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Succeeding with Safety - Football Style

By Bryan McWhorter
Published: November 19, 2021
Key Takeaways

Like the best coaches, great safety professionals don't focus on the numbers. Instead, they equip their teams for success.

Caption: Coach on the Sidelines Source: Carlos Pintau / iStock

Here's a fun fact: no football coach has ever had to convince their team to want to win a game.

All players want to win. It's in our nature. We're competitive and want to succeed in every activity we engage in.

That includes safety. You don't have to convince people to be safe. No one actually wants to get hurt. When unsafe work takes place, it's because the knowledge, resources, culture, and support needed to stay safe are missing.


Workers also deal with a dilemma when they feel like succeeding at work is more important than working safely. After all, our productivity is what we get paid for. To resolve that dilemma, we might take a few risks to keep the construction job on time and under budget. We might work on equipment with the guards off if it helps us hit our production goals.

You get the idea. Success and performance can overshadow safety.

To avoid this, you have to start thinking like a football coach.

Invest in Your Team

Successful coaches empower their teams to win games by focusing on their players. They invest in training and equipping athletes for success. They appreciate the individuals that make up their team, let them know they are valued, and notice their hard work and contributions.

This is how winning teams are created - on the field or at work. Athletes are the stars that win the game, and your employees are the stars that deliver for your customers.

When it comes to safety, the same approach works: invest in the individuals that make up your team. Increase their skill and knowledge regarding safety.

Employees know that managers and leaders invest time and money in what is important to them and the business. Efforts such as safety toolbox talks, training, and safety meetings let employees know safety is important and that they are important. It shows them you are taking active steps to protect your top asset: your people.

(Learn more in 6 Steps for Designing a Training Program That Strengthens Safety Culture)

Keeping Score

If you take the scoreboard off the football field, you no longer have a game. It's how the players and fans can keep track of how the game is going.


The numbers up on the scoreboard aren't that different from the ones we track for safety. They represent lagging indicators. Once those numbers are up on the board, it's too late to do anything to change them.

If you want to find the leading indicators, you'll have to look on the field. That's where you'll see who has the ball, what formation the teams are using, and so on. If you want to play strategically, those are the indicators you'll focus on.

There's a direct relation between leading and lagging indicators. What happens on the football field determines what numbers go on the scoreboard. Likewise, what happens in the work environment accounts for your safety mumbers, such as your TRI, lost time incident rates, and near misses.

(Learn more in Near Misses: What Are They and Why You Should Report Them)

Safety professionals need to know the numbers on the scoreboard, but it shouldn't be the focus of our attention. Obsessing over the numbers on the scoreboard won't influence the individual players as much as focusing on the players will influence those numbers.

What are safety leading indicators that drive your lagging indicators? All the activities that are within your control and drive safety. Here are just a few:

  • Safety behavior observations
  • Safety walks and inspections
  • Safety training
  • Toolbox talks
  • Safety committee activities, celebrations, and so on

All activities you engage in to drive safety are a leading indicator for safety. Just like performing a safety preflight check is an indicator the plane will stay in the sky, while skipping the preflight check is an indicator that the plane may crash.

Support Your Industrial Athletes

Today’s workers should view themselves as industrial athletes. If your job is physically demanding, you need to take care of yourself just like an athlete. Like athletes, workers need to stretch, hydrate, and get enough sleep.

Green Bay Coach Vince Lombardi had it right when he said that “Winning is not a sometime thing, it is an all the time thing. You don’t do things right once in a while…you do the right thing all the time.” It's a statement that also applies to success in performance and safety. Both require discipline.

Coach Lombardi understood the power of habits. Good habits make us, and bad habits break us. Performance helps us win at work and safety keeps us on the job and in the game. So if we want to be successful, we must be disciplined enough to do the right things regarding performance and safety.

Coaches don't have to convince athletes to want to win and we don't have to convince workers to not get hurt. Improving safety comes down to equipping and supporting our workers. That's how you improve your leading indicators.

Think like a safety coach. Invest in your poeple to help them become performance champions. Ensuring their safety will keep them winning season after season.


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Written by Bryan McWhorter | Lead Safety Advisor, Author, Writer, Speaker

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Bryan McWhorter is a safety professional with eight years of experience in driving and teaching safety. Bryan gained his knowledge and experience as the safety officer and Senior Trainer for Philips Lighting. Philips is a strong health and well-being company that promotes a safety first culture.

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