To Make a Difference, Be a Safety Innovator, Disseminator

Added on May 19, 2016

By Craig Clapper, PE, CQM-OE, Partner, Press Ganey Consulting Services

ElevatorEveryone wants to make a difference. And, the best way to make a difference is through safety leadership.

Take the founder of the Otis Elevator Company, Elisha Otis, for example. He invented the safety device that prevents elevators from falling. Elevators had been around for years, but people feared using them because, when the rope or cable failed, the elevator would come crashing down. Most people thought “better to take the stairs.”

Otis debuted his safety device at the 1854 New York World’s Fair. He lifted himself in an elevator. He ordered the rope to be cut (gasp) and, the elevator dropped a few feet before stopping (bigger gasp). He had made the elevator safe. The name of the new elevator was the Otis Safety Elevator. The first one was installed in New York in 1857.

The inventor(s) of the elevator are lost to history. We will never know their names. Yet Otis, the one who made the elevator safe, is famous today. In fact, it is often presumed that he invented the elevator.

George Westinghouse also made his mark in safety. Westinghouse is known for the company that bears his name as a manufacturer of large electrical power equipment. Westinghouse actually made his mark by inventing a safety device for the railroads. He was the inventor of air brakes. Before Westinghouse, engineers had to jump from car to car to manually spin wheels to brake each and every car one-by-one. This was very time-consuming and very unsafe. There were many rail accidents cause by slow-stopping trains. Westinghouse’s air brake allowed a single operating engineer to stop an entire train safely by opening one air valve.

Westinghouse used his new wealth and fame to partner with the great Nikola Tesla to develop alternating current (AC) power. Tesla was the innovator. Westinghouse was the distributor. Perhaps the distributor is more important than the innovator?

Another famous name, Oliver Winchester, is often mistakenly credited with inventing the repeating rifle. That was his chief gunsmith, Benjamin Tyler Henry. Winchester was a shirt-collar manufacturer who knew how to make things. He was a proficient distributor for his competent innovator.

English engineer Harry Lawson invented a new bicycle to replace the very dangerous high-wheel bicycle of the mid 1800s. Recall those bikes? The front wheel was huge, and the rear wheel was tiny. Lawson’s bike had two wheels of equal size, and the rider’s feet could reach the ground, resulting in a marked increase in safety. All bikes we use today are of Lawson’s design, but no one rides a “Lawson” bike. We ride Cannondales, Schwinns, Treks and other-named bikes. Again the distributors fared better than the innovator.

So, everyone wants to make a difference in their work life. Otis, Westinghouse, and Lawson showed the best way to make a difference is through safety. Westinghouse and Winchester showed that an even better way to make a difference is by spreading the great idea.

Take this day, this week, this month as your turn to make a difference in your work life by making your mark in safety. And then take it one step further by spreading the ​word about meaningful safety innovations. Who knows? Maybe you will become famous too.