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Am I My Brother’s Keeper – Or Not?

I am sure that the safety leaders reading this Tailgate Topic have heard some or all of the following phases: “I’m my brother’s keeper,” “Don’t get hurt,” “Work in a manner that prevents injury,” and “Keep your head in the game.” These phrases are well-intended; they serve as a reminder to keep safety top of mind. But using them will not prevent incidents.

I recently reviewed an incident that resulted in an injury for a client. That client has a very good safety program and culture. The incident report included feedback from co-workers of the injured party (we’ll call him “John”), who said things like, “I knew John was going to get hurt one of these days” and “I was too busy doing my own work; it’s not my fault John got hurt.”

All of us mean well, and I do not believe that any one of us wants anybody to get hurt on or off the job, so what are we missing? Each of us deserves to be held accountable, and in my humble opinion, we do not hold ourselves to that accountability as we should. Now, none of us wants to be in the proverbial spotlight because of our mistakes, but human nature says that for us to make positive change, the so-called price needs to get high enough that we will voluntarily change for the better.

Let’s turn back time for a moment to see how accountability can change our behavior. When I was growing up and would make mistakes – as we all do – my father had his way of correcting those mistakes. He would reach into his pocket, remove his pocketknife and give it to me. I knew I was in trouble then. He would tell me to go to the top of the field where a willow patch was growing, cut a branch and bring it back to him. I would go off looking for the branch that would be the least offensive to my backside. That’s because, once I brought it back to my father, he would use the branch to warm up my backside. I did not like it much as a kid. However, I must admit it was effective. The next time I would think about not following my father’s rules or advice, I would remember the price I paid the last time and weigh my options. Sometimes I chose the wrong behavior, knowing what the consequence would be, but eventually I learned that I would be held accountable for my actions – and hence I would usually make a better choice. I also learned that I could and should be in control of my actions and to take care in the choices I made. My father’s actions taught me to be aware of myself, those around me and those I was put in charge of.

Lessons from ‘Top Gun: Maverick’
You may have seen the 2022 movie “Top Gun: Maverick.” There are a few phrases from the film that I find very important. In one scene, Tom Cruise’s character is reviewing a pilot training exercise that had taken place earlier in the day, during which mistakes were made. He asks one pilot if there was a reason they did not communicate with the team during the training. The pilot replies to him, and then Cruise’s character says, “Don’t tell me, tell it to his family.” After a bit more dialogue, he states, “A reason that the family will accept at the funeral.”

While reviewing a training incident that occurred during a simulation, Cruise’s character says to a pilot, “What happened? Why are you dead? Don’t give me excuses, give me reasons.” In another simulated exercise, the lead pilot, known as “Hangman,” and his wingman are in trouble due to enemy aircraft. But instead of going to his wingman’s rescue, Hangman vacates the area, allowing his wingman to get shot down. When Hangman finds himself in trouble again, he uses his radio to ask, “Where is my wingman? I need some help” – to which the wingman replies, “I’m already dead because you left us.”

These examples from the movie are good lessons in accountability. We would all do well to remember that we are on the job for our families and that each of us would hate to explain to our co-workers’ families why we were not our brother’s keeper.

All of us work under an umbrella of safety policies, procedures and work methods. Most utility organizations have great safety programs, just like the client I mentioned earlier. However, we also have a lot of tabulated data that indicates a great safety program is not enough to prevent incidents.

Most of us are good at excuses but not at viable reasons. We make excuses to get ourselves out of the spotlight. That’s easy. Owning up to the reasons that we – as leaders – allowed unsafe behavior or unsafe actions to continue is much more difficult. To me, there is no viable reason. We must hold both ourselves and others accountable because if we don’t, we open the door to enabling more incidents, injuries and fatalities to occur.

Save a Life Today
In many of my presentations for clients, I introduce “SALT,” an acronym that stands for “Save a Life Today.” I challenge everyone reading to do just that. When you get up in the morning, look yourself in the eye in the mirror. Then verbally state, “I am going to save a life today.” At the end of each day, just before bed, look in the mirror again, and hold yourself accountable for what did or did not happen that day.

Remember, being a safety leader is a 24/7/365 responsibility. We owe it to our families, our co-workers and everyone we meet. Accountability in safety is something we all deserve.

About the Author: Mack Turner, CUSP, is the executive director of the Institute for Safety in Powerline Construction (