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Stepping Up to Safety

Every one of us has the ability to recognize hazards on our job sites. And in the moments when we notice those hazards, we must be our brothers’ keepers. Hesitating to say something could cost someone his or her life. By speaking up when you see something potentially dangerous, you’ll never live the nightmare of knowing you had the power to help change the outcome but failed to do so.

Of course, the notion of being your brother’s keeper is nothing new. For many years we have heard safety professionals and management tell us to watch out for our brothers and sisters. In fact, it has been said so much that I sometimes think it has become a catchphrase with no real meaning behind it. So, how do we change this? How do we make this directive more effective?

I believe that everyone wants to look out for their brother or sister, but not everyone may know how to do so. While the phrase “be your brother’s keeper” may seem self-explanatory to many, some workers may not completely understand what it means or how to speak up when they spot a potential problem. Do you know what the phrase means? Do you know who to speak up to? Do you know who to talk to if you do not get the answer to your question right away? Do you know how to recognize a hazard? These are questions we must ask ourselves before we can begin to expect our teams to speak up and understand what it means to be your brother’s keeper.

It is also critical that the organization you work for promotes a culture that enables individuals to speak up without fear of ridicule or retribution, and all employees must be willing to accept everyone having a questioning attitude.

Following are some tools to help you can use with your crews to help them better understand what it means to be your brother’s keeper.

Hazard Recognition
Do employees on your sites ignore hazards or unsafe behaviors? Is there a lack of knowledge about how to identify hazards? Do workers know how to take action once a hazard is identified?

We must give our employees the tools to succeed. They must be able to identify hazards. Some individuals may not know how to identify hazards, which leads us to this important question: Are we doing enough to train our employees on hazard recognition? We must train employees to identify hazards, and we must conduct thorough task hazard analyses and not just pencil-whip them.

Three-Way Communication/Peer Check
It’s likely that the majority of readers know how three-way communication is used during switching operations with utilities, but did you know that this same form of communication can be just as effective in the field when performing routine tasks?

Three-way communication can play a key role in being your brother’s keeper. Discuss questions such as the following with crew members during the course of the workday:
• Did you test your gloves today?
• Are you clipped in?
• Are your grounds up?

These are examples of simple questions that, when discussed, could be the difference between whether or not someone goes home safely to his or her family.

Effective Three-Way Communication
When you are involved in any situation that involves three-way communication, there are several things to keep in mind to make sure the interaction is effective.

What not to do:
If instructions are unclear, never do any of the following:
• Go with what you think the other person must mean or probably means.
• Ignore the instructions. If the instruction is a warning, you can get someone seriously injured or killed.
• Pretend you understand when you’re not sure.

For verbal instructions:
One problem with unclear instructions is you may actually think they were clear and that you heard correctly. Consider using the following practices anytime your safety or the safety of crew members is on the line:
• Avoid yelling across a distance. Not all words carry equally well.
• Listen carefully. It’s human nature to anticipate what the other person will say. Sometimes we hear that instead of what they actually said.
• Repeat what you heard, then say it a different way. For example, “You said to close the breaker. You want me to energize the circuit so it’s at 480 volts, right?”
• Confirm the response. For example, “OK, I’m going to close the breaker so the system will become hot. That’s what you want me to do now, right?”
• Never assume the other person understood your instructions either.

I recently had an employee ask for critical thinking training. He said that we pay him for the head down, not the neck down. Do we give our people the tools to think for themselves or do we dictate and direct? We must ensure that we are giving our employees what they need so they can – and know when to – speak up. We must create a culture in which speaking up is encouraged rather than looked down upon.

About the Author: Trey McLaughlin currently serves Aldridge ( as a dedicated group safety manager in the Utility Division. He has more than 15 years of experience in the construction industry, including roles as project safety manager, regional safety manager, and division safety manager and safety director.

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