Why Safety Must Come First

Complacency. Cut corners. Compromised safety procedures and controls. It's a surprisingly common chain of events in the dirt world. It starts the moment your daily routine becomes routine — and it culminates in devastating consequences.

Clearly, then, leaders in the dirt world have an urgent mandate to:

  • better communicate and spread awareness around safety risks
  • prevent organizational culture or complacency from factoring into safety outcomes
  • improve training programs — and ultimately deliver measurable results

Above all, here's why safety must come first.

Recognize the "coiled snake" of safety risks.

Willink thinks of onsite safety as a kind of lurking, always-present-yet-often-unseen risk. His favorite analogy? A coiled snake.

"The dangers are often hiding," he pointed 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, Willink warns, 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."

And he isn't being hyperbolic in light of the latest safety stats:

Yet if you ask onsite leaders in the dirt world what's behind these incidents, they won't be able to tell you. Hence the aptness of Willink's analogy: Safety is "a coiled snake. You don't see it, and all of a sudden it bites you."

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? Willink laid out three strategies.

1. Don't let the routine become routine.

"We have to remind ourselves every day that we don't want to get complacent," Willink explained, "because we don't want the routine to become routine." And, he emphasized, that means pushing safety to "the forefront of everyone's mind."

So while safety should be top of mind for managers, supervisors and front-line leaders in the dirt world, naturally, the same needs to be true of everyone else on the team as well.

2. Be wary of "gundecking."

The risk of complacency aside, Willink sees a worrisome link between common safety practices in the dirt world today and a shady military practice known as "gundecking": generating an official report in order to appear to have met the requirements, without actually having carried out the required procedures.

Just "checking the boxes," in other words — without validating that what's on paper reflects what's happening on the ground — is a surefire recipe for escalating safety risks.

3. Make training more hands-on and realistic.

Willink 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 said, adding, "Do we want to do realistic training? Yes." But that's not always how safety training plays out in the dirt world. Instead of hands-on exercises, for example, you'll often see training relegated to classrooms, safety manuals and the like. But it isn't taught through application — and that's a mistake, in Willink's view.

Correcting that by implementing more realistic training is the only way "to do our job as safely as we possibly can," Willink said.


As a leader in the dirt world, you can't afford to let the risks of onsite injury (or even near misses) escalate at your worksite for all of the reasons articulated above — and then some. Indeed, Willink put the matter plainly: "What are we if we don't take care of our people?"

To start pushing in that direction, better protect your people and see improved safety outcomes to boot, take to heart Willink's three watchouts:

  • Avoid complacency — 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 — or at least use it to augment classroom or paper-based training programs.

Given the magnitude of business challenges that come with safety incidents, taking action on these three areas should be priorities for forward-thinking leaders in the dirt world today. Taken together, they also serve as a useful reminder that safety, even if it's an ongoing journey, always come first.