9 Safety Axioms You Need to Know

Safety works with just the nuts and bolts, but not as well as it will if you apply these nine axioms.

Too often we focus so much on the nuts and bolts of safety (e.g., grounding procedures, Ohm’s law, work methods for a pole-top rescue) that we lose sight of the big picture. There’s no doubt the nuts and bolts are important, but they lose value if we don’t understand and apply the following nine safety axioms.

1. Safety must be led.
There is a video clip of Mike Rowe interviewing a crab boat captain from the TV show “Deadliest Catch.” During the interview, the captain said, “My job is to get you home rich. If you want to stay safe, that’s on you.” I won’t take the time to debate or explain that statement, but I will say this: In the absence of safety leadership, people will get seriously injured or killed. As Paul Thomas from JEA, a community-owned utility in Jacksonville, Florida, reminds me monthly, safety is both an art and a science. Leadership and culture are the art of safety.

2. Culture drives behavior.
This may be the most important axiom because if you get the culture right, everything else takes care of itself. Think safety glasses while operating a chainsaw at home. Desired behavior happens not because of rules and the threat of consequences – it happens because of culture. Frank Brinkley, a consultant with Focus3, does an excellent job of explaining how culture drives behavior and that it is what leads when no one is watching. Culture is the basis of our decisions, and good culture fosters good decisions.

3. People are not how we wish they were.
We wish people were perfect and like us. They are neither and we must acknowledge that to stay safe. We can’t assume people think like we do or have risk tolerance similar to ours. Nor can we assume that if we have perfect programs with perfect training, people will perform perfectly. We can be assured people will make errors, and they must be protected from negative consequences of those errors.

4. Replace common sense with common knowledge.
A supervisor made this statement during an incident investigation: “I guess his daddy didn’t teach him how to use a knife.” This is an example of the assumption that common sense exists – and it is dangerous thinking. We need to replace the assumption with effective training that incorporates knowledge and skill verification. In other words, replace common sense with common knowledge. Thank you to those who enlightened me on this subject during a recent Frontline Fundamentals webinar.

5. Measure what you want.
Imagine you’re passing a building and you see this sign on it: “This facility has worked 1 million man-hours without a lost time injury.” What does that tell you? Or, what if an underground crew finished a cable installation job a week ahead of schedule? Do they deserve praise and recognition? What about your almighty and all-telling incident rates? How far above or below the industry average are they?

Be careful about basing decisions or consequences on numbers or results alone. Personally, I love how human performance is defined as behavior plus results. The results matter, but behavior is what we can change and control, so the two need to be considered in tandem. Too often, and especially with safety, we go by results alone. They are not the entire equation. As the CEO of a large contractor once said, “We don’t manage the business by the numbers, but the numbers tell us how we are managing the business.”

6. Know the power of why and what.
I often say that you need a few fundamental skills to be a good safety professional. Communication and people skills are at the top of the list followed by understanding how to identify and control hazards. And you need to be great at using one particular word – “why.” Why is behavior occurring? Why did this incident happen?

“Why” is extremely powerful, but I also want to give a shout out to Consumers Energy for their approach. With a deep understanding of human performance, they shifted their questioning from “why?” – which potentially makes people feel defensive – to “what happened?” in incident analyses. Steven Sienko from Consumers summed it up brilliantly by saying, “Leading with ‘what happened?’ instead of ‘why did you do that?’ is definitely leading us away from the blame-the-worker culture and is helping us take a look at and repair the systematic issue behind the incident.” That’s beautiful. Thank you for sharing.

7. Engage in safety by design and defense in depth.
Safety by design and defense in depth using the hierarchy of controls as a decision-making tool is the ultimate science of safety. To simplify things, think of hazards as energy (Jordan Hollingsworth from Safety Management Group did a great job explaining the energy wheel at a recent iP Utility Safety Conference & Expo). We eliminate the energy if possible, and if not, we eliminate the exposure to the energy. Only after doing everything possible to eliminate the hazard or risk do we reduce the energy through substitution or engineered controls, including safety devices. After that, we use administrative controls and warning devices, with personal protective equipment as the last line of defense.

8. Never need protective equipment, especially PPE.
An insightful participant in a recent Frontline class who works for the Utilities Commission in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, said this: “It should be everyone’s goal to never use their PPE for their entire career.” Let me qualify that by stating you should always wear your PPE, but you should never need it. Think about fall protection, for example. Wear it, but never cut out or fall. Wear your hard hat for sure, but it’s better not to stand underneath anything that could strike you. Flame-resistant clothing is a must, but I sincerely hope you never need it because if you do, that means you are in an arc flash. The same applies for coverup, machine guards, backup sensors, and any other protective equipment or safety device. Work in a way that you never need protection, but always have it just in case, keeping in mind the first principle of human performance – that people are fallible and even the best make mistakes.

9. Make everything plural.
I learned this tip from Mario Fernandez at Jordan High Voltage. You can pluralize almost any word in English by adding an “s” to its end, and in this case, “s” means “share.” Consider the STAR (stop, think, act, review) self-checking tool from human performance. It’s a fantastic tool that is simple to learn, easy to implement and highly effective. And we can make it even better by adding an “s” and turning it into STARS – stop, think, act, review, share. Apply the same logic to a near-miss report or an incident review and make them near-miss reports or incident reviews that are shared.


Safety works with just the nuts and bolts, but not as well as it will if you apply these nine axioms. Be sure to join me for a virtual discussion of this article on November 10, 2021, at 1 p.m. Eastern. It’s free to attend, and I look forward to seeing you there and hearing your thoughts. Stay safe and be well.

About the Author: David McPeak, CUSP, CIT, CHST, CSP, CSSM, is the director of professional development for Utility Business Media’s Incident Prevention Institute (https://ip-institute.com). He has extensive experience and expertise in leadership, human performance, safety and operations. McPeak is passionate about personal and professional development and believes that intrapersonal and interpersonal skills are key to success. He also is an advanced certified practitioner in DISC, emotional intelligence, the Hartman Value Profile, learning styles and motivators.

About Frontline Fundamentals: Frontline Fundamentals topics are derived from the Incident Prevention Institute’s popular Frontline training program (https://frontlineutilityleader.com). Frontline covers critical knowledge, skills and abilities for utility leaders and aligns with the Certified Utility Safety Professional exam blueprint.

Webinar: 9 Safety Axioms You Need to Know
November 10, 2021, at 1 p.m. Eastern
Visit https://frontlineutilityleader.com/webinar for more information.

Learn more from David McPeak on the iP Institute Podcast. Visit https://ip-institute.com/podcasts/#frontline


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David McPeak, CET, CHST, CSP, CSSM, CUSP, is the director of professional development for Utility Business Media’s Incident Prevention Institute (www.ip-institute.com). His experience includes operations management, safety and training roles. McPeak holds multiple safety and training certifications and has received numerous awards. He also has served as chairman of Task Team One of the OSHA ET&D Partnership, as a member of Incident Prevention’s editorial advisory board and as a member of the North Carolina Apprenticeship Council. Reach him at david@utilitybusinessmedia.com.

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