Shelby Pennington: Be the Solution


How many of us can identify that single defining moment that solidified our future path? Shelby Pennington, safety director at MSF Electric, Inc., based in Stafford, TX, can point directly to the day that led him to pursue a career in safety. It was 23 years ago.

Shelby teaches a telescopic forklift operator class at KBR in Afghanistan.

“I got bit by the bug when I was working offshore,” he recalls. “I helped the roustabouts laying out all of the rigging for the ‘Safety Man’ to do the monthly inspection. Some of these slings picked up 50,000 lb. items. The safety guy came out, looked at the 25’ long assortment of slings for almost 10 seconds…then said they were good and walked away. I was furious. These are mission critical lifts and if something goes wrong, a lot of people can get hurt. I decided to quit complaining and started working toward becoming a safety person. I wanted to be the solution. I am still furious about it. I let that fury and anger consume my soul and change me into the training monster that I have become.” 

This four-year portion of his career building rigs for the oil field took him places — Norway, Denmark, Singapore, Malaysia, Madagascar, Namibia, Curacao, and stateside in Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana. He says he always was chasing the next exciting assignment. 

“I did some weird crap just because I was bored,” Shelby says. “I’ve traveled the globe at least 10 times, and I’ve done some really cool stuff and I’ve done some risky stuff.” 

Shelby traces the beginning of his adventurous life to his service in the United States Marine Corps where he was a non-commissioned officer (NCO) aviation mechanic. There, too, his tendency to get bored always led him to take any class, any assignment, any opportunity that allowed him to discover new things. One assignment was seemingly out of character for the rough and tumble Shelby — he was a naval aviation technical publications librarian. 

“That one transferred well to the civilian world,” he concludes. 

Following the Marines, Shelby took a shot at real estate, but didn’t like the “art of the deal.” Next was what he calls his “law enforcement phase” as a prison guard in Houston and as an NCO assigned to Entry Identification Teams on the Texas / Mexico border with the Texas National Guard. Then it was the oil field mentioned above and a short stint as a labor foreman at a company in Afghanistan. All these experiences led him to his current field: construction. 


Safety Jobs Win 

“There was a massive change in my life when I got married,” Shelby says. 

He decided the adventurous — and risky — life he was leading was not where he needed to be. With that encounter with the ‘Safety Man’ always in his head and his ability to soak up knowledge, manage changes, and see the big picture, he headed into construction. Why construction and why electrical? Shelby’s answer fit his always-strive-to-be-better personality, “it’s what I was weakest at.” His first safety dedicated position was as a safety coordinator with Walker Engineering Inc., as they saw his abilities he says. His first big project required Shelby’s superpower at managing chaos. 

“Somehow, my past funneled into where I was meant to be,” Shelby acknowledges. “Whether you believe in evolution or creation or fate or whatever, everything kind of lined up. As a young dumb Marine doing risky stuff my jobs were aiming me toward a career in construction. For most people, I come off as aggressive or even overly aggressive. But for construction people, it is what speaks to them. It is authentic and often people in the field will tell me it’s just what they needed. I’ve had successes where everyone else guaranteed it couldn’t be done. You have to trust in what you are doing and then make it happen.” 

That chaotic project? The Texas A&M football stadium, a project which ran over two years working mainly on the off season. Shelby says the standard safety management plans did not fit this job as they were a joint venture working for a joint venture. There was no single safety manual familiar to all. He had to get creative. 

“Half of our 400 electricians on the job were temps from four or five different temp agencies,” he recalls. “Our workers were every race and culture and came from Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Arizona. We even had electricians from the mining industry who were used to different OSHA regulations! We had over 750,000-man hours and only two recordable incidents which were less than $2,000 each.” 

Shelby acknowledges that without his military training, a superior leadership team, and someone sitting on his shoulder and watching over him, this could have never happened. 


The Next Mission 

In 2019, he left Walker to become safety director at MSF Electric. As a self-described employee training geek, he leans on his certifications, study, experience, observance, and ability to seek out and understand people’s motives to best train MSF employees and instill and sustain a safety mindset. 

“Everything that comes out of my mouth must be authentic and accurate,” he begins. “I must explain to employees why doing this ‘whatever’ will tangibly improve things for them and the job. And, I have to be realistic.” 

MSF is a residential electrical contractor for single and multifamily homes in Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Colorado. Safety training for all locations falls under Shelby’s responsibility. He itemizes the following accomplishments since joining MSF: 

  • Moved from 50ish field audits in one year to over 400 field audits the next year. 
  • Established a fully stocked personal protection equipment (PPE) supply system with a six-month minimum surplus at the Houston warehouse. All multifamily jobsites have everything from labor law posters to eyewash and the replacement of these items is as quick as filling out a piece of paper and driving to the warehouse. 
  • Increased the number of sessions and digitized all training into a fully automatic training program that covers a range of 29 topics from heat injury prevention to confined space awareness. All field and project management employees complete this training every year. Each of the 29 topics has a 10-question test to demonstrate competency of the topic. These programs are available in English and Spanish. 
  • Launched an Internal Safety Committee that meets as needed, but quarterly at a minimum, to discuss trending issues, lay the groundwork for changes to policies and procedures to include in the MSF Safety Manual, test run NFPA70E training, review IEC Apprentice Training, and review serious incidents. The committee consists of safety, project management, vice presidents, master electricians, human resources manager, division managers, and “a few newer people to add flavor and teach the leaders of tomorrow how to lead.”  

“Nobody is allowed to remain silent, or they will not be invited back to the committee,” Shelby says. “The findings of the committee, if relevant, are presented to the owners for consideration. For smaller, less impactful things, the committee often puts decisions into action themselves via the appropriate department.”

A methodology Shelby recommends when electrical contractors are considering modifications to their safety practices is to first take a look at your last 10 injuries and ask, what was the most expensive?  

“I equate the monetary cost to how much pain and suffering our employee went through,” he says. “A $1,000 injury may have hurt our employee, but it most likely didn’t have earth shattering, family altering chronic effects throughout the rest of the employee’s life. A $100,000 injury probably seriously altered the employee and the employee’s family’s daily lives significantly. This equation is not full proof, but it is a good start.” 

  1. Take your most expensive injury and review it. Look at all the contributing factors. What went wrong? Review all the rules that apply to this injury. This will be the stage where you bring experts in, if you do not have internal experts. 
  2. If you want this to NEVER happen again, put steps, policies, and procedures in place that should prevent this. He says “should” because only time will tell if the “should” becomes a “will.” Some things will work. Some things will miss. This is life.
  3. The next step is communicating this change to all the necessary decision makers. If upper management is not behind this change, then you are just spinning your tires and nothing will happen. 
  4. Gather the necessary items. If you are implementing a new form, create the form and make it available to all end users. If you are implementing fall protection, buy the fall protection and make sure it is available to those that might fall.
  5. With all of management on board, change the field. Train each person in the new procedure. Make sure each person understands the fullness of the change. Also, make sure every employee has a SINGLE person to call if they have follow-up questions. 
  6. Perform spot checks looking for nonconformities to the new policy. When someone somewhere does something to go against the new policy, that becomes an investigation. Is the policy flawed? How can we rewrite the policy to capture what the field needs? Or, did someone go against the policy for some other reason? This is where upper management’s true “backing” will show itself. If the policy is trained, accurate, and not overly restrictive and still people are going against the policy, this is because of upper management’s lack of commitment or backing. 
  7. Take the next injury and repeat. Over and over again.

“Sun Tzu captures this mentality described in point number six above in the book, The Art of War,” Shelby elaborates. “Paraphrasing and twisting for our business use — if the orders are clear and are still disobeyed, it is the fault of their department leaders.” 


IEC Involvement 

Shelby notes that the MSF Houston home office has been a member in the IEC Texas Gulf Coast chapter for years. Today, he sits on its Safety Committee. With MSF’s multiple locations, he set out to get to know the chapters in its other areas and to encourage those locations to reap the benefits of IEC chapter membership. 

“In late 2023 and into 2024, I took it upon myself to visit every single chapter in the cities where we are located,” he reports. “Dallas, Ft. Worth, San Antonio, CenTex, Rocky Mountain, Atlanta, Charlotte — there are some insanely talented people working there. I encouraged our management to take advantage of these chapters and the services they offer.” 

Shelby is a member of the IEC National Safety Committee and will be speaking on training at the 2024 IEC Safety Summit, August 20-22, in Milwaukee, WI.

“I’ll be teaching a one-hour session on training,” he says. “If you want to see someone just chunking grenades in a room at a very fast pace to get people thinking, you’ll want to be at my session.” 


Safety, Safety, and More Safety 

With the blessing of MSF, Shelby has developed training videos available to anyone looking for realistic, how-to, effective videos on a number of safety topics. They are available on YouTube in English and Spanish. 

“The channel is called Safety Tavern, and currently there are more than 70 videos available,” he says. “Forklift, powered pallet jacks, fall protection, OSHA 10, and many more.” 

Shelby also plans to release a ‘how-to’ book on construction safety in the summer of 2025.  

“Not yet titled, the book will be hundreds of pages explaining the difference between fantasyland and what actually works,” he says. “Think of it like a safety war manual.”