Safety Can Never Be First: Coffee break with Jerry McGlynn, McWilliams Electric Co.

Jerry McGlynn knew he had to catch up. He had been hired to take charge of his company’s safety program and needed a whole new set of certifications to fill that role. So, he set out to acquire them. Today, his business card testifies to his effort, listing CESCP, CHST, STSC behind his name. One of his friends quipped that he had more letters behind his name than he had in it.

In the nearly half-century since President Nixon signed into law the legislation creating the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the electrical construction industry has experienced a sea change in workplace safety. Arguably, the biggest difference has emanated from the emergence of education and training programs that have produced certified safety professionals such as McGlynn, who is now the vice president of field operations and safety at McWilliams Electric Co., Schaumburg, Ill.

When McGlynn joined McWilliams Electric in 1999, he took over its safety program from a construction project manager who doubled as a part-time safety manager. Today, nearly 20 years later, McGlynn not only oversees the company’s highly developed safety program, but also devotes time and energy to organizations that have enlisted him because of his safety-related knowledge and leadership.

Let’s start by taking aim at the slogan, “Safety first,” that appears on posters everywhere. Candidly, it might as well read, “blah blah blah.” People see the words, but they don’t take them to heart.

I agree. The fundamental problem with safety posters in general is that, one week after they have been put up, they seem like they’ve always been there. They can quickly become ineffective.

So, if everyone suffers from similar inability to absorb the “safety first” message, what’s the best alternative to it?

At McWilliams Electric, our motto—you might call it our mantra, because we never stop repeating it—is “safety always.”

“Safety always” is a strong slogan.

It is a very strong slogan! And, by the way, I cannot take credit for inventing it.

Based on your experience directing the safety program at McWilliams Electric, what is the biggest challenge?

By and large in electrical contracting, it’s personal protective equipment (PPE). Ensuring electricians wear and utilize the proper PPE is a constant concern. I regularly remind them: “Your head does not have an ANSI rating. You have to wear your hard hat, safety glasses, face shield, ear protection, etc.”

We always try to prod our interview subjects to give up at least a little secret to their company’s success.

I’ll gladly share an idea that’s worked well for us: We distribute weekly safety bulletins to our employees. The bulletins contain five to 10 questions on the subjects they cover. Everyone who sends in answers to the questions receives credit toward online purchases of quality flame-resistant/arc-rated clothing items emblazoned with the McWilliams logo. This has been a very successful incentive program for us.
That brings us to a question of the special nature and requirements of safety in service work scenarios.

An important part of our business activity falls under the category of service work. Our service electricians are always entering premises they have never seen or worked in previously. So, we make it a rule for them to always start by meeting with the building owner or maintenance guy. Rather than just heading straight for the electrical room with a work order in hand, they must always stop to verify what problems the customer has experienced and always identify potential hazards that lie in wait. And by “always,” we definitely mean always!

Earlier, you mentioned you do not take credit for that expression.

“Safety always” was originated by Charles M. Hays, railroad tycoon of the early 20th century. He was passionate about safety in the construction and operation of new rail lines. He carried over this intensity about safety to his observations about the reckless pace at which shipbuilders of that era were competing to construct bigger and faster ocean-going vessels. Lamentably, he could not have been more correct. [In 1912], he was among the more than 1,500 passengers and crew members who perished in the sinking of what had been billed as the safest ocean liner ever built: RMS Titanic.

About the Author

Fred Sargent

Service and Maintenance Contributor

Fred Sargent is an electrical industry consultant focusing on service expertise. He can be reached at

About the Author

Andrew McCoy

Service and Maintenance Contributor

Andrew McCoy is the Preston and Catharine White Fellow and Department Head of the Department of Building Construction in the Myers-Lawson School of Construction at Virginia Tech. Contact him at

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