Safety Culture: What's Under Your Helmet?

In a weak culture, we veer away from doing the right thing in favor of doing the thing that's right for me.

By Matt Forck

"In a weak culture, we veer away from doing the right thing in favor of doing the thing that's right for me." -Simon Sinek

Jonathan Martin was a big athletic kid-and smart, too. Martin's mother and father were both Harvard graduates. His mother worked as a corporate attorney, while his father was a professor at UCLA. Growing up in California, Martin attended some of the best schools in the area, including the Harvard Westlake School in Los Angeles. He loved his studies-and football.

As a high school senior, Martin was rated as one of the top 50 linemen recruits. To blend school and sports, he chose to play college football at Stanford. Martin studied Ancient History and excelled at left tackle. As a redshirt freshman he made the freshman all-American team. Then as a sophomore and junior was recognized as a first team all-American. He declared for the NFL draft a year early and was projected as the third best offensive tackle. Martin was selected as the 42nd overall picking the 2012 NFL draft-selected by the Miami Dolphins. He was excited for this next phase of his life.

Yet, 16 months later Martin walked out of the Dolphins practice facility and shocked the football world by exposing a culture that was toxic. What does this have to do with worker safety? Everything.

On February 14, 2014, nearly four months after Martin walked out of the Dolphins facility, the NFL released a 144-page report on their investigation, dubbed the Ted Wells Report after lead investigator and well respected attorney Ted Wells. The study found and detailed a workplace culture that allowed bullying and harassment.

Wells writes, "After a thorough examination of the facts, we conclude that three starters on the Dolphins offensive line, Richie Incognito, John Jerry and Mike Pouncey, engaged in a pattern of harassment directed at not only Martin, but also another young Dolphins offensive lineman, whom we refer to as Player A for confidentiality reasons, and a member of the training staff, whom we refer to as the Assistant Trainer. We find that the Assistant Trainer repeatedly was targeted with racial slurs and other racially derogatory language. Player A frequently was subjected to homophobic name-calling and improper physical touching. Martin was taunted on a persistent basis with sexually explicit remarks about his sister and his mother and at times ridiculed with racial insults and other offensive comments."

The report documents countless vulgar statements and instances of harassment. One example from the report: "Incognito recorded a $200 fine against himself for 'breaking Jmart.'"

Safety culture is under the helmet. Culture has been simply defined as what is acceptable around here. What was acceptable in the Dolphin's locker room was a sick climate of harassment and bullying. But, this is not much different from a culture that allows unsafe acts and that encourages or keeps quiet about safety rule violations. If you swap the words "harassment" with "at-risk act," is it really that much different? There are several key take-a-ways for all leaders. Consider the following points:

Culture is ground up. "That ultimately rests on my shoulders, and I will be accountable moving forward for making sure that we emphasize a team-first culture of respect toward one another," said Dolphin's head coach Joe Philbin after the incident. The Wells report found that Philbin had no knowledge of what was going on in the locker room he was responsible for. Culture grows from the ground up. And, the way to really know what is going on on the ground is to be on the ground.

People who can change it, can change it if they speak up. Former NFL football player Mark Schlereth, in a blog entitled "Don't Lose Crucial Parts of 'The Code,'" told this story: "In my seventh season, I found myself on a bus in Japan as a member of the Denver Broncos. It was my first season in Denver and our first road trip of the preseason. As we sat in traffic, there was the usual joking and poking fun that accompanies those moments. In the seats behind me sat two defensive players, and they were flipping some grief to a young player, typical stuff. At some point, the good-natured, innocuous ribbing became personal and out of bounds, so I turned and said "enough"-they responded with a few choice words for me and I made it clear in no uncertain terms that they crossed a line and I wasn't putting up with it. They mumbled a few protests under their breaths, but it was over and the bus rolled slowly to its destination. I glanced back at the young player I had stood up for-no words were exchanged, just a tacit nod of the head, as if to say, "Thanks. I appreciate the help." I replied in kind, and it's was never brought up again.

Does your safety speak up-or is more like the Dolphins? Only those in the culture on the ground can speak up to make change happen.

Culture is under the helmet, not on the wall. As a dad of a teenage girl and 12-year-old boy, I remind myself daily of the saying that reads, "Don't watch what I say, watch what I do." In safety, that is often translated to "It's not what the posters on the wall say-it's what happens in the field." The Ted Wells report clearly documented that every player and coach involved had received and signed the Dolphin's work place harassment policy that strictly forbids any such action that happened. Sound similar to our safety rule book-do we follow those rules? To know for sure, one must get under the helmet (hard hat) and actually work a day in the shoes of your workers. Do your posters align with what is happening in the field?

Mark Schlereth finished his blog by writing, "I'm left with this conclusion about the Dolphins' organization from the coaching staff on down: They were either complicit, incompetent or, worse, both." What would be written about you, your staff and your culture if a fatality happened in your company today?

Matt Forck, CSP and JLW, is a keynote speaker and writer specializing in the field of worker safety. Matt serves clients across the United States and over 10 countries. He lives in Columbia, Missouri with his wife and two children. Eliminate shortcuts today with Bucket List. Learn more at

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