Leadership Insights from OSHA Director of Training and Education Transcript

In this episode, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Director of Training and Education Bob Murphy discusses the importance of building bridges in the field of occupational safety. Discover how authentic, personable leadership can not only drive projects forward but also create lasting impacts on relationships.


Craig Weaver: Welcome to Response Leadership, a podcast brought to you by the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service, a leader in response training. We are a podcast bringing you leadership expertise from the top minds in emergency response. I’m your host, Craig Weaver. I work in communications at TEEX. And our guest today is Bob Murphy, director for OSHA’s Office of Training and Education. Bob, thank you so much for being here and giving us your time today.  

Bob Murphy:  

Thanks for having me on. I’m excited to be here. And you guys do a lot of great work down at TEEX and I’m happy to participate.  

Craig Weaver: Well, I appreciate that. Thank you so much. Why don’t we start with you giving us, like a quick background of your career, how you got to where you are. 

Bob Murphy: Sure. So, joining the field of occupational safety and health wasn’t the first on my radar when I started my academic career. But through some great classes that I took in college, I found my way to occupational safety and health and got a degree in environmental health and chemistry. And after that, for about five or six years, I started working for a university in Ohio, being there as their in-house industrial hygiene consultant, working in our health and safety office. 

And then I found my way to OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) in a local area office and started off as a compliance officer, working doing that job for about five/six years or so. Great experience. I met a lot of great people and did a lot of great work. And then I went into the state plan and consultation program area. And then I got back into enforcement, back into an area office, and I worked my way over to OSHA’s Office of Training and Education and started being like a supervisor for our in-house training. And I worked my way over here, unsure how things would end up. But I remember the first class that I took at the OSHA Training Institute when I started. I said, this is great stuff.” I think I’d like to do something like this in the future. And here I am. 

Craig Weaver: Here you are. Describe what OSHA is and the industries that you guys serve. Also, what is your specific role now within OSHA? 

Bob Murphy: Sure. So, OSHA was created back in the early seventies under the Occupational Safety and Health Act. And under the act, it set forth standards that OSHA would promulgate expectations for employers and employees and that sort of thing, and established training initiatives for the agency so OSHA has several different kinds of training initiatives. I bucket them in two big, large buckets. One is internal training for OSHA’s internal staff and our state plans and our consultation programs. And then we have a big bucket of training programs and options available for the public. For the private sector to advance occupational safety and health. So, my office oversees both of those. So, I have a dual personality. We do stuff internally and we do stuff externally.  

Craig Weaver: You know, this podcast is about leadership. And from that perspective in your role, how do you manage all of that and the different relationships?  

Bob Murphy: I think that what you just said right there is relationships. Kind of underline it. Bold, italicize, relationships. That’s what it’s all about in those relationships. And understanding what people’s needs are and what stakeholders’ needs are because they vary. Internal training is different than external training. And there’s a whole cadre of different needs and expectations in both buckets. And it’s a lot about in-person relationship building. 

I have to say relationship building is nothing that you can do on a text message. It’s nothing that you can do in an email. If you talk to anybody who knows me, email is the bane of my existence. People don’t usually send me emails. They are either calling me or talking about the issues and trying to work through it, because that’s where we really find the connections. That’s where we find our solutions and understand each other. Like you said, relationships are the heart of everything. It’s understanding that people have different needs and different wants. And there’s a lot of different kinds of challenges that everybody’s experiencing. Sometimes it gets more complicated every day. But I think if we have open dialog, I think that’s truly the key to everything. 

Craig Weaver: How quickly once you started getting into this position, did you realize that that was the case, that relationships are key to everything? 

Bob Murphy: I don’t think it was quite apparent at first. And so, I think that was one of the lessons that I had to learn the hard way was those relationships I was a developing and fostering. 

Craig Weaver: Yeah, that can be difficult. Like you said, for someone from a maybe a technical or whatever side to not only realize that, but to implement that, I’m going to have to talk to people and listen and be vulnerable. 

Bob Murphy: Yeah, absolutely. And you mentioned a word vulnerability. Being true to yourself, being transparent, and knowing that you do have vulnerabilities and learning from those vulnerabilities because people want to know they’re talking to an actual person. And that’s the part of the puzzle of relationship building.  

Craig Weaver: Well, you and I had the opportunity to talk at least once before we recorded this. But you have a question here that we spoke about. But how do you push OSHA initiatives while managing what’s being demanded from each region? 

Bob Murphy: Yeah. So, kind of from the internal house kind of thing, you know, different regions, we have different expectations. There are different wants from different regions. There are different needs in different parts of the country. And then there’s also the initiatives that we need to stay on top of and the directions to where the agency is going. And so being available, being accessible I think is key to that. And as people move up in their careers, it’s more and more important to be able to get in touch with people, to be able to voice their concerns and that sort of thing. So, it’s learning how to delegate to different types of activities other individuals.  

And then there’s stuff that you need to take care of on your own. I wish there was a class that I took in college or shortly after college that could have taught me all of that hopefully would have sped me along in my progress a little further than it did. But if this reaches people, to understand some of those key factors in terms of developing leadership and how to advance, I think that’s one of the things I would emphasize. It’s more about the people, we all want to go in the same direction, where can we get things aligned and where can we make some quick wins and where do we need to build on some progress? 

Craig Weaver: In doing other podcast interviews with leaders from all different areas. I’ve found that some people find it difficult to delegate. Did you have a hard time learning to do that? Do you have a hard time doing it now?  

Bob Murphy: I always catch myself. It is difficult too, especially if you come from a technical background. Sometimes it’s easier for me to do it because I know how to do it. Right. But that’s where the growth is. And if I can set the course, this is the direction we’re wanting to go. If you get there from path A, B, C, or D, if we get there and we achieve the same result. And they can also grow and bring their own finesse or their own personality to it to help them lead. That is something that I always must keep as a daily kind of reminder for me is like, am I micromanaging, or do I need to delegate this? 

Craig Weaver: Yeah, it’s tough balance. I bet it is. Well, you mentioned how different regions need different things from OSHA. How do you determine that and is that tough to do to manage what different areas need from you guys?  

Bob Murphy: We have a lot of different kinds of pathways or avenues where we listen to our stakeholders in the region for internal training. We have a lot of different pathways for our stakeholders to connect with OSHA for external needs. And so, it’s prioritizing that, making sure that things don’t fall by the wayside, especially when things get busy. Especially when things get a little hairy at different times of the year, for one thing or another. But it’s always best to loop back and to maintain those connections. 

So, I think we have a lot of solidified internal mechanisms and procedures for that.  And we also try to get a lot of feedback from different levels of the organization. Any time you do a training program, you’re always evaluating, trying to collect information about how the course went or how that class went. So, there’s continuous feedback from our students, there’s continuous feedback from our area offices in terms of what some of their needs are. Is there something that we can dust off and kind of modify or something that’s already kind of in the catalog that we can bring out? Or we need to highlight again, because sometimes people forget about the availability of different things.  

It’s a lot of that. So, when you have a great team and you know that they are taking care of these things and they bring these issues up or we can address them, that is always extremely beneficial. And that’s where that delegation is making sure that they are there. They’re experts in whatever field they’re in or that kind of overseeing and having that management, that leadership management team aids in getting that accomplished. 

 Craig Weaver: I imagine in your position feedback and listening are important factors.  

Bob Murphy: Yeah. With training, everybody wants training, right? And after you go through training, everybody has, we can add this, or you should add that, or I think we can touch on that. There’s always that. And that’s the balance of, you know, the resources. What can we do? What is some low hanging fruit what we can incorporate that sort of thing and tying it together. But I have got a great team that helps with that. 

Craig Weaver: That’s always good. It’s always good to be able to trust people that you’re working with, trust in their ability and their execution. But this is the next question I have written down here is, one I should have asked earlier, but I’ll ask it now. Why is OSHA training so important? 

Bob Murphy: So, when I talk about OSHA’s training, I keep it broad, not just what we do, but also what we expect. And so, when we look at an employer’s kind of expectation under the act, the employer is the one who really understands what hazards are in the workplace. They’re the ones assigned to workers whatever tasks they’re doing. Occupational safety and health training from the employer is paramount. What is expected under the act, because they understand the nuance of whatever machinery, hazards, chemicals, or whatever workers would be exposed to. So, that’s a fundamental tenant in terms of OSHA and expectations for training. So, it’s supplementary, it’s additional in nature.  

We have the OTI Education Center program; we have a network of education centers across OSHA’s ten regions that provides occupational safety and health to employers. Workers can also attend, but it’s to advance occupational safety and help them move their program forward. You know how to do build a confined space program, how to address fall protection, what are the different types of options they can do to help mitigate those things. So, it’s helping it advance and move that finish line to protect workers. TEEX is one of our OTI education centers. I wanted to mention that, too. And then we have our Susan Harwood training program. We get our congressional appropriations every year. 

And where we award nonprofit organizations to get occupational safety and health training to workers at risk, workers that may limited access to occupational safety health training. That may be in terms of language, it might be a barrier or something else like that. But it really gets to frontline workers to provide them with some of that needed training to supplement whatever would be provided by their employer. 

Craig Weaver: In the past handful of years, have you seen quite a bit of change?  

Bob Murphy: When I first started over here, you know, we still had some overhead projector sitting around and some of those little sheets that you put on that overhead projector. And so, it’s really changed in terms of how we put programs together. We’ve learned a lot about adult education. We learned a lot about how people really can learn from hands on. And we try to incorporate in terms of our internal training programs and with some of our others, like two, three, one third kind of instruction, two thirds application. 

And then also with the advancements in technology, I mean, you have virtual reality, you have video, you have a whole bunch of different types of social media applications that are available. With any type of anything you would do online, also in terms of how you can structure a course or training program, often it’s how can you do it virtually. When we hit the pandemic, that was like a very big switch. And we’ve found there are some aspects where virtual learning makes sense. And there’s some aspects where it was challenging in terms of doing that. And does it make sense to do that in the future? So, I think that’s where a lot of people are, a lot of organizations are of where does that fit, what makes sense? And as we move forward to incorporate those lessons learned in those wins.  

Craig Weaver: What are the biggest challenges you’re facing in the industries you’re serving and what do you do to work those out, to confront it? 

Bob Murphy: That’s a big question. I’ll look at it from the external perspective. For the sake of this. So, the workplace is different now in many aspects. We have a gig economy. We have different kinds of quote employee- employer relationships that have evolved over time. So, it’s no longer you’re going to a job, and you’re expected be there for 30 years or so. It’s you’re coming and going and or self-employed. And where does that kind of fit into things? That’s always a challenge. And I think as technology grows, as the different kinds of industries kind of emerge, so does the workforce kind of change and evolve. And so that’s really kind of when you look at the horizon and trying to anticipate what those are, what are those needs and how can OSHA kind of address those things as all of our minds here at OSHA in terms of how to best look into the future and try to address those needs as they come up. 

Craig Weaver: How would you describe your style of leadership? How do you describe yourself as a leader? 

Bob Murphy: I’m accessible, authentic, and personable. That’s who you are. You must be who you are in terms of a leader. And I think what I learned earlier on is that you can hear different things from different people, have different approaches to how they lead and dictate. You take what works for you and discard the rest of what doesn’t work for you. You need to be comfortable in your own skin. 

Craig Weaver: I was asking you prior to this, you know, different things about leadership and what we’re reporting to you as you became a leader and as you’ve been in the role, you’re in. And you mentioned something about lifelong learning, talk about the importance of that and how that’s been beneficial for you and why you think it’s beneficial. 

Bob Murphy: I think if you take that approach in life that it’s always a journey. There are destinations on your journey and you’re going to continue to learn different things. And as the world evolves around us, we’re going to be constantly applying what we’ve learned and using that information. And that’s how you learn and innovate. Drawing from those experiences, life is one big lesson as you go along. I saw something on social media earlier that it was, from wise people what they what words of advice they can offer. Wise people can be young, can be in between and on the other side, too. 

I have children and they’re out of the mouths of babes sometimes. It’s something you can walk away with. So, it’s saying that you always can learn something and your part of a team. You’re always a part of a team and they’re always looking for you. And always looking towards those leaders for that guidance. 

Craig Weaver: Have you had many mentors in your life in terms of career, leadership, and supervision? How meaningful and important to those relationships been? 

Bob Murphy: I think most of the mentor relationships that I have had are very informal. And as the ebbs and flows of love, life goes on you find some of those people that you connect with and that you can develop those relationships with. So, I have had some of them. I know when I was younger, people would say, we’re going to put you in the Principles Leadership Forum. I think I remember that from high school. And you sit there, and you wonder, and I remember asking myself, what do people see in me as a leader? 

I’ll do that. That sounds like fun. But I don’t know what people what people see and saw in me. So, there were opportunities that came up and I took advantage of those opportunities. I wanted to make sure I engage with them if there’s something that I can learn out of it. And it’s interesting, as I have always asked myself that question and as I move through the ranks, you start recognizing what those qualities are in people, what those characteristics are in people. And so now I can look back and say, oh, that’s what they saw, because I can see it in others. 

 Craig Weaver: Yeah, I guess it’s easier sometimes to look back and it’s hard to recognize some of those things in the moment. Do you feel as if you’ve been a mentor to others? 

Bob Murphy: You know, it’s funny you should ask that question. I sometimes don’t think that I’m a mentor to others. And recently, about six months or so ago, somebody contacted me, somebody that I trust and respect. And they are taking a different role at a time. And they wanted to touch base with me, and they said, I just wanted to let you know how much I’ve appreciated your mentorship and leadership and the insights and how you’re authentic and how you can be transparent and explain things so that it’s accessible, so we know what’s going on. 

I took a step back. I was like, wow, right. You know, I made a difference. And I think in part in terms of being a leader, we might forget about that because how we interact, like being authentic, being resilient, being comfortable in your own skin, that does have an impact. And that’s one of the things that I really like about OSHA. We have an impact from many different aspects of things, and we really want to make sure that every person in the country comes home safe and sound. And that’s a tall order. There’s a lot of stuff that’s going on out there, and we make a difference that way. We make a difference through our enforcement programs. We make a difference through our compliance assistance programs and our training programs and our alliances, and our other types of outreach and assistance programs. Being a leader also has a profound impact on people. And you’re always on and you guys remember, you’re always on.  

Craig Weaver: Yeah. When you were saying that I was thinking it opened your eyes to that, that very likely somebody, if not more than one person, is watching. What is the most rewarding part of your job? 

Bob Murphy: It is it is the people. You go home and you’ve gotten this done. But it’s those relationships you build, and that’s how you can move projects forward. That’s how you can really make a difference with a lot of things. And if people have the opportunity, if opportunities come up and you’re given a chance to go in a different direction or take some type of leadership role. You know if that’s what you want to do. Don’t listen to that other voice that usually is the first one that pops up on your shoulder that says you don’t want to do this. Just Take a chance at it because you don’t want to have those regrets in your life and people have something of value to offer in terms of contributing. So, being a leader in any activity can have a profound impact, not only on relationships, but also whatever type of work they’re doing. 

Craig Weaver: That’s great advice. Well, Bob, thank you so much for joining us, giving us your time and your words. Thank you so much for joining us today. 

Bob Murphy: I appreciate it. And thank you for having me. I look forward to connecting again when we can soon. 

Craig Weaver: Absolutely. Thanks for listening to Response Leadership brought to you by Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service. New episodes will be released on the fourth Tuesday of each month. Follow us on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen to podcasts or visit teex.org/podcast.