Does your jobsite have a safety culture or paperwork culture?

Updated Jul 18, 2018

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In the 10-year period from 2003 to 2013, there were more construction workers killed on the job in the United States than American soldiers killed in Iraq: 10,957 construction workers died vs. 4,512 fatalities in Iraq.

Granted, there were fewer soldiers in Iraq than construction workers here. But still, lots of bad people were trying hard to kill our soldiers. And soldiering, even in peace time, is a dangerous profession.

So why is the military, with all its attendant dangers, still safer than construction?

It’s the culture. Safety in the military isn’t just something you do to fulfill a paperwork requirement. It’s baked into the process. It’s part of your being, it’s who you are.

From the first day of basic training, attention to detail is drilled into every trainee. That’s why they want your bed made drum-tight, why your boots had to be shined to a mirror-like gloss, why your brass had to be polished to perfection. Basic is just the warmup to mentally prepare you to master additional details that may just save your life.

Another big part of this culture is the intensity soldiers bring to their jobs. In Airborne school, you don’t pack your own parachute. Everybody packs somebody else’s parachute and then the chutes are placed in a pile and you pick out one at random. It gets everybody thinking about how dependent they are on one another. 

Before you climb aboard an Army helicopter, you’ll learn to strap, tape or tie down every single piece of gear you have so that even if you crash, nothing on your person or lashed to the inside of the helicopter will fly loose and injure somebody. They don’t even want people to carry loose change in their pockets.

So it gripes me to no end when I see some Chuck with a truck loaded with rakes, shovels and random equipment spilling out of the bed with nary a tie-down in sight. If nothing untoward happens, these badly loaded trucks may not have problems, but all it takes is one tire blowout, one hard swerve to avoid a dog or deer and these tools and materials can go flying into traffic endangering the lives of others. 

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On Army helicopters, the crew chief is responsible for the overall safety of the aircraft, and I never met a more intense and knowledgeable group of individuals than these crew chiefs. A crew chief eyeballs every person and every piece of equipment brought onto his helicopter. If something isn’t 100 percent, somebody is going to get an ass-chewing.

Do you have a crew chief-like guy in your company? Somebody who is trained to the max, who knows all the details and regulations? Who has the ability to attack and correct a problem instantaneously with a laser-like focus, and who has the brass to make it stick? What’s more, does your safety crew chief have the respect of the crews and can he train? Can he make everybody around him better? 

You can have all the tailgate talks and presentations you like, you can document everything OSHA asks you to document. But if you don’t have that crew chief, if you don’t trust the least experienced worker in your company to pack your chute – so to speak – you don’t have a safety culture, you have a paperwork culture.