Leadership Personified: Frank E. Bird, Jr.

Leadership Personified: Frank E. Bird, Jr. (1921 – 2007) – A sustainability leader before the word was even invented.

The story of Frank E. Bird, Jr. can be solidly placed in the sustainability family tree. Genealogically speaking, Frank’s branch originated along the safety root. (Although I used most of this for our CISL e-Leadership module, I also want to get this out there to a broader audience… ENJOY!)


Frank E. Bird, Jr. was born in New Jersey, America, in 1921. He graduated from Albright College in Pennsylvania with a Bachelor’s Degree in history and science. During World War II, Frank enlisted in the US Navy, and served from 1942 to 1946 as a medic. Frank’s character and early leadership qualities were demonstrated by one of the stories from his time at sea. Frank was involved in the battle for Iwo Jima in 1945, one of the fiercest battles of WW II. He was aboard a vessel taking Marines to Iwo Jima on pontoon boats when a young Marine got his leg caught between two pontoons. Frank went overboard and, finding that the Marine’s leg could not be extricated, he amputated the crushed leg and fashioned a temporary tourniquet. Under fire, he carried the Marine to shore and saved his life.

After the war, Frank wanted to train as a doctor but had to support his family, so in 1951 he went to work at Lukens Steel in Pennsylvania. During this time, Lukens was the largest independent steel company in America, with nearly 5,000 employees. Starting as an operator working the open-hearth furnaces to produce steel from iron ore, he soon was asked to become a safety trainee, rapidly rising to become Lukens’ Director of Safety and Security.

While at Lukens, he implemented leading-edge operational safety practices / activities for all levels of management and regular employees / operators. He led research studies and implemented new concepts for safety, security, and thus, he is the person most associated with the term ‘loss control’ when applied to a health, safety, and environmental management context. His practical background and innovative mind enabled him to integrate and lead the operational concerns and practices of productivity, quality, and costs into traditional safety techniques. Frank also reduced the complexity of the Luken’s safety programs by focusing greater attention on the higher-risk aspects of the work. At Lukens, Frank headed a 7-year research study of the causation of 90,000 incidents.

In July, 1968, Frank became Director of Engineering Services for the Insurance Company of North America where he headed a research study into 1.75m industrial accidents. The study and its data, published in 1969, resulted in the famous Bird Pyramid / Accident Ratio Study showing that for every one claim of a serious or major accident, there were claims for 10 minor injuries, claims for 30 property damage accidents, and with a sophisticated interviewing technique, ‘Incident Recall,’ developed by Frank himself, there were 600 near-misses / no-loss events sharing the same / similar chains of causation.

In 1970, Frank established the International Safety Academy where he selected and developed a staff of safety professionals to ‘spread the word.’ In 1974, Frank founded the International Loss Control Institute (ILCI), initially associated with Georgia State University’s School of Insurance and Risk Management, eventually taking it private, and built up a business with more than 200 safety professionals helping companies implement safety programs globally. In 1991, Frank sold his business to DNV (now DNV GL) in order that his work could carry on and reach a still wider audience.

As such, Frank E. Bird, Jr. was a true pioneer in the safety profession and his work has made a huge contribution to industrial safety globally. The lives saved, the injuries prevented, the property and asset damage avoided, and the environmental incidents not occurring around the world due to his work are immeasurable. When talking ‘sustainability,’ these core issues go right to the heart of the matter – people (social / family / community aspects) and of course, environmental. This being said, none of this could have evolved as it did without Frank’s considerable leadership skills, sales / marketing skills, large doses of charisma, generosity, and love of his fellow man.

Frank E. Bird, Jr. has always been an inspirational figure to those that have known him, to me personally, for I was given my initial training by him for over three months when initially hired by DNV. It was learning, thinking, discussing, and reading about Frank Bird’s contributions to the field – the 1969 Accident Ration Study, his expansion and improvements to Heinrich’s Loss Causation Model, his associating – for the first time ever – the notion that property damage as not only being a maintenance problem, but also a safety problem, that inspired me to undertake and stick with my career in HSE management / HSE management systems. His knowledge, experience, and profound understanding that losses / accidents don’t just happen but are caused by inadequate management systems, is still a revolutionary insight and has as much power to help organizations today as it did when he developed it over forty years ago. Frank frequently voiced that companies should not do things the ‘safe way,’ but the ‘right way’ (which of course includes the ‘safe way’!) and his concept of operational efficiency through minimizing losses of all types (human, environmental, process shutdowns, quality, security, and financial) was ahead of its time – and all are still in the forefront, or at least part of, the sustainability agenda as we know it today. Not to mention, this is now conventional wisdom among sustainability leader companies.

Frank also believed that leaders are readers. He had a thirst for new knowledge and led innovative research activities to expand the boundaries of safety management knowledge. Related to this, Frank developed the first edition of the International Safety Rating System (ISRS) in 1978 which became known to many as the ‘Safety Bible.’ ISRS has been the basis of many thousands of safety management systems worldwide for over five decades. I have been involved since the 5th edition, and now work with the 7th and 8th editions of ISRS, and am helping to develop the 9th edition, which also formed the basis of my AP, SAP, and is figuring substantially in my CISL dissertation. Gosh, do I feel the weight of responsibility to live up to Frank’s high standards!

In many ways, Frank was larger than life. He was a big man and a big thinker, yet practical and creative. His big heart made him a generous teacher and inspiring mentor. Frank gave more than he took. He sold by giving. His uplifting spirit enabled him to help others see the positive, their potential, their possibilities. One of Frank’s regular themes to leaders was the importance of ‘commitment’ and he once commented: ‘Commitment has been described as the stuff that character is made of. It is the power to change the face of things. It is the daily triumph of integrity over skepticism.’ Frank’s legacy demonstrates his absolute personal commitment to improving the safety and lives of others and is a continuing inspiration, inspiration that I continually look to, but am trying to apply it more widely to all sustainability aspects.

I can add that in relation to my sustainability journey, inspired by Frank in many ways, and related to some of the blogs I have posted over these past months, we are now (finally) approaching the finish line for the release of our / DNV GL’s International Sustainability Rating System (ISRS) – 9th edition!

I am happy to say that my efforts have paid off because we are going to have an expanded ‘Social Responsibility’ aspect (to be named as such) incorporating much of the research I did in my AP, SAP, and Dissertation. Because of this, we will be able to audit / assess, rate, and benchmark an organization’s community development management system and the programs they implement for surrounding communities. So, having felt a bit frustrated with our time management in this multi-DNV GL office / team project, it is finally coming to fruition. A draft protocol will be released in May, with piloting / testing it with some trial assessments at key customer sites shortly thereafter, leading to its release as the ‘ISRS9’ protocol in September of this year. Fingers crossed!!


One thought on “Leadership Personified: Frank E. Bird, Jr.

  1. Hello Eric,

    Always a very thoughtful reading. I particularly like this post as I’m a big fan of reading people’s biography or simply just their story of life. Frank E. Bird, Jr. indeed sounds like a very inspirational leader and a role model. From World War II to a thought leader in safety practice. I personally believe that we learn through everything in our everyday’s life and reading through a snapshot of Frank’s life I could imagine the richness of experiences he has got through his life. It must be a privilege to be trained by him as I’m sure there must be a million things we could learn from him.

    Do you think your life would have been different if you never met him or if you were never trained by him? Do you think your journey in DNV has been, in any degree, influenced by him? Do you hole on to any principles that were derived by his philosophy or thoughts? Life is a puzzle and one different turn could lead to a complete different outcome of where we are now. I genuinely and personally believe that.

    I’m very delighted and happy for you to hear that all your hard work in Analysis Paper, Strategic Action Plan and (soon to be completed) Dissertation have been practically used and have become useful in your organisation. At the end, like Theo said, this is a journey and we learn as we go. I’d really like to hear more (even when the blogging is no longer a compulsory task for us) how the roll out of your protocol is ☺



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