Ode to the consumate safety leader

October 1, 2002 By    

The propane industry lost a true safety leader last month with the passing of Norman L. Bushey.

Norm Bushey: Propane industry safety leader, friend and judge for a mock liability trial.
Norm Bushey: Propane industry safety leader, friend and judge for a mock liability trial.

I first met Norman 15 years ago while serving on the National Propane Gas Association Safety Committee. He was a fiery little guy with a twinkle in his eye from South China, Maine. At the time, he was the Northeast safety director for a multi-state propane operation. Norm was always the consummate safety leader.

In 1991 I had the opportunity to travel with Norman and Joe Cummings on what we called the Safety Tour. On Jan. 1, 1991, an explosion in Albany, Ga., severely burned a woman and five children. A previous renter had removed a heating appliance from a bedroom. Corporate policy regarding leak tests on out-of-gas situations had not been followed, and our job on the tour was to make sure every employee got the message about doing the right thing.

Four months per year for four years, the three of us traveled more than 15 states. If you have ever lived on the road for that kind of duration, you will understand when I say that you get to know your traveling companions very well. If you don’t lighten up once in a while, the pressure can get to you.

In the Northeastern states, Norm would load his copper piping display into his old Chevy station wagon to show the crew how to do a quick leak test. Throughout the tour Norman would ask Joe, the fleet director, when he was getting a new car. Norm had a lust for a Saturn Wagon. He was always dropping a new brochure on Joe’s lap at each leg of the tour.

One day Norm finally got his Saturn Wagon. He was so proud and happy; you couldn’t get the grin off his face – until he discovered that his new dream machine could not hold all of his safety paraphernalia. He would have had to lash the copper tubing training board on top of the roof to get around to do all his sessions. Such moral dilemmas for safety leaders are easily resolved. He traded it in on a Chevrolet Lumina Mini Van, which we lovingly referred to as the “Ant Eater.” Just another sacrifice made in the name of safety.

We each had a role to play on the Safety Tour. Norm taught testing procedures, Joe reviewed company policy and I talked about insurance and safety. We all talked about doing the right thing in the field, at the plant and in the office, every day. We even staged a mock liability trial and I bought Norman a judge’s wig. I can still see him in full wig and robe, wagging his finger, saying, “Here comes the judge.”

Serious but fun

We usually would spend a few days at each location. Each evening we would go back to Norm’s room to discuss who was getting the message and who needed an attitude adjustment. We then would design an approach for the local manager to use to bring the doubters on board. We took our roles seriously and that led to some tense moments.

Sometimes passions would run high and we needed to defuse the tension. One evening before dinner, we were having a heated discussion about one particular group. We always met in Norm’s room, because he had one small vice – he loved to smoke cheap cigars.

I had smuggled a small can of shaving cream into Norm’s room and, right before we left for dinner, I creamed the earpiece on his phone. Dinner took longer than usual, but eventually we went back to Norm’s room for our evening call to our wives. Norm would always refer to his loving wife, Elaine, as “the best-looking girl in South China.”

Anyway, Norm was still pretty heated up about a few of the doubters and did not reach for the phone. Finally I could not stand it any longer and excused myself for the evening. I ran down the hall and called Norm’s room.

“Hello? Gawd dammit!” I went back to his room to find Norman wiping off his ear and Joe was laughing so hard I thought he would fall out of his chair.

After defusing the crisis, we went back to solving the management problem. Later we called our wives and went to bed, recharged for another day of safety on the tour.

One evening on a cab ride to dinner, the cabbie asked if he could come pick the group up later. Ever the safety negotiator, Norman cut a deal with the driver; if he would wear his seat belt, we would call him and give him a good tip. The driver liked the incentive and when he picked up the group, he had his seat belt on.

That was Norm’s way. He had this contagious attitude that encouraged everyone he met to make safety their highest priority.

One of Norm’s proudest moments was when he stood up for his company to receive the NPGA safety award in 1998. Safety can run in cycles and the cycle of our Safety Tour had paid great dividends in terms of loss control and setting an example for the rest of the country.

I had the opportunity to spend a few hours with Norman toward the end. His body was failing, but his spirit was sharp as a tack. He challenged technical points in my latest safety article and then declared it should receive an “A.”

While the loss of such a true safety leader is sad and disheartening, we can all smile with the warmest memories of an example well set.

I can see Norman up in heaven right now challenging procedures, showing everyone where the fire exit signs are and cutting a deal with St. Peter to put him on the Safety Committee.

While he did not invent the phrase, he said it more often than anyone I have ever known: “Have a Safe Day.”

Norm’s most passionate charity was Sunshine Camp for disadvantaged children. All remembrance contributions should be sent to:

Sunshine Camp

In remembrance of Norm Bushey

c/o Susan Gallant

144 Benson Road

West Gardener, ME 04345

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