If you work in an industrial field such as manufacturing, construction and oil and gas and your employees’ hand safety isn’t at the top of your mind, well, it should be. According to Joe Geng, author of Rethinking Hand Safety, hand injuries are the number one preventable industrial accident around the globe.
In this podcast, Joe shares what he has learned throughout his career, overseeing glove R&D at his father’s tannery and consulting with leading companies that include Toyota, Honda, Space X, General Motors, Shell Oil and more. He might even give you pause about how you think about employee safety in general, and insight into changing up some of your philosophies and strategies that can cultivate a better culture and a more profitable bottom line.
Nikki Van Noy: Joe, thank you so much for joining us today.
Joe Geng: My pleasure.
Nikki Van Noy: I would love to start out by talking about your childhood and how you helped your father make gloves. This is a story that I feel like I’ve never heard from anyone before.
Joe Geng: Yes, my father. He bought this business Superior Glove in 1961. He was a leather tanner from Germany and he came over and was making leather for different companies. And then eventually he decided to start his own glove company because he was making a lot of leather gloves for different companies. Then so blood, sweat, and tears grew the business. I had two older brothers working in the business.
Growing up, I was the youngest by far, and then on weekends and that kind of thing, he would bring me in. As a side job, during middle school, I would sell gloves at garage sales. I asked local people if I could join the garage sale. All through school, my dad would bring me in on the weekends and then he was great in that he would just give you the worst jobs.
I remember one of the first days he brought me over, and there was this leather tanning pit and was just filled with sludge. He’s like, here’s a shovel, get to work, clean it out, and it would probably be against some labor laws to do that, it was just noxious. It was probably five minutes in, and I am definitely going to university. There’s no way I’m doing this.
Nikki Van Noy: I love that. So, was this something that you felt passion for or came to feel passion for? Or was it initially just sort of what you did as a member of your family?
Joe Geng: Yeah, it was the latter. I had no passion for it. I was a little bit that black sheep because my brothers, especially my older brother, he joined the business and he was full in early on. During university, I said that there’s no way I’m joining and I’m not part of the business. I went to school and had no intention of returning. I thought, I’m not going back there.
But then they just sort of grew on me when I worked in the summertime a few times. Then when I got actually got into doing it, it started to be really fun, because I wasn’t cleaning out the sludge pit, I guess.
Nikki Van Noy: Go figure. So, you were won over. And then after you went to university, you continued on to a leather school in Germany, which you describe is the Hogwarts of leather making. I’m not even going to attempt to say that school name. I’ll let you go ahead and say it.
Joe Geng: Yeah, and this was another thing that I really have to credit my father for. It was actually after high school. He had arranged for me to do an apprenticeship in Germany. I went over to Germany for a year, and that was really like baptism by fire because I went over there and I didn’t speak a lick of German.
I went over there and started working in the tanneries there. That was a transformative experience because I really had to work hard to learn the language and get used to a new culture and be on my own. I could not think my dad enough for that experience, but at the time, there were definitely difficult moments there where I was questioning why he had done that.
Nikki Van Noy: That’s a lot. I mean, that’s full immersion right there. It sounds like in every way.
Joe Geng: Yeah, it was. But you learn quickly, and it awoke something in me. The high school, it was maybe not hard enough or I don’t know what it was, but it was there that I learned that if I apply myself, I’ll learn a lot. In high school, I don’t know why, but that never really occurred to me. I did the bare minimum, and I kind of learned how to learn. That was really out of necessity.
Nikki Van Noy: Yeah, it’s interesting. Personally, I experienced that same shift over time where it was like an obligation to learn when I was younger and then all of a sudden, it’s like it clicks and becomes something very different.
Joe Geng: Yeah. I think it was that come to Jesus moment where you have got to do this or else you’re not going be able to get food. Then that light went on. If I work hard at this, I can learn this language and actually be proficient at it.
Nikki Van Noy: So what happened from there? Did you come back to Canada? Just guns blazing, understanding a direction for your life at that point? Or what did that look like when you came back?
Joe Geng: It wasn’t the straight path by any means. So, after that, then I came back and applied to university and went to university at Trinity Western. By then I had found, I guess, a new work ethic really and dedication, but not a clear path. I had no intention of joining the family business at that point. It was only after university that I reluctantly agreed with my dad to give it a shot after a lot of conflict between us for years, so that was my course.
Nikki Van Noy: Okay, so it sounds like I got the chronology wrong here. The leather-making school in Germany happened before university.
Joe Geng: Yeah, that’s right. It was a gap sort of thing between high school and university. It was really impactful for me. I don’t think I would have done well in university if I had gone straight from high school.
Nikki Van Noy: Yeah, that makes perfect sense. And how you must have been so much more worldly coming back, having learned a completely different language and being immersed in this whole different way of doing things.
Joe Geng: Yeah. I cut my teeth and made a lot of mistakes. Suffered abuse in Germany, that kind of thing.
Nikki Van Noy: Totally. So, in the time since then, you have come to study industrial hand safety, overseeing glove R&D, and also gone on to consult with leading companies like Toyota, Honda, General Motors, Shell Oil, and SpaceX. Talk to me about where that cross over for you was between glove R&D and stepping into industrial hand safety.
Joe Geng: Most of what we’ve done really is on the glove side. We’re a glove company, and that’s what we do day in and day out. I’ll tell a story that illustrates this from my dad. He started off when he was making gloves for retail. So mostly he was selling to hardware stores and that kind of thing in downtown Toronto, and he had an old Volkswagen Beetle and he took out all the seats. You just had the driver seat in there, full of gloves and then drive down on a Thursday night and sell the gloves to these hardware stores in order to make payroll on the Friday.
He said the shopkeepers, they were very sharp, and they could more or less smell desperation on him. So, they were always negotiated down on price and he really was barely surviving hand to mouth.
Then one day he got a call from a local company just in the neighboring town, and it was a steel manufacturer. He went in there and they said, “We’re really having problems with our gloves, we’re having these hand injuries. We don’t know what we can do. Would you mind coming and taking a look?”
He went in there and a light went off for him in that he saw how many gloves they were using and how poorly they were designed. So, he came back, and my mom tells the story that she basically didn’t see him for 48 hours.
He was at work the whole time and slept in the office. Then he went back, two days later, and had a glove design for them that was so much better than what they had before. More or less on the spot, they handed him this PO. He said the PO was 1000 dozen gloves or something like that. He said it was more than he’d sell in half a year to all the hardware stores. He walked out of there and said, “I am never selling to a hardware store again. This is where the business is.”
That’s the motto that we’ve followed since then is to go into factories, find out what the problem is, and then design accordingly. That’s been our niche and our sweet spot. We have done that and put all our efforts into being good at designing to solve those problems.
So that’s why we’re selling to General Motors and Honda and those kinds of people because we’re following that exercise and designed the products specifically for the weird and niche applications that they have. Then the industrial hand safety part is really more just the realization that even when we were making the best gloves that we could and our customers were using really good products, that they were still having hand injuries. So, we were sitting down wondering what else can we do to help them? We really didn’t know.
That’s what spawned the idea of a book. Okay, let’s go down this road and do the research and write a book on it. The book writing exercise was the discipline to get us to those answers of how can we help our customers more and maybe even to take a step back. The problem that we’re having is like the, we thought every problem we could fix with a glove. If you’re having hand injuries, we can fix it with the glove. Are you having employees not wearing the right products or they don’t want to wear safety products? We could make a glove, but the reality is we couldn’t solve everything with just glove design. So, then we had to dig a bit deeper.
Nikki Van Noy: Interesting. So, talk to me about some of those issues you found that you weren’t anticipating ahead of time when you realized there’s something bigger happening here that we can’t completely solve through the gloves.
Joe Geng: So, it was the mystery of why does this company, they’re using a really good glove, why are they still having injuries? Why did these injuries occur? Why do people take their clothes off and not wear them? That was one group of companies and the other one was where companies wouldn’t be willing to pay for the right protection for their employees and how can we help them? Because they’re making a huge mistake and people are getting injured and it’s actually a poor financial decision.
I remember going into one place and they were handling the sheet metal for making doors for an automotive company. They were using cotton gloves, which is really a very poor choice because cotton doesn’t offer any protection against sharp sheet metal. We walked in and the guys said, “I’m sorry, I can’t meet with you today. Somebody got killed by one of the robots here, and the guy didn’t observe the safety rules.”
It stemmed from a culture that didn’t really care about safety, where production was more important and the purchase price of safety materials or personal protection, was the overriding factor, rather than protecting employees.
We wondered, how do we get through to those people as well, where they’re just making really bad choices? And why would they make that choice? We tried to dig deeper there.
The Number One Injury
Nikki Van Noy: Interesting. For people who are not aware of this, as you talk about in your book, this is a big thing. So right now, hand injuries are the number one preventable industrial accident, and that includes manufacturing, construction, gas, all types of industries.
Joe Geng: Yes, that’s the case. Actually, back is the number one injury. But the reality with back injuries is you could be sitting at your desk and you move the wrong way and you’ve got a back injury. So, we consider those not as preventable, where with hand injuries, really almost all of them, if you have the right glove on and you were wearing, it probably would have been prevented. If the machines were properly guarded, that kind of thing, there are clear steps that almost all of them could be avoided.
In the workplace they’re not considered–there is not as much focus given to them. It’s more focused on the injuries that lead to death. So, people falling off a roof, that kind of thing, there’s a bit more attention given to that.
Hands were kind of an afterthought, and in some places the attitude is like, well, we can wear gloves if you want to. Really, it’s not good, because people are getting cut and having serious hand injuries all the time.
Nikki Van Noy: That makes sense. And also, from a business standpoint, I would imagine that it’s lowering productivity, too. If you want to bring it down to the bottom line. If your workers are working in these industries and not protecting their hands and are injured, there has to be a cost to that.
Joe Geng: Yeah, definitely. There’s a story in the book where one of our sales guys, he was in one of the local beer bottling plants, and I forget what the number was exactly. But they’re having, say 10 relatively minor cuts in the day. The sales guys like, oh, that’s not too bad. And the safety manager said really, that’s terrible. Every time there’s a cut, that person has got to leave that line. It slows everything down. They have to get stitches or a Band-Aid and take around 45 minutes to come back, and that’s a huge loss of productivity. Then they are probably working a little bit slower because he’s got a cut on his hand.
So, the productivity loss is significant, even from minor little cuts. Then, if you’re getting stitches or you’re off for a few days, or there are hand injuries where you’re off for a few months, it really is very costly.
We’ve seen places where when they get into wearing the right glove or they make those right choices, productivity goes up because you can feel the parts better and that kind of thing. We’ve seen cases where automotive manufacturers can speed up the line if they’re wearing really good gloves.
Nikki Van Noy: I’m curious. Did you find that there was a morale or psychological component to this, too? I have to imagine that if I was in a job where I was hurting myself consistently or seeing my coworkers hurt themselves, that would have some sort of impact on me.
Joe Geng: Yeah, there’s a huge impact there where if you’re working for a company and they’re not providing you proper protection, you don’t feel supported and you feel like there is an us against them mentality. If the company is doing its best to look out for you and to make you feel safe, then you feel like they really are looking out for me and I’m going to look out for them.
We tell a really interesting story from the CEO of Alcoa and this was in the eighties. He took over Alcoa Steel–one of the large steel manufacturers in the US. On his first call with Wall Street he told them, if you want to know how our financials are doing or how we’re doing as a company, the first number you need to look at is our safety numbers. How many lost on injuries, that kind of thing. After the call, the stock dropped dramatically because more or less, they said, this guy’s a hippie. He’s not going to pay attention to the financials, and the stock plummeted.
Over the course of his tenure, which was quite long, Alcoa dramatically outperformed the S&P500. It was a huge financial success. Because he realized that if we look after people, they will take care of the company. The best way to look after people in an industrial setting is to make sure that they go home safe. It was that realization, and then gloves are just a piece of that. If you’re looking after people’s hands and making sure they have good gloves, it’s one way of saying that we care about your safety.
Nikki Van Noy: Smart. So, this guy was just a little ahead of his time, it sounds like.
Joe Geng: He was, quite a bit.
Nikki Van Noy: With that in mind, I know that in the course of this book, you spent a lot of time asking questions of companies, of safety experts, safety managers, industrial psychologists, a whole host of people, and all of that is in the book. I’m wondering for listeners today if there are one or two things that really stand out in your mind from those conversations as either important or something people wouldn’t guess at anything that you’d like to share.
Joe Geng: Yeah, there’s a lot of stuff that came out that was really surprising, such as that relatively minor tactics had a pretty big impact on hand injury reduction.
My favorite story that we came across is from one of the safety experts we interviewed. He was working with an oil and gas company in Alberta, and so in western Canada, and they had a hand safety campaign that they gave everybody working on this oil rig. They gave them a pair of pink gloves, and they said, when you see one of your coworkers doing something unsafe, it’s up to you to go up to them, hand them the pink gloves, and they have to wear those pink gloves for the rest of the day. Then as a company, we will donate $5 to breast cancer research.
The effect was basically that all the coworkers, in a sort of a fun sort of jovial like camaraderie, they were giving their coworkers a hard time if they had done anything unsafe. They were the eyes and ears of the safety manager. Then that person who was wearing the pink gloves had their coworkers giving them a hard time the rest of the day. The net result was their hand injuries drop about 30% and they stayed low even after the campaign was over.
It was just this really interesting way of applying peer pressure, in a really positive way. It worked because they already had a very strong culture. You knew that person was doing it out of your best interests and not because they’re trying to give you a hard time. It was coming from a good place, essentially. It worked well for them because they had already developed that. So that was one story that really stuck out.
There was one study that was really surprising. They did a study at a shipyard where they improved housekeeping of the facility, and they anticipated something like a 25% reduction in overall injuries. Instead, it was shockingly high and when everything was put away and, in its place, everything was tidy, they had a 70 or 80% reduction in overall injuries.
Little things like that can make a huge difference. And if you’re applying several of those tactics at once it can be very powerful. Can I tell one more story that occurred to me as well?
Nikki Van Noy: Yes, of course.
Joe Geng: This one I thought was so good. We were talking with a safety manager. He was working at some kind of metal fabricating company, and when he took the job as part of the interview, he said, “I’m only going to take this job if you let me work on the floor for the first week”. And the person said, “Sure, I guess so”. They thought it was a little bit odd.
So, the first week he goes out on the floor and he says, “Make sure you put me in the most difficult jobs.” The people on the floor were making fun of him and they were laughing and thought it was a joke. Then they realized, no, this guy’s serious. He’s for real. He’s going to be working side by side and he’s really going to understand what we’re doing.
Immediately he established this huge trust because they knew that he was willing to get his hands dirty and also that he had an understanding of what would work to keep them safer.
Care and Trust
Nikki Van Noy: What I’m hearing is there seems like an overlap in a lot of these stories is that there is such a human element to this.
Joe Geng: Definitely, I think the first thing, the most important part of reducing injuries is building trust. Whether that’s trust from the CEO or trust from the workers that are doing the job. The safety manager is caught in the middle, and they have to make sure that they’re managing up so that the CEO and upper management buys into their programs because if they don’t, it’s going to fall flat. They have to make sure that the people that are doing the work and that are in the front line, trust that they’re acting in their best interests as well.
Nikki Van Noy: My last question for you, I’m curious. I’ve noticed that it seems like there are myths in every industry across the board. Do you feel like there are any myths within the safety industry that people are buying into but aren’t necessarily serving them or don’t play out in reality?
Joe Geng: Well, I guess the one thing that we do come across, and I don’t know if it was really a myth, but it was like a common thought pattern that you can’t prevent all injuries. So, some things are going to happen. They are going to be inevitable. Sometimes people do dumb things and those accidents are going to happen. It was in those places that tended to have higher injuries, and the converse attitude was, no, if we dig deep enough, we can figure out why somebody’s acting in that way and then prevent that. I think it was more of an attitude maybe than a myth.
Another myth was around safety incentives. There’s been quite a bit of discussion. This has gotten better over the last couple of years, but it’s not totally cleared up because we’re still seeing it. But it’s that attitude of we will throw a pizza party, if people have a low injury. So, if you see those signs–100 days since the last injury or 365 days since the last injury. Typically, those are rewarded by a pizza party or everybody gets a hoodie at the end of the year or something like that.
That is a very bad idea in that it leads to is just under-reporting. What happens is someone gets hurt. Then everyone says, just be quiet about it. You’re okay. Because if you do, we’re not going to have that pizza party. Then what that leads to is not only that person being injured and not getting proper treatment, but the root causes, no one knows about, so it can’t be prevented for the future. And maybe something worse is going to happen the following time.
Nikki Van Noy: That makes so much sense once you break it down. I would have never thought of that, though.
Joe Geng: Yeah, I didn’t think about it either. When we dug into the research there are quite a few stories around bad injuries happening and being hidden.
Nikki Van Noy: Has doing all of this research made you change any assumptions or practices you had before going into this book? Or has it served to solidify a lot of what you already thought?
Joe Geng: No. The first thing, we didn’t know that much about how to really prevent hand injuries. It’s really influenced how we’re thinking and what we’re doing when we go into those customers and the recommendations we’re making. So instead of just buy more gloves, we are saying, these are other things you could be doing that may cost very little that can have a huge impact on reducing your injuries.
Nikki Van Noy: Amazing. A double win. You informed yourself, and you’re informing everybody else. I love it. Okay, Joe, where can listeners find you?
Joe Geng: LinkedIn. I’m on LinkedIn or my email address is email@example.com.
Nikki Van Noy: Excellent. Thank you so much for joining us today.