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  • Writer's pictureSafer Highways

Evolution of a safety speaker – from motivational to inspirational

“An article that, we hope, is practical and realistic rather than pessimistic.”

Jason Anker speaks about the impact of his traditional safety talk, compared to his latest talk, which has a heavy focus on wellbeing and mental health and how we make different safety choices as a result.

My name is Jason Anker. I fell off a roof I was working on in January 1993 and the fall left me paralysed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of my life. I was just 24 years old and with a young wife and two infant children.

Early Safety Career

Back in 2008 I was approached at a party by a man called Dan Terry who, though I didn’t know it at the time, was about to change my life. He asked me why I was in a wheelchair and if it was the result of an accident at work. When I said that it was, he asked me if I’d consider talking about it to help others avoid a similar fate.

My early talks were pretty standard, and I lacked confidence, but one day I noticed a chap who looked openly bored, and something just came over me. I let him have it both barrels… just told him every detail, absolutely everything. I had ‘found my voice’ as they say and my career as a motivational speaker was properly born.

Over the next decade I travelled the world and was awarded lots of awards for my campaigning. I was made MBE in the 2014 new year’s honours list and the world’s oldest safety organisation RoSPA made me an ‘Archangel’ in 2017.

My key message was that if you feel uneasy stop and “take five” seconds. Think the risk through – because those five seconds could save your life.

What (actually) nearly killed me

Now obviously the accident did me no favours, but I was never in any danger of dying. However, my mental healthwas hugely affected, as I’m sure anyone can imagine, and I began to hang around with the wrong crowd. I added drug taking (mostly Ecstasy) to my habit of drinking myself into oblivion. Initially you don’t need much to feel like a king of the world … (in a wheelchair? so what! I’ll just party sitting down!!). However: two things on the negative side. One, the effect doesn’t last very long and the next morning isn’t much fun and two, you need more and more it to (try to) get as high as those early days. It’s not sustainable and things soon began to spiral out of control.

At the beginning of 1995 I was on a night out when I began to feel very peculiar. I wasn’t actively trying to kill myself but it’s fair to say I was utterly indifferent to whether I did or not. Well, this night I came really close. Rushed to hospital, in a coma for three weeks, my parents told they should consider letting me go and give permission to turn the life support machine off. Then, after my dad refused, I came around after 17 days. I still suffer from mild brain damage as a consequence, slur when I get tired, struggle to focus – but I’m still here and over the years added the story of my mental health crisis to my talk.

Slowly understanding what caused my accident on that fateful day back in 1993

Since I started working with Tim Marsh and formed Anker and Marsh, I’ve been focusing more and more on general mental health and wellbeing. My talk now covers how people who are ‘struggling’ or just having a really bad day are more likely to have an accident because they are more likely to create their own risk through impatience and/or anger perhaps and are less likely to be alert and situationally aware. They are also far more likely to be fatalistic – by which I don’t just mean suicidal I mean just having a bad day and being p**** off. (Though it’s worth stressing that, in the UK, you are 31 times more likely to lose a colleague to suicide than to an accident).

At this point I want to return to my accident. I used to be a signwriter, a job I was good at and which I really loved. It wasn’t necessarily the best paid job in the world – but I loved it. When I was made redundant, I ended up working in construction, away from home for weeks at a time, drinking too much, eating badly, missing my wife and children. The job was well paid, but I hated it.

On the day in question, I was still hungover from the excesses on the night before, but I’d got down from the roof safely enough before being asked to go back up. I knew it was unsafe, but it was the last job of the day, I stopped and thought about it… took the five seconds I’ve so often encouraged others to do. But then I thought ‘oh f*** it…’.

Putting that understanding to use

We train organisations in the fact that “culture is king” and that culture is made up of day-to-day behaviours, conversations, assumptions and mind-sets. I’ve tried to practise what we preach and, these days, I’ve really embraced wellbeing. I’ve stopped drinking alcohol and caffeine entirely. I have a sleep routine and a waking routine based on cold showers, deep breathing and listing the things I need to be grateful for.

I’m told I look ten years younger than I did 10 years ago! The business is flying, and I can’t tell you how much I’m relishing being a grandad of two.

I used to show a film clip of my dad sobbing his heart out a full 17 years after my accident – just one example of how so many people’s lives were devastated when I fell off that roof. Now I end with a clip of me and him roaring with laughter. I can only do 80% of what I used to do it’s true – but I’m really making the most of that 80%.

These days the second half of my presentation is upbeat. Most people really like it, but I still get the odd manager saying, ‘could you just stick to the upsetting stuff and make everyone cry!’ I know what they’re after but they’re missing the whole point. Some people might have been changed by my old talk forever but most for only a few days, weeks or months at best because ‘culture is king’ and culture comes from the top.

Key Point. Many companies still talk about safety, health and wellbeing, with wellbeing last and little more than a ‘nice to have’. I say it should be wellbeing, health and safety. Anker and Marsh says that in many important ways, if you get the wellbeing right the safety will take care of itself.

I’ve come to appreciate that it certainly would have for me back in 1993.

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