Why Safety Must Come First


Complacency. Cut corners. Compromised safety.

These are surprisingly common attitudes in the Dirt World. They start the moment your daily routine becomes routine—and they can set off a devastating chain of events that leads to accidents, injuries, and even crew member deaths.

Nobody wants that. So leaders in the Dirt World must:

  • better communicate and spread awareness of safety risks
  • prevent a complacent company culture from making poor safety outcomes
  • improve safety training programs—and ultimately get real, measurable results

To do help you do that, former Navy SEAL and leadership expert Jocko Willink walks you through why safety must come first and how you can improve safety in your company.

Recognize the "coiled snake" of safety risks

Jocko thinks of onsite safety issues as lurking, always-present-yet-often-unseen risks. His favorite analogy? A coiled snake.

"The dangers are often hiding," he points out, "because this is something that you do every day, right? So it's easy to become complacent. The thinking becomes, I know Fred never follows those safety protocols, and he seems to be just fine. Or I've never seen that piece of equipment fail, so why would I adopt this safety protocol now?"

Yet it's exactly this type of thinking that leads people to cut corners. "And when we start to cut corners or get complacent, that's when people get hurt or killed," Jocko warns.

And he isn't exaggerating. Take a look at these safety statistics:

  • In 2021, there were 986 American construction workers who died on the job.1 The year before that, construction and extraction accounted for nearly half of all on-the-job fatalities across industries.2
  • The number of injuries and illnesses that require time away from work is 71% higher in construction than across all industries on average—but chances are that number is actually a lot higher, since more than a quarter of construction workers admit to not reporting work-related injuries.3,4 
  • From a business standpoint, non-fatal workplace injuries cost U.S. companies more than $1 billion per week in 2021.5 With construction and extraction workers getting injured the most often, that means an unusually large proportion of these financial losses are impacting Dirt World businesses.

Even a near miss can be a serious issue. These incidents are signs of bigger problems that you can correct if you give your crew members a way to report them.6 But if there's no reporting system? Then your workers have no way of telling you what could improve safety on the jobsite, and they remain at high risk for those near misses to turn into all-out accidents.

Yet if you ask many leaders in the Dirt World what's causing these safety incidents, most of them won't be able to tell you. Hence Jocko's metaphor: Safety risks are like a coiled snake. "You don't see it, and all of a sudden it bites you," he says.

Dial in on three safety focus areas

How can leaders in the Dirt World better account for—and better yet disrupt—disturbing stats like these? Jocko lays out three strategies.

1. Don't let the routine become routine

Wait, what? Jocko explains, "We have to remind ourselves every day that we don't want to get complacent, because we don't want the routine to become routine." In other words, it's easy to get stuck in the ho-hum rut of thinking, Eh, we do this every day. Nothing went wrong yesterday, so nothing will go wrong today either.

If you've worked in construction for longer than two days, you know that's not true. Each day is different, and each day brings its own risks.

While safety should be top of mind for managers, supervisors, and foremen, the same needs to be true of everyone else on the team as well. And, Jocko emphasizes, that means leaders must push safety to the forefront of everyone's mind. You want everybody on the jobsite—from your most experienced operator to your newest laborer—to keep an eagle-eye out for safety risks and then do something about it when they see them. 

2. Beware of gundecking

Complacency is one risk, but there's another one to watch out for. Jocko sees a worrisome link between common Dirt World safety practices (or lack thereof) and a shady military practice known as "gundecking."

Gundecking is when somebody generates an official report to make it look like they've met certain requirements—but they haven't actually carried out the required procedures. In other words, they're just checking the boxes.

Sometimes, someone purposely checks a box that they know shouldn't be checked because it's a safety issue. That's a dangerous person to have in your company; they're risking people's lives to speed things up. Other times, somebody checks a box that they think should be checked, but they don't validate that what's on paper matches what's happening on the ground.

Either way, it's a surefire recipe for escalating safety risks. So always, always make sure you confirm that everything that's happening on paper is happening in the field. If you catch somebody gundecking, make sure they understand what it is and why it's a problem. And if you catch them again, you may need to take more drastic action.

3. Make training more hands-on and realistic

Jocko believes the Dirt World could learn a thing or two about safety training from the military. "In the military when we're out training, safety is the number-one priority," he says.

The military also focuses on realistic training. They create a controlled environment that simulates real situations service personnel may face. But that's not always how safety training plays out in the Dirt World.

Instead of hands-on exercises, you'll often see safety training relegated to classrooms, manuals, and the like. And when workers do get field training, it's more focused on the basics of how to do the job . . . which isn't the same as how to do the job safely.

Essnetially, safety isn't taught through application—and that's a mistake, in Jocko's view. He believes the only way to do a job as safely as possible is to figure out more realistic ways to train.


As a leader in the Dirt World, you can't afford to let the risks of injuries (or even near misses) escalate at your worksite—and not just for business reasons. As Jocko plainly puts it, "What are we if we don't take care of our people?"

To start better protecting your people and seeing improved safety outcomes, take Jocko's three safety focus points to heart:

  • Avoid complacency—because safety is compromised the moment your routine become routine.
  • Be alert to potential gundecking and eliminate it wherever you see it.
  • Implement hands-on, realistic training to augment classroom or paper-based training programs.

Together, these three steps can help you put safety first so you can protect your people and grow a better business.

Join the thousands of Dirt pros who get our top workforce development tips.