top of page

The Role of Employee Engagement in Safety

Tony Orlowski

B.S. & M.S. Engineering, MBA

Copyright © 2024

“Turning to the men around him, Dodge shouted, ‘Up this way!’ but the men ignored him. Dodge later stated that someone responded, ‘To hell with that, I’m getting out of here.’ The team raced past Dodge up the slope toward the ridge. Four men reached the crest, but only two, Bob Sallee and Walter Rumsey, managed to escape through a crevice in the rock. Wagner Dodge survived by lying in the center of his escape fire. The rest of the team perished in the blaze.”

This passage, taken from Chapter 6 on Leadership in Safety Beyond the Numbers, describes a real-life disaster. A disaster in which more than a dozen forest service firefighters (smoke jumpers) lost their lives. The tragedy is a stark reminder that it is impossible for any leader or organization, no matter how competent and well-meaning, to be responsible for keeping their people safe. Far from being admirable or heroic, such a belief is in fact the opposite – misleading and patronizing. And sometimes it is fatal! Let’s take a closer look at this often-misunderstood but critical aspect of safety.

Wagner Dodge was the most experienced smoke jumper of his day. He was smart, decisive and fearless, and he improvised on the spot a brilliant technique that later became standard firefighting practice. His leadership that day also led 13 people to their deaths. But the fatal flaw in Dodge’s plan did not lie in his expertise or his strategy. It was instead seated in his approach and failure to connect with his team. To understand his failure, we must go back to the very start of the mission. This group had never before jumped together. At the time they boarded the aircraft, they didn’t know each other, and more importantly, they didn’t know Dodge. For his part, Dodge didn’t even know all their names, and he used the flight time to quietly refine his plan of attack for fighting the fire. Ironically, this calm, calculated start sealed the fate of all but two of his men.

It is a fallacy (and a dangerous one) to think, that as a leader, I can, by my own skill and competence, “Keep my people safe.” This is not to say that a leader’s skill and competence is unimportant. It is important. But the leader’s competence matters very little until the leader establishes that they can be trusted and therefore will act in the team’s best interest. A competent boss that I do not know, and who does not care to know me, is scary. I’d prefer that such a leader be incompetent! At least then, they would be less able to harm me. Competence only matters when the team trusts the leader, and that only happens when the leader knows the team, and the team knows their leader. It is human connection which unleashes the value of competence.

In the average compliance-based operation, the primary safety goal is to make sure injury rates are below the industry average and no hazards exist in violation of OSHA rules. The company is responsible to OSHA – not to the employees – for safe outcomes. Employees are not expected to care as much about injury rates as the company does, nor to be experts in the Code of Federal Regulations Part 1910 (Occupational Safety and Health Standards). How could they be? As a result, they typically play no more a role in the plan to keep them safe than Wagner Dodge’s crew played in theirs.

As a result, safety rules are almost always written by a plant safety team that does have expertise in the standards – and sometimes by the corporate safety team that is even less knowledgeable about the plant environment. Operational managers have little input, much less the employees who are close to the work. The assumption is if people will just follow the rules (follow when we say, “Up this way”) then no one will be hurt. Unfortunately, people don’t always follow the rules, and when there is an injury, it’s easy to point to at least one infraction that caused the result. In this type of safety system, people are seen as liabilities, since human fallibility is almost always a factor and root cause of injury. Such a system can only be “improved” by continually adding more rules and finding new ways of taking decision-making out of the hands of the employees. The results of these efforts eventually and predictably, hit a glass ceiling. What is needed is not more rules, but more meaningful engagement and human interaction. A safety culture where employees are taught safe work practices, by a trusted and respected leader; and then expected to rely on their own good judgement and competence.

In Safety Beyond the Numbers, we discuss a concept called the Courage/Consideration Continuum for building effective teams. An illustration of this continuum is shown on the right.

Courage, on the vertical axis, represents the leader’s ability to assert the competence, expertise and value they bring to the team. Consideration, on the horizontal axis, is the willingness to allow the team to assert the value of their experience and competence. Both are essential. By the way, Wagner Dodge would not “graph-out” very well. He was high on courage and very low on the consideration.

When courage is high and consideration low, it results in a team dynamic that is also low in trust and performance. The leader believes they can carry the team by sheer will and ability, but that is never true. It is an incorrect story the leader has told themselves. The team will not follow a leader they do not know and do not trust, and who does not trust them. They will covertly resist and withhold their best efforts, including their discretionary energy (effort which is given freely and that cannot be compelled).

Conversely, a strong leader who builds a strong team creates a mutually beneficial relationship. The team is valued and given the room and encouragement to make the good decisions that they and only they can make. And far from undermining the leader’s influence and authority, it increases the likelihood the leaders’ directions will be followed. In the words of Major Dick Winters of Band of Brothers fame (and a direct contrast to Dodge):

“The first example you must set, is that you must spend time with the men… You have to work with the men. And by working with the men they get to know you. And if you do a good job, that’s how you say, ‘Follow me.’”

1 view0 comments


bottom of page