More lessons from the military

In the last issue we discussed the fact that, just as in the military, good leadership in business is important to ensure that employees and contractors return home safely at the end of each day. In both cases it is the leaders who are responsible for the safety of their teams.

In the military environment there are no safety professionals in the combat forces, because it is not practical and, more importantly, there is a clear understanding that the various leaders are responsible for the safety of their teams.

For example, the battalion commander is responsible for the safety of his troops. Likewise, the company and platoon commanders are responsible for their soldiers and the corporals for their individual sections of ten men.

Finally, each combat soldier is responsible for his/her own safety as well as that of others. None of these people require a safety professional to be responsible for the safety of their teams.

Could you imagine the military having a patrol go out, led by the corporal, with his ten riflemen kitted out for combat, and then, on the side, having a safety advisor in a reflective vest taking care of the safety of the team?

If companies wish to see a quantum improvement in their safety performance and in their drive for sending everybody home safety at the end of each shift, the leaders should follow the example of those in the military to ensure that they understand their roles and responsibilities for the safety of their teams, and that they take their duties seriously.

Yes, there is, without a doubt, the need for safety departments in organisations. However, safety professionals must be used as a support in terms of understanding the requirements, legislation, developing desired safety cultures, and much more.

However, line managers must understand that they are responsible for the safety and health aspects of their teams during normal daily business. Leaders must place a high value on the safety and health of their employees and contractors and provide a safe and healthy working environment for all.

Only the leaders can develop the desired safety culture among their respective teams. However, to do so, leaders need to get out onto the floor and engage with their teams and have discussions related to safety and health issues. My advice is for leaders to put on their safety boots and get out onto the shop floor on a regular basis. This will, without doubt, make a difference.


There are numerous elements that can be covered under the heading of training. I will focus here on four phases of safety and health training: induction; specialised and on the job training; competence; and refresher training.

1. Induction training (basic training)

When joining the military, soldiers are put through their paces for up to 12 weeks, which is commonly called “basic training”. This period focuses on ensuring the understanding of the rules when in the military, including procedures on how to maintain and handle the weapons safely, as well as the importance of working as a team.

It goes without saying that, in the corporate world, induction training is an important aspect of safety management. It is during the induction training sessions that companies should explain the safety and health-related information, including the general safety rules and site regulations. This is the perfect opportunity to demonstrate that the safety and health of employees and contractors is important to the company.

Gone are the days of just showing a simple safety and health induction video and believing it is sufficient to cover the responsibilities of ensuring clear communication, and that it will result in a proper understanding of the rules.

During basic training in the military, newly recruited soldiers are often not permitted to wear the normal uniforms and are required to wear overalls, or different headgear. This ensures that they stand out and everybody can easily distinguish the new recruits from the other soldiers. In some battalions, soldiers are not permitted to wear the infantry colours badge on their berets until they have completed the training.

Some of the operations in the company at which I am employed require all new employees on the floor to wear a different colour t-shirt for a given time, and until they have been “passed out” as competent to conduct the work. This makes it possible for other employees to identify them as new employees and to provide guidance and support when they are observed working in an unsafe manner.

2. Specialised and on-the-job training 

When talking about specialised training, I am referring, for example, to the hazards and rules the operators are being trained in for the specific plant in which they are going to be employed.

This is usually when they are trained in the safe operating procedures for the tasks that they will be required to conduct, or on the equipment that they will be operating in the future.

In many instances, employees are also sent to training centres to receive specific training on how to operate equipment, conduct fault-finding, or maintain and repair specific equipment. This is very common in the auto industry where mechanics are sent on training for a new model of car being launched.

This is no different in the military, where, in the so-called Phase 2 training, the soldiers are taught the specifics of the specialised core activity that they have chosen, for example, the infantry, or parachute battalion.

Those in the parachute battalion are, for example, trained in the safe and correct use of the equipment, including the various firearms, and how to wear the parachute harness correctly. They receive training in the rules and procedures for jumping out of an aeroplane safely, techniques to handle the wind, the correct body position when landing and what action to take once on the ground.

First, the soldiers receive jumping training inside a hangar and/or jump-tower training before being permitted to jump out of an aeroplane. They are also prepared for what to do in the case of an emergency, including parachute malfunctions.

Leaders in industry need to challenge themselves on whether their training programmes are well structured and of a suitable period and that they cover all the specific topics. This will ensure that employees who are required to work in the plant receive the necessary training (both theoretical and on-the-job training) and are deemed competent to conduct the work. This will ensure employees are not placed at any risk of injury.

This is the case in the military. Training programmes are well structured and followed to ensure soldiers are well prepared prior to going into combat. Can you imagine a soldier joining the parachute battalion and, without any training, being asked to conduct his first jump out of a C160 aircraft? This just would not happen.

3. Deemed to be competent and “pass out”

Going back to my example from the parachute battalion, under no circumstances can I imagine that a soldier, who has failed the training in the hangar, would be permitted to continue with the next phase of jumping out of an aeroplane; flying above the so-called drop zone.

Once passing the various phases, including a number of night jumps, the soldiers are “passed out” and deemed to be competent. After a predefined number of jumps, the soldiers who have passed graduate from jump school and are issued with the paratrooper wings to be worn on their uniform with pride.

The question is whether employees in industry are required to complete assessments to ensure understanding before being deemed competent to conduct their work. Leaders should ensure that training programmes are not just tick-box exercises, but rather that they ensure employees have a proper understanding of their tasks.

If we don’t test for understanding, how can we as leaders satisfy ourselves that employees and contractors are competent and can conduct their activities without possible injury to themselves and others?

4. Refresher training

None of this means that once an employee (or soldier) has received the necessary training and is deemed competent, they no longer require any additional training.

Depending on the risk levels of the tasks undertaken by employees, refresher training should be conducted at pre-defined frequencies and competence evaluations conducted to ensure understanding.

Refresher training should cover all the procedures to be followed in the case of an emergency. For example, employees operating a boiler should be retrained in the emergency shut-down procedures in the event of a water leak, as they might never have to conduct such a procedure in a real event and could forget the steps to be followed.

The same applies to the paratrooper being reminded on the procedures to be followed should the parachute malfunction.

I end off with the following quote from Dwight D Eisenhower: “Farming looks mighty easy when your plough is a pencil and you’re a thousand miles from the corn field”.

Published by

Brian Darlington

Brian Darlington is the group head of safety and health for the Mondi Group, based in Vienna, Austria. He has filled the role since 2012 and is responsible for safety and health in more than 30 countries. Darlington started working at Iscor before joining Mondi in 1987, working in Gauteng. In 2000 he transferred to the Kraft Division in Richards Bay. During 2005, he transferred to Europe, taking up the position of business unit SHE manager, responsible for SHE in paper mills in Austria, Hungary, Israel, Slovakia, Poland, South Africa and Russia, as well as forests operations in South Africa and Russia.
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