We need every employee to play an active role in uncovering and addressing unsafe conditions in the work environment and unsafe behavior in their peers.

I want to drive that point home with a little story. This one doesn't take place on a factory floor or on a construction site. It takes place hundreds of years ago.

The Dragon Slayer

A long time ago, there was a kingdom under constant threat from a horde of dragons. The kingdom's castle was home to a valiant dragon slayer and, to assist him, the castle had a dragon lookout to keep watch and sound the alarm whenever he spotted a dragon.

One morning, the dragon slayer was woken by the sound of the lookout sounding the alarm and shouting "One dragon heading toward the castle!" Ever ready, he leapt from his bed and was rushing out of the castle gate on his trusty steed in a matter of minutes. The dragon was no match. With a few quick flashes of the sword, the dragon slayer cut off its head.

On his return to the castle, he was greeted by cheers. The people threw confetti, musicians played lively music – they even tapped some kegs and grilled a feast. Throughout the day, they shouted, "Hurrah for the dragon slayer!"

The next morning, our hero woke a little hungover from the previous day’s celebration. He hadn’t even finished flossing when he heard the dragon lookout’s alarm: “Two dragons heading toward the castle!” Our hungover hero grabbed his sword, jumped on his horse, and headed out to face the threatening dragons.

Once again, our hero was victorious. He dispatched the two dragons almost as easily as he had dealt with the one. Heading back to the castle, he was once again greeted by the cheers of the people. Confetti, music, feast, kegs – it was like the party from the day before had never stopped.

The festivities were in full swing, but our brave knight hadn't even made it through the salad bar before before he heard the cry from the lookout: “Three dragons heading toward the castle!”

As was becoming routine now, our hero mounted his horse and rushed into battle, bravely charging the three dragons. He got bit a few times, but won in the end (he is, after all, the hero of our story). This time, with his head throbbing and his empty stomach growling, the knight fought the dragons more out of frustration and anger than for the noble cause of protecting the kingdom.

Riding back toward the castle, the slayer thought to himself, “Why do I have to do all the fighting? Why can’t we have a few more slayers? Am I really the only one who can pick up a sword?”

Back at the castle, he tied up his horse and walked over to the festivities. They were already winding down. The grill was cold, the steaks were gone. The musicians were tucking away their lutes, the kegs were tapped dry.

The alarm sounded once again. “Four dragons heading toward the castle!” Without hesitation, our brave (but frustrated) knight drew his sword. Only this time, he didn't hop on his horse's saddle – he walked over to the lookout and cut off his head!

The Moral of the Story

So, what's the moral to this story? There are too many dragons for one slayer to handle. And when there are, someone's going to lose their head.

In many of the workplaces and jobsites I've visited, there was one dedicated person driving safety, usually the safety manager or safety officer. Like the dragon slayer in our story, this dedicated individual was often very frustrated and felt that the odds were greatly stacked against them.

In a large work environment of any type, hazards are like dragons: they'll keep surfacing and one slayer is not enough to handle them all. We need to train all workers in the basics of safety. If workers understand how to identify hazards and the possible risks, they can all play a role in ensuring a safe worksite.

In other words, we need to make everyone a dragon slayer.

Front-line workers will notice unsafe conditions and behaviors before management because they deal with them daily. It doesn't matter what the work environment is – restaurant, construction site, factory, retail store, farm, hospital – those who do the work know the issues. They see the dragons before anyone else does. They're already the dragon lookouts!

We want to identify the dragons while they're still pups (safety issues). And they must be dealt with (few dragons commit suicide).

Okay, One More Story

I recall visiting a safety manager and sitting on the desk in front of him was a stack of papers. I asked him what they were, and he told me they were forms that employees filled out and turned in whenever they found something unsafe.

I don’t know how many of these forms were on his desk, but it was a nice stack of identified dragons!

He saw the look of surprise on my face and said, “I know, right? What do they expect me to do?”

He felt overwhelmed and helpless. He was one person with no one directly reporting to him who could help. Everyone had their own problems, and safety issues were low on the list.

That stack of reported safety issues was like a whole clan of dragons swarming around the castle. It would take a lot more than just one slayer to handle them all.

Safety Is Communal

Safety must be everyone’s concern, not just the safety manager's. We are our brother’s and sister’s keepers. We are a community and protecting each other is an essential part of being a community (for related reading, see Face-to-Face Safety: The Right Way to Build a Safety Culture).

How’s your work community? Do you have only one dragon slayer and many dragon lookouts? You can't face those dragons alone, and if employees don’t understand the basics of hazards and controls, the dragons you do kill will come back to life.

It's time to make a change in your workplace. Every employee needs to be a dragon slayer.