Candace Carnahan, Safety Innovator and Motivational Speaker

Candace Carnahan believes in a simple truth: safety isn’t just a task; it’s a mindset, a way of living. Whether she’s clad in steel-toed boots or stilettos, her message remains consistent. Fast forward 25 years from a life-altering moment in her youth, when an incident could have ended it all. Since then, Candace has been advocating for safety in diverse settings—offshore rigs, mines, factories, and corporate boardrooms. She emphasizes the “why” behind safety, urging us to consider the importance of our actions each day, with one ultimate goal in mind: returning safely to our loved ones.

Her approach to safety is holistic, offering a fresh perspective on a topic often seen through a narrow lens. Through her talks, she inspires audiences to rethink safety in ways they may never have before. Yet, amidst her varied experiences, Candace always circles back to where it all began—a story that resonates with everyone she meets.

In the summer of 1999, a single moment altered Carnahan’s life trajectory forever. Fresh off her first year at university, she embarked on a seasonal job at the local paper mill. Like clockwork, she underwent a week of safety training before delving into her duties—a routine she repeated for three consecutive summers.

Her task was straightforward: keeping the work area tidy by collecting fallen paper slabs. Yet, on an otherwise ordinary day, a routine shortcut led to an unforeseen calamity. Crossing a conveyor belt system, a common practice among colleagues and supervisors alike, Carnahan inadvertently stepped into harm’s way.

Carnahan recalls, “As I crossed over the belt, I put my foot down at exactly the wrong place at exactly the wrong time.” Her left foot became ensnared in the machinery’s unforgiving grasp, dragging her down onto the moving belt. Despite her cries for help piercing through the cacophony of the mill, the automatic emergency stop failed to engage.

“It was only through the swift intervention of a vigilant coworker that catastrophe was averted,” Carnahan recounts, her voice tinged with gratitude. Her foot wedged between converging conveyors, teetering on the brink of irreversible harm.

Acknowledging her initial indifference towards workplace safety, Carnahan reflects, “Honestly, at the time I was injured I didn’t have much of a perspective on workplace safety.” While she had undergone training and the importance of safety was ostensibly emphasized at the mill, the prevailing cultural focus of the late nineties veered towards other societal concerns, relegating workplace safety to the periphery.

Driven by her harrowing experience, Carnahan’s advocacy for safety education, particularly among youth, ignited fervently. “The step I took over the machine that day continues to shape my perspective on life and safety,” she shares. The fateful misstep served as a catalyst for introspection, prompting profound questions: How can we enhance our approach to safety? How can we foster a deeper, more personal connection to the concept?

Embracing safety not merely as a mandate, but as an opportunity for proactive engagement, Carnahan advocates for a paradigm shift—a shift from passive compliance to empowered action. “When we view safety as less of an obligation and more of an opportunity, it empowers us to take action,” she asserts. It’s about speaking up, asking questions, and assuming responsibility for our well-being and that of others—a collective endeavor to eradicate needless harm from our lives.

Shortly after her life-altering incident, Carnahan was approached with an opportunity by the Workplace Health, Safety, and Compensation Commission (now WorkSafe NB). This encounter, which occurred around 2000, occurred at a time when workplace health and safety were scarcely discussed in educational settings. “I was invited to share my experience with students across the province with two goals in mind,” Carnahan explains. “First, to teach them that they are not invincible, and second, to make them aware of their rights and responsibilities in the workplace.”

Embracing this opportunity, Carnahan embarked on a journey that would shape her future endeavors profoundly. “I took on the role not knowing it would lead me on the path I’m on today,” she reflects. “However, very soon into this work, I did recognize my passion for storytelling and for advocating for empowerment – to inspire youth to educate and protect themselves.”

Her early experiences working with students revealed a glaring gap in safety education among young workers. “Those years were formative in teaching me that if we can find ways to connect with people in an honest way, and on a personal level – we can make any topic engaging, educational, and meaningful,” Carnahan observes. Driven by a fervent desire to make a difference, Carnahan’s journey towards safety advocacy began—a journey rooted in the belief that by fostering genuine connections and empowering individuals, even the most mundane topics, such as safety, can become vehicles for profound learning and growth.

Safety: An Opportunity for Conscious Choice

Carnahan’s message resonates across industries worldwide, rooted in a profound acknowledgment of our shared humanity. “While I speak to various industries across the globe,” Carnahan notes, “the truth is everyone I speak to is the most important person to someone in this world, and no one I speak to is invincible.”

With this simple yet compelling insight, Carnahan implores individuals to consider safety beyond mere adherence to regulations. “There is an abundance of space just within these two simple facts to implore people to consider their safety beyond the ‘nuts and bolts’ by reminding them how much they have to lose and how little to gain by taking unnecessary risks,” she emphasizes.

Reflecting on the sobering reality of workplace fatalities, Carnahan remarks, “No one wakes up in the morning and drinks their coffee thinking that it will be the last time that ever happens, yet, here we are in 2024 killing a minimum of 20 people a day on the job in NA.”

Yet, amidst this stark reality, Carnahan’s message transcends mere obligation, advocating for safety as an opportunity—a conscious choice to safeguard what matters most. “Our lives are made up of a whole bunch of little big things,” she observes. “I believe that when we make a conscious choice to take care of the little things, the big things, for the most part, take care of themselves.”

Central to Carnahan’s ethos is the recognition of individual agency in effecting change. “I believe that my work has inspired organizations and the people within them to recognize the power they have to make a difference every day,” she affirms. While her message extends beyond mere compliance with rules and regulations, Carnahan acknowledges its role in amplifying industry-specific safety protocols.

“No one goes to work alone and no one gets hurt alone,” Carnahan emphasizes, reflecting on the ripple effects of workplace incidents. “The story of my injury is also that of pain and impact that fateful step had on my family, my parents specifically, my fellow employees, the first responders, and the community.”

In Carnahan’s view, the universality of her message lies in its potential to resonate with anyone, irrespective of industry or background. “In my opinion, a message like mine has the potential to be impactful to anyone because anyone could be impacted by an incident like mine,” she shares, underscoring the collective responsibility to prioritize safety and well-being in all facets of life.

Lessons Learned and Challenges Ahead

In Carnahan’s view, workplace hazards are ubiquitous, transcending the boundaries of industry and occupation. “Regardless of where you’re working, a corporate office or on an offshore oil rig, there are hazards,” she asserts, highlighting the omnipresence of risk in everyday work environments.

Central to Carnahan’s approach is the recognition of universal themes underpinning workplace safety. “My core themes, for the most part, remain consistent regardless of who I’m speaking to,” she explains. Yet, she tailors her messaging by weaving in personal anecdotes and experiences specific to each industry audience, fostering relatability and resonance.

“I weave in the experiences and stories of others that have been shared with me along my journeys,” Carnahan shares. These narratives serve not only to elucidate potential hazards but also to underscore the imperative of learning from past mistakes and tragedies.

“While we cannot change the past, we can certainly learn from it,” Carnahan reflects. “When we know better, we can do better.” Yet, despite the imperative of continuous improvement, she dismantles      persistent roadblocks hindering progress toward safer work environments.

“The mentality of ‘we’ve always done it this way, so this is the way we will do it’ is alive and well,” she observes. Carnahan advocates for a paradigm shift—an embrace of a questioning attitude and a proactive approach to safety.

“Having a questioning attitude saves lives,” she affirms. Carnahan challenges the notion that risk-taking is an inherent expectation in certain work environments, emphasizing the role of organizations in fostering a culture of safety and continuous improvement.

“Investing in safety isn’t just an obligation—it’s an opportunity,” Carnahan asserts. By reframing safety as a proactive endeavor rather than a reactive obligation, she envisions a reimagined approach to workplace safety in 2024—one rooted in empowerment, vigilance, and a commitment to collective well-being.

The Impact of Speaking Up

Candace has been saying, if you see something say something for years before it became everywhere. “Well, it’s a slogan I see all over the place now, in airports, train stations, etc.,” she observes. “So – I think we can say for sure that it’s ‘catchy’.”

Firmly believing in the power of catchy phrases, Carnahan underscores the effectiveness of alliteration in embedding messages in people’s minds. “If you can get a phrase to stick in someone’s head,” she notes, “you increase the likelihood that they will call it to mind when the time comes.”

For Carnahan, “If You See Something, Say Something” transcends mere warnings of danger; it encapsulates a broader ethos of vigilance and empathy. “Keeping people safe reaches beyond warnings of danger,” she asserts. “When we speak up to or on behalf of others, we bring everyone, including ourselves, back to the here and now – which is where we need to be to move forward in a safe and healthy manner.”

In every talk she gives, Candace Carnahan has one story she shares without fail. It’s a tale that hits close to home, a narrative of loss and resilience that she learned from her mentor and dear friend, the late Paul Kells.

Paul’s crusade for young worker education and employer responsibility was ignited by the tragic death of his son, Sean Kells, at just 19 years old in a workplace accident. Candace vividly remembers Paul’s unwavering courage as he stood on stage, recounting the unimaginable pain of losing a child. “When I asked Paul where he found his strength,” Candace recalls, “he shared a touching story with me, one that had been relayed to him by Sean’s friend after Sean’s passing.”

What Paul didn’t know was that Sean had once saved this friend’s life in a different way—by extending a simple but profound act of kindness. The friend, who had been mercilessly bullied in elementary school, found solace when Sean offered to walk him to class during their first week of middle school.

“Sean showed up at his locker time and again until they had become friends and were just going to class together,” Candace recounts. “Years later, this man, now in his 50s, revealed to Paul that Sean’s kindness had rescued him from despair.” Sean had unknowingly altered the course of this man’s life, preventing him from succumbing to the darkness of his circumstances. “Sean left this world not knowing that someone else would remain in it because of him,” Candace reflects.

As conclusion, Candace stresses the significant influence of simple actions, encouraging her listeners to take advantage of every chance to do or say the right thing, even when it seems difficult or intimidating. This is a message of hope and empowerment, reminding us of the amazing potential of compassion in the midst of challenging circumstances.

Bridging the Gap Between Psychological and Physical Well-being

Carnahan is committed to closing the gap between psychological and physical safety, recognizing their inherent interdependence. “You can’t have one without the other,” she asserts. To further this mission, she has launched an online safety awareness certificate program called Step Up Your Safety for Youth. “It is my hope that it will be available to young people all across North America,” she shares. Carnahan intends to expand this initiative to encompass all workers, particularly those in small organizations with limited resources for safety initiatives.

Reflecting on current trends, Carnahan finds encouragement in the growing emphasis on safety awareness. “What I consider encouraging at this moment in time is that it feels as though safety is ‘trending,'” she notes. There is a palpable shift in attitudes, with individuals increasingly prioritizing their rights to safety and protection. “To me, it feels like a tide has turned,” she observes. “While safety has always been in front of us, it was something that needed to be sold, whereas now people want to know more about their rights, they feel entitled to safety and protection – as they should.”

Drawing parallels to the evolution of consumer preferences in the beverage industry, Carnahan envisions safety consciousness becoming a fashionable trend. “I think that similar to the NA beverage industry, safety and making healthier choices in that regard will evolve to be considered in style if you will,” she suggests. As societal attitudes towards safety continue to evolve, Carnahan remains steadfast in her commitment to promoting a culture of safety and well-being for all.

Building a Culture of Safety: Practical Strategies for Organizations

Organizations can continue to strengthen their safety cultures through innovative approaches. “Keep it fresh and think outside the box!” Carnahan advises. She emphasizes the importance of fostering a culture of caring within the workforce as a cornerstone of effective safety initiatives. “Team building exercises, company BBQs, events that include family – these all allow people to let their guard down in the work environment and to learn more about the people they are working with and what is important to them,” she explains. According to Carnahan, simple gestures like sharing a meal together can contribute significantly to enhancing the safety culture.

By making safety personal, organizations can underscore its significance. “When we make safety personal, we make safety matter,” Carnahan asserts. Incorporating personal stories and experiences into safety protocols and procedures can provide employees with a new perspective on safety.

Moreover, Carnahan stresses the importance of demonstrating a commitment to safety through actions, not just words. “Safety must not only be identified in a mission or a vision as a core value – it needs to be seen in action as the most important element for success,” she asserts. Carnahan acknowledges that companies investing in safety speakers like herself often demonstrate a genuine commitment to safety, evident in their engagement and energy during safety initiatives.

Keeping safety at the forefront of organizational priorities is essential for cultivating a strong safety culture. “When safety is out in front of an organization at every turn, the level of commitment and the desire to play an integral role in the evolution of a safety culture is undeniably evident,” Carnahan observes. Even small adjustments, such as incorporating the word “safely” into everyday language, can reinforce the culture of safety.

In Carnahan’s view, everyone within an organization plays a leadership role in promoting safety. “When it comes to safety, I believe that everyone is a leader,” she emphasizes. By setting an example and demonstrating a proactive approach to safety, individuals can inspire others to prioritize safety in their actions.

Ultimately, Carnahan urges organizations to take proactive measures to prevent tragedies. “In the wake of a tragedy, the last question you want to be left asking yourself is ‘what more could I have done,’ and to know there is an answer,” she reflects. By implementing practical strategies and fostering a culture of safety, organizations can mitigate risks and protect their most valuable asset—their people.

The Power of Perspective

Carnahan seldom misses an opportunity to glean insights from her experiences, both triumphs and tribulations. “I don’t always put these lessons into practice right away,” she acknowledges, “but I do believe that is the key to unlocking your potential to the fullest.”

Central to Carnahan’s approach is a relentless pursuit of self-reflection, characterized by probing questions aimed at extracting wisdom from every situation. “Always asking, what could I have done differently? What can I take away from this?” she muses. “These are a few of the questions I ask myself with the hope of informing decisions I’m making moving forward.”

One anecdote she often shares, which she calls “half-price pedicures,” epitomizes her commitment to finding meaning and resilience in adversity. “After I lost my leg, the idea of paying full price for a pedicure felt unjust,” Candace shares. “It seemed unfair to pay for a foot I no longer had. But as time passed and I reflected on my feelings, I realized they ran deeper than just the salon bill.”

Yet, Candace found an important lesson in this experience—a metaphor for embracing life’s challenges with a positive outlook. “I discovered a solution that resonated with me deeply: focusing on what I still had, rather than dwelling on what I had lost,” she explains. “I still had half of my feet—a realization that birthed the concept of ‘Half. Price. Pedicures.'”

For Candace, this anecdote embodies a fundamental truth: the importance of finding the silver lining in every situation. “The most crucial skill in life is to maintain a positive outlook,” she asserts. “Though it may not always be apparent, there is always a bright side to be found.”

For Carnahan, cultivating a positive outlook is paramount. “The most important thing to be able to do in this world is to look on the bright side,” she asserts. Despite life’s challenges, she believes that optimism is always within reach—a beacon of hope guiding her through even the darkest of times.

Above all, Carnahan advocates for the belief in one’s capacity to enact change and make a meaningful difference each day. “Believing that you have the power to truly affect change and make a difference, every day in some way, is crucial,” she asserts. Carnahan emphasizes the importance of taking responsibility, rejecting the notion of victimhood, and instead embracing the power of knowledge. “When we fall victim to the blame game, or chalk up undesired outcomes to ‘I didn’t know,’ in a way, we are giving up our power,” she reflects. “Make it your business to know. When we know better, we can do better.”

Perspective, according to Carnahan, is a powerful catalyst for success. “Perspective is a huge influencer of success,” she affirms. By accessing different viewpoints, individuals can transcend personal limitations and identify innovative solutions to challenges.

While vulnerability may not traditionally be associated with professional success, Carnahan contends that it is a vital component of effective leadership. “As humans, we all feel vulnerable at times,” she acknowledges. “When we show that human side of ourselves as leaders, we create a safe environment for others to do the same.”

Reflecting on her own journey, Carnahan acknowledges the dual facets of strength and vulnerability. “I certainly consider myself a survivor and a person with strength,” she shares. Yet, she recognizes the importance of honesty and authenticity in her storytelling, allowing audiences to connect with her on a deeper level. “Sharing my story with honesty and vulnerability not only impacts how others absorb and interpret my message,” she explains, “but it also seems to spark something within them that encourages them to recall and share their personal experiences.”

For Carnahan, this exchange of stories is the pinnacle of achievement as a speaker—a testament to the transformative power of shared experiences and the recognition of individual narratives as catalysts for change. “We all have a story to tell that matters and sharing stories changes lives, sharing stories even saves lives, ” she concludes.

For more real-life stories that inspire change, check out Candace’s new podcast “Sharing Stories. Changing Lives.” wherever you get your podcasts!

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