Safety culture Leadership

2016 CEOs Who 'Get It'

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

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Col. Michael Farrell

Commander, Sacramento District
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Sacramento, CA


  • Invested significant resources into executing the employee ergonomics and traffic safety programs
  • Believes safety is not an expense, but a long-term investment that serves as the pillar for reducing mishaps and injuries to people
  • Chairs the Executive Safety Council, which serves as a catalyst to facilitate engaged discussions concerning district-wide hazard trend analysis, among other issues

The U.S. ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS is a major Army command made up of some 37,000 civilian and military personnel, making it one of the world’s largest public engineering, design and construction management agencies. The Sacramento District has more than 900 employees.

Why is safety a core value with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers?

Safety is an integral part of everything USACE does and is deeply rooted in our processes. From construction projects to recreation to disaster recovery, our work comes with inherent risk – for our employees, our contractors and the public. The more than 900 men and women of the Corps’ Sacramento District manage some of the largest and most complex civil works and military construction projects in the United States. Without an aggressive and robust safety program in place, we would not be able to carry out our vital work for the Army and the Nation. As our division motto reminds us, we are “Building Strong AND Taking Care of People.” I must ensure our employees have the proper resources to perform their jobs safely and are working in an environment free of recognized hazards, and that we are doing everything we can to safeguard the public.

Describe your personal journey to becoming a CEO who “gets it.” What experiences or lessons brought you to where you are now?

Serving in the U.S. military throughout my adult life is certainly a large factor; what we do every day must be grounded in a fundamental understanding of safety to demonstrate our country cares about the men and women we ask to undertake dangerous missions. For me, an explosive training accident 20 years ago is what connected me personally to understanding a leader’s responsibility to do absolutely everything we can. Most of the organizations I have served in are focused on serving others – building facilities for the public, members of the Armed Forces or defending our country abroad. I have always believed part of my role was to ensure we didn’t forget to also care about ourselves. Americans are fortunate to enjoy a culture in which human life is held dearly, so taking the time to communicate how that value translates on a personal level to wearing protective gear, following best practices and remaining vigilant can often be the difference in building a successful organization’s safety culture.

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

The greatest safety challenge facing the Sacramento District is ensuring a positive safety culture exists across a wide span of missions and very large area of operations. Our district covers 290,000 square miles encompassing all or parts of eight western states, which makes us one of the largest districts in USACE.

Our operations include large-scale construction projects, management of water resources infrastructure and recreation areas, munitions cleanup and environmental restoration, natural resources conservation, and so much more. The types of activities that our employees – and the contractors working on our sites – undertake every day are diverse and high-risk. We are also responsible for ensuring public safety in the 13 recreation sites we operate and around our construction sites.

As Commander, I promote a culture that enables the workforce to have a safe and healthy workplace; ensuring safety is integrated into every aspect of what we do. Whether working in an office setting, operating government vehicles, serving on a construction project, being positioned at a dam or levee, or serving the public at one of our recreation areas, equipping employees with the right tools and empowering them to prevent or stop unsafe acts fosters a sense of ownership in our safety program. I use our safety awards program as a platform to publicly recognize project offices and individuals for safety achievement, which stimulates worker engagement in safety practices on a continual basis.

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

With a large workload and many senior employees eligible for retirement, we have hired a number of new employees over the past few years. I use each New Employee Orientation as an opportunity to personally convey my safety philosophy, expressing how much I value employee health and well-being, and, most importantly, assuring our new team members there is no job the district performs that requires workers to put themselves or their co-workers in a position to risk life or limb. Expectations are set through the district safety policy letter, which requires all employees to implement risk management principles. I also chair a quarterly safety council where I receive updates to initiatives, programs and problematic situations that may need my attention or direction. Furthermore, the district also facilitates an employee council that serves as a venue to voice safety and occupational health challenges, craft abatement recommendations, and partner with my leadership team to implement best courses of action.

How do you measure safety?

The Safety and Occupational Health Office develops annual objectives as part of the organization’s Safety Management Action Plan. These objectives are derived from areas within our SOH program requiring enhancement or modification, as well as new initiatives that are in the best interest of the enterprise. Target dates are set and progress reports briefed during safety councils. Additionally, our team of gifted safety professionals and industrial hygienists conduct safety and medical surveillance assessments at each worksite using in-depth inspection checklists to measure the effectiveness of our safety program. Deficiencies identified are documented and placed in an abatement database until closed. I’m very proud that our Days Away, Restricted, and Transfer case rate and Total Case Incident Rate are below industry levels.

Internally, one area for improvement is instilling safe motor vehicle operation by workers to reduce the number of speeding violation reports when employees are operating government vehicles. I want to ensure our employees are good stewards on roadways by driving safely. The logistics department partners with the Chief of Safety to track traffic violations and motor vehicle accidents, and division chiefs are provided monthly results for corrective action.

Externally, recreational water safety is a top priority across USACE, and we were challenged by our Commanding General to reduce public fatalities by 50 percent this year. The Sacramento District exceeded this goal and reduced fatalities by 66 percent. Much of this success is owed to strategies implemented by our local water safety council, including an aggressive marketing campaign, a life jacket loaner program and our strong partnership with the State of California to replace unserviceable life jackets for free. However, we cannot rest on our laurels, as water-related emergencies can happen at a moment’s notice.

In addition to water safety, we ensure our park rangers are trained and certified in CPR and first aid, playground safety inspection, and other skills they need to keep themselves and the public safe.

What role does off-the-job safety play in USACE’s overall safety program? What types of off-the-job safety and health programs do you offer?

I value balancing work and home life and have instituted several health and welfare programs during my tenure as Commander. With the support of my Public Affairs Office, I promote participation in local recreational events to boost morale and camaraderie. As an avid runner, we established a biweekly running club to go on group runs or partake in organized mud runs and local team races. Additionally, I sponsor quarterly recreational events hosted by one of our 13 parks, including fishing tournaments and family campouts. In addition, my Chief of Safety oversees the wellness program, which provides smoking cessation classes, a walking club, weight-loss program, an annual team weight loss challenge, and discount rates at local fitness clubs for our employees and their family members.

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