The Tennessee Safety & Health Conference is June 10-12 in Nashville

The Tennessee Safety & Health Conference is June 10-12 at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center in Nashville. (Mike Rivera / Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development)

Safety and Health Conference Returns With Best Practices, Emerging Trends, and Fall Survivor's Cautionary Tale

By Karen Grigsby
Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development

Russ Youngstrom grabbed a Snickers and a cup of coffee and climbed a flight of stairs to attend a fall protection safety meeting at his worksite.

He propped his feet up on the chair in front of him and blew off the “boring” presentation.

Ninety minutes later, Youngstrom unhooked his safety harness while power-washing a building and fell 30 feet, severing his spinal cord.

Youngstrom and his wife, Laurel, will share their story about that fateful day during this year’s Tennessee Safety & Health Conference (TSHC).

The conference is June 10-12 at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center in Nashville and is co-sponsored by the Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration (TOSHA).

In its 47th year, TSHC will feature general and breakout sessions on safety topics applicable to both general industry (manufacturing, health care, service industry, etc.) and construction. The talks will cover more than just OSHA and TOSHA standards; experts also will share best practices and emerging trends. In addition, there also will be an exhibit hall with dozens of vendors offering the latest safety services and equipment.

Sessions at the Tennessee Safety & Health Conference

Education is key to preventing workplace accidents. TSHC offers several one- to two-hour classes aimed at increasing awareness and empowering workers to improve safety.

Sessions were chosen to cover a wide array of common workplace hazards, as well as advances in technology. This year there also is a dedicated training track of sessions for construction hazards and standards.

Among the topics that will be presented:

  • Respiratory protection
  • OSHA recordkeeping
  • Machine guarding
  • Safety and artificial intelligence
  • Construction safety
  • Electrical safety
  • Lockout/Tagout
  • Heat-related illnesses
  • Hearing conservation and noise controls
  • Trenching and excavation

Although some sessions target safety leaders and managers, the conference provides valuable information for all workers.

“Employers should consider not just sending dedicated (environmental health and safety) staff but other management staff and front-line workers,” said Garrett Rea, Assistant Administrator for TOSHA. “The information gleaned at the conference will hopefully influence the delegates to make changes or improvements at their home workplaces, in theory preventing Tennessee workers from being injured or killed in their workplace.”

Wendy Fisher, the Assistant Commissioner for TOSHA, has conducted over 50 seminars on safety during her 32 years with the agency. She’s spoken on electrical safety, master logger safety, and fall protection.

At this year’s TSHC, Fisher will give a presentation detailing each workplace fatality investigated by TOSHA in 2023. She will discuss ways to prevent deaths and other workplace hazards.

Bryan Lane is another regular presenter at TSHC. He is the OSHA Consultant for the University of Tennessee Center for Industrial Services, where he has worked for 26 years. In that role, he travels the state offering safety and health assistance to employers and employees. This year at TSHC, he’ll lead the 10-hour General Industry Course.

Presented over two days, the class teaches entry-level workers about their safety and health rights and how to identify and correct common workplace hazards.

“Knowing that you have rights and how to identify hazards can make the difference between getting injured or not,” Lane said.

Participants who complete the course will receive an OSHA 10-Hour General Industry card, a valuable credential.

Conference attendees also can earn continuing education units.

Ken Alexandrow speaks about bomb threat response

Ken Alexandrow, founder of AGAPE Tactical, speaks at a previous Tennessee Safety & Health Conference. (Mike Rivera / Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development)

The Consequences of a Careless Choice

In addition to courses and sessions, TSHC will include powerful talks from Chad Hymas, a bestselling author and influencer, and featured speakers Russ and Laurel Youngstrom.

The Youngstroms will recount that day in 1995 when a reckless decision forever changed their lives.

While power-washing at a paper mill in Everett, Washington, Russ Youngstrom climbed on top of a handrail and unhooked his safety harness to get better leverage. Scaffolding struck him in the chest, and he fell 30 feet, landing headfirst. As he fell, his hard hat and safety glasses flew off. Youngstrom severed his spinal cord and broke his back in three places. He now uses a wheelchair.

The company that Youngstrom worked for prioritized trainings and had a strong safety record. The day of the accident, a supervisor was on-site watching Youngstrom and his co-worker through binoculars to make sure they were following safety protocols. When the safety professional drove off, Youngstrom unhooked his harness, thinking an accident would never happen to him.   

“People asked me if my fall protection failed. I’m the one that failed,” Youngstrom said in a phone call from his Washington home. “I just pushed the odds. … And I was also arrogant and stupid.”

Laurel and Russ Youngstrom

Four years after the accident, Youngstrom was invited to speak at a safety brunch. He initially said yes but backed out because he was “too embarrassed.”

When he eventually told his story, an audience member approached Youngstrom and asked if he would speak to his work team. That led to more speaking engagements. Youngstrom started bringing his wife, Laurel, to talk about how the accident has affected every part of her life as well. “She got more questions than I did, even though she’s prettier,” he said with a laugh.

The couple started Youngstrom Safety about five years after the accident. They travel around the country, speaking at trainings, safety conferences and job sites. (A few years ago, they came to Nashville to give a presentation for Mortenson when it was building the soccer stadium.)

Their motto: Moving safety from the head to the heart. They want workers to think about their loved ones and their hopes and dreams — everything they could lose by being careless.  

Laurel Youngstrom advises managers to get to know their teams.

“Don’t make safety a bunch of rules and regulations. Make it more of a relationship,” she said. “Find out what it is they’re looking forward to. What’s on their bucket list? What do they not want to miss out on?”

The Youngstroms have reinforced that message during the nearly 500 virtual and in-person talks they’ve given during the past 23 years. At the end of their presentations, they pass out yellow silicone bracelets and Sharpie pens and encourage audience members to write on the bracelets the things that mean the most to them. (One woman wrote down the name of her cat.)

“That reminds them why they’re safe and who they want to be safe for,” Laurel Youngstrom said.

TOSHA Consultative Services

While TOSHA is responsible for enforcing safety standards and penalizing employers who don’t follow them, the agency also works to educate businesses so that rules aren’t broken in the first place.

TOSHA’s Consultative Services unit works primarily with smaller employers looking to improve their workplace safety and health. The services are voluntary and confidential, with no direct out-of-pocket costs to the employer.

TOSHA consultants work with businesses to identify hazards, implement and improve programs, and ultimately reduce injuries and illnesses. Consultative Services is separate from TOSHA’s regulatory arm; it does not issue citations, fines, or penalties. However, it does require employers to make a “good faith effort” to correct identified hazards, Rea said.

For more information about Consultative Services, call 800-325-9901 or click here.

TOSHA Assistant Commissioner Wendy Fisher speaks into microphone

Wendy Fisher has served with TOSHA for 32 years, including the last four as Assistant Commissioner. She is retiring June 28. (Mike Rivera / Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development)

The Future of TOSHA

This month’s Tennessee Safety & Health Conference will be the last for Fisher. After 32 years at TOSHA (including the last four as Assistant Commissioner), she is retiring June 28. Larry Hunt, who has worked with TOSHA for 26 years, has been named the new Assistant Commissioner.

During her tenure, Fisher was instrumental in improving the documentation of safety compliance inspection reports. She also helped streamline the process for addressing complaints by letter (CBLs) and rapid referral investigations (RRIs). (TOSHA typically averages 400 complaints and/or referrals a month.)

Fisher also navigated TOSHA through the COVID-19 pandemic when the division reached an average of 1,000 complaints per month for nearly two years. During that time, Fisher and her staff developed an Emergency Temporary Standard for the health care industry to address COVID-related issues in the workplace.

“That was a time frame during which so many new things were thrown at us and we had to pivot almost every day,” she said.

Given the importance of its work, Fisher said she’d like to see TOSHA grow its staff across the state.

“Our employees have the responsibility to learn and know a multitude of standards for many industries — not to mention the charge of investigating every workplace fatality and most amputations/hospitalizations,” she said. “These types of inspections can take a toll on one’s mind/body; therefore, spreading the work over more folks would be beneficial.”

Lane agrees that TOSHA’s work is difficult but vital.

“Safety can be a lonely business,” he said. “Most people do not like safety, safety people, safety training, or safety rules (until they get hurt!). … TOSHA people are good people who want to help you.”

Tennessee Safety & Health Conference

Who: A joint venture between the Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration (TOSHA), the American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP), and the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce & Industry (TCCI)

What: The conference will feature general and breakout sessions on safety topics applicable to both general industry and construction. TSHC also will include featured speakers and an exhibit hall with the latest safety equipment.

Where: The Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center, 2800 Opryland Drive, Nashville

When: June 10-12

Details: To learn more, visit

FOCUS is a publication of the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

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