs Who "Get It"

The National Safety Council recognizes nine leaders who demonstrate a personal commitment to worker safety and health

2015 CEOs Who "Get It"
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James R. Miller

Brown and Caldwell


  • Lowered injury rates to less than one-half of industry average by focusing on a culture-based safety program
  • Celebrated with employees after recently eclipsing 9 million hours without a lost-time injury, all during his tenure
  • Implemented the “Be SHARP” program to focus on safety behaviors and empower employees to recognize, report and correct unsafe acts and conditions

BROWN AND CALDWELL is an employee-owned, 100 percent environmental firm that offers full-service delivery of engineering, scientific, consulting and construction services. The Walnut Creek, CA-based company employs 1,500 workers.

Why is safety a core value at your organization?

“Always make health and safety a priority” is the No. 1 core value of Brown and Caldwell. We recognize that our employees are our most valuable assets and make every effort to provide them with the skills, knowledge and equipment necessary to protect them on the job. Our commitment to safety isn’t just rhetoric – it’s the way we do business.

We understand that excellence in safety performance and excellence in project delivery and execution are all inter-related, and that the same fundamental corporate behaviors that produce successful projects also lead to outstanding safety results. Aside from reduced costs and increased productivity, solid safety performance provides one of the essential building blocks in establishing Brown and Caldwell’s corporate identity. Responsibility, accountability, dependability and, to a large extent, creativity and innovation are impossible to achieve without first demonstrating a commitment to safety. Simply put, Brown and Caldwell’s commitment to safety is part of the company’s standard approach to conducting business.

Describe your journey to becoming a CEO who understands the importance of worker safety. What experiences or lessons brought you to where you are now?

Having begun my career in the engineering industry more than 40 years ago, I saw firsthand the evolution and long overdue elevation of safety as part of a company’s values. I spent a great deal of my earlier years around site development and saw what can happen very quickly if one was not just careful, but aware of the many dangers, especially when heavy equipment is around. Our company has very high regard for safety, not because it is mandated, but because it is integral to our commitment to each and every employee’s well-being. I have been fortunate not to have any serious safety incidents under my watch. This is not luck; it is because all of our employees are personally and collectively committed to safety.

What is the biggest obstacle to safety at your organization, and how do you work to overcome it?

I don’t think we have substantial obstacles to safety in our organization, but actually are aware that one needs to “walk the talk” every single day to guard against complacency. We employ very bright individuals who would see through anything less than our full commitment to them and their well-being. As we continue to grow as an organization and bring new staff on board, it is vital that we promote and appoint leaders who naturally share and embrace our safety culture. Overcoming some aspects of human nature may be the biggest obstacle to a safety culture in any organization, especially in doing the right thing to stop unsafe practices regardless of one’s rank in an organization. Rewarding and acknowledging positive behavior in such circumstances is a good pathway forward.

How do you instill a sense of safety in employees on an ongoing basis?

For Brown and Caldwell, safety is fundamental to the definition, planning, engineering, analyses, budgeting, approval and execution of work for all of our employees and subcontractors. Our program is cross-functional and integrates the resources of the safety, legal and human resources departments to more effectively manage the risks of the company and our clients. With this focus, we not only have safe and healthy employees, but our incident costs and loss history are substantially better than our industry at large. It’s a part of our work, from start to finish.

Employees are integrated into the safety program from day one as part of their new hire orientation. We provide the tools and training to instill safety awareness, and we have programs in place that encourage employees to speak up and to recognize, report and correct unsafe acts and conditions. Individual health and safety programs are available to all employees through our internal health and safety website, including culture-based training, traditional safety presentations, online incident reporting, safety plan templates and key plan examples. Like most firms, we have a comprehensive health and safety program, which has been developed to meet or exceed federal and state OSHA requirements as well as other pertinent standards.

We are committed to instilling our safety culture throughout the organization, and we work hard to solicit regular feedback from our employees. Recently, we conducted a companywide health and safety perception survey via a third-party specialty consultant to provide a confidential environment for employees to share their candid opinions about our safety program, the perception of management commitment and areas for improvement. Employee responses reiterate our strong safety culture and help identify areas to further strengthen our safety program.

How does your organization measure safety? What are the leading indicators that show you how safe your organization is, and where do you see room for improvement?

In 2007, Brown and Caldwell established a system of leading indicators to measure performance at local, regional and national levels, holding leadership accountable for health and safety implementation. By focusing on effective performance, lagging indicators (such as incidence rates, EMRs and costs) have been reduced dramatically.

Brown and Caldwell is proud to have been recognized by the National Safety Council as an Industry Leader for three consecutive years (and four of the last five), has worked more than 10 million hours without a lost-time injury, consistently maintains total recordable case rates less than one-half of its industry, and currently enjoys an EMR of 0.58. These results were achieved through a culture-based safety program – championed at the executive level.

It’s not surprising that our clients have very high safety expectations and rigorous requirements. Over the years, many of our clients have recognized Brown and Caldwell for bringing exceptional health and safety standards on our project work. Our clients have high expectations for contractors to work safely on some very complex job sites, and I’m pleased that we continue to receive recognition for the efforts we put into managing safety. Executing safe projects for Brown and Caldwell means delivering safe projects for our clients.

What advice would you offer to other leaders whose organizations are at an earlier stage of the journey to safety excellence?

My advice to leaders who may just be beginning their safety journey in their organization is to make it personal, visible and sustainable. Safety excellence is a priority for executive leaders and must never be delegated to roles that are too low in the organization. Further, it must be instilled in all executives within the C-suite or leadership teams.

What advice would you offer to a safety professional whose CEO doesn’t “get it”? How can safety pros secure buy-in from the C-suite?

To the safety professional within an organization whose CEO doesn’t get it, I advise you to be persistent and to search for an ally with the corporate team who does get it and who could serve as your mentor to help get your message across. Honestly, if that doesn’t work, or if it appears that the CEO would never get it or merely gives safety superficial attention, one should perhaps consider a career track elsewhere. It’s my opinion that a leader who doesn’t recognize safety as a core value likely does not have a compelling strategic vision for the firm’s direction.

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