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  • Writer's pictureMarcus Payton

Military Approach to EHS Leadership

Updated: Jan 10

Military safety briefings

From the harsh surroundings of Iraq's Anbar Province, where freezing cold and wet conditions demanded unwavering resilience, to deep in the poppy fields surrounding the city of Marjah, where I tested the limits of my physical and mental endurance in the scorching heat and constant threats associated with IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and enemy rifle fire, my journey as a Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) was forged. This crucible of combat not only honed my skills but (unexpectedly) laid the foundation for a seamless transition into the intricate realm of Environmental Health and Safety (EHS). From meticulous planning and patrolling, to facing extreme threats and climates, to even enhancing my interpersonal communication skills through the nuanced dance of small-unit leadership—all these military fundamentals align with the thoughtful ethos of job site safety and unwavering vigilance inherent in the EHS approach.

1. Military Patrolling Fundamentals and Job Site Surveying

  • Combat Insight: Military patrolling involves detailed planning, situational awareness, and constant vigilance. Patrols are not just about traversing terrain but understanding it, anticipating threats, and mitigating risks.

  • EHS Approach: Surveying a job site in the EHS approach mirrors this precision. It's not merely observing; it's about understanding potential hazards, planning for contingencies, and promoting a culture where unwavering vigilance is the norm.

Situational Example:

During a demanding deployment to Afghanistan, our platoon consistently remained vigilant on patrols and missions, meticulously planning routes and meeting with locals for intelligence. This military vigilance was crucial, especially when encountering the threat of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Spotting these hazards allowed us to call in Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) and averted potential disasters. The planning of routes proved life-saving when an IED detonated on an path we decided to not use when returning from a nearby village during a routine dismounted (non-vehicle) patrol. The explosion tragically took the lives of two Afghan locals. This experience highlights the parallel in civilian EHS, where meticulous job site surveying and planning are imperative to identify and mitigate potential hazards, ensuring the safety of the workforce and preventing unforeseen disasters.

2. Systematic Duty Rotations and Fatigue Management

  • Combat Insight: Meticulous duty rotations at our platoon's patrol base ensured constant vigilance and effective response. This experience parallels principles of

  • EHS Approach: It prevents employee fatigue and reduces the risk of injuries by varying tasks, ensuring that the workforce remains alert and engaged in safety practices.

Situational Example:

Taking on the additional duty of planning rest, patrol, and post rotations for our platoon's patrol base during our Afghanistan deployment, I ensured a systematic rotation to guard against fatigue and complacency. This structured rhythm unfolded roughly every 10 days— one squad rested, also serving as support or the Quick Reaction Force (QRF) if needed, another squad patrolled, engaging in decisive operations from higher headquarters, and a third squad held "on post," manning perimeter guard posts. These guard posts, comprised of rudimentary elements like sandbags and busted-out Humvee windows, were our frontline defense. This rotation strategy was our safety net, keeping the fireteams and squads consistently fresh and alert. One fateful evening, under the shroud of midnight, automatic rifle fire targeted our patrol base. Just beginning our shift, my machine gunner swiftly returned fire, calling for support. Setting up my position beside him, I spent the next 45 minutes launching star clusters and flares into the night sky, as our platoon commander orchestrated the response of the entire unit. This military experience resonates with civilian EHS protocol, emphasizing the significance of job rotation to manage employee fatigue, preventing injury, remaining vigilant of their surroundings, averting complacency, and boosting overall productivity.

Marine infantry in Afghanistan
1st Platoon in Afghanistan

3. Driver Safety and Tactical Vehicle Accidents

  • Combat Insight: Improper military driving and tactical vehicle accidents are a leading cause of non-combat deaths. This reality necessitates a robust driver safety program to ensure operational efficiency and troop safety.

  • EHS Approach: In the civilian EHS world, the significance remains. A comprehensive driver safety program is crucial to prevent accidents, protect the workforce, and maintain operational effectiveness.

Situational Example:

  • In the aftermath of the devastating training deaths resulting from a vehicle rollover, our unit took decisive action, launching a comprehensive overhaul of our driver safety training program. Stepping into the role of the appointed Master Driver, I left no stone unturned—conducting immersive classroom training, hands-on sessions, and rigorous testing across all military vehicle and trailer models, while firmly implementing document control measures. This military experience etched in me the critical importance of a detailed and systematic approach to driver safety training. Translating this to the civilian workforce, especially in the realm of EHS leadership, meant taking on the responsibility of designing and implementing robust driver safety programs for a variety of vehicles in an industrial setting. It's not merely about compliance; it's about ensuring comprehensive technical and hands-on training, constantly reevaluating, and retraining, thus significantly reducing the risk of accidents in the workplace.

4. Mental Health Focus in EHS Leadership

  • Combat Insight: In the military, prioritizing mental health is vital. Leaders emphasize resilience, support, and open discussions to destigmatize seeking help. Integrated programs focus on early identification and address mental health issues, promoting overall readiness and well-being

  • EHS Approach: In EHS leadership, the focus on mental health is paramount. Supporting employees' mental well-being becomes an integral part of fostering a resilient safety culture.

Situational Example:

  • In the aftermath of the suicide of our most experienced sniper and the battalion scout platoon sergeant, (and a great friend of mine) our unit recognized the importance of mental health awareness. This tragic event highlighted the interconnectedness of mental health and mission success. This experience serves as a reminder for me, as an EHS leader in the civilian workforce, to prioritize mental health initiatives, acknowledging the impact on overall safety and well-being. It's not just about ticking boxes; it's about understanding that the mental well-being of employees directly influences safety and operational effectiveness. It's about fostering a workplace culture that goes beyond lip service, actively providing resources and initiatives to address the silent battles of mental health challenges. In this context, EHS leadership isn't just a checklist; it's a commitment to cultivating a resilient and emotionally healthy workforce.

5. Continuous Improvement and Learning from Military Experience:

  • Combat Insight: Military after-action reviews are essential for learning and continuous improvement. Each mission serves as a lesson for future operations.

  • EHS Approach: EHS leaders engage in continuous improvement, learning from incidents and near misses to evolve safety protocols. This contributes to a culture of perpetual improvement in the EHS approach.

Situational Example:

  • Imagine being on a patrol in Iraq, navigating the unpredictable landscape, when suddenly, chaos erupts in the form of blue-on-blue, friendly fire. In the midst of confusion, we urgently signaled adjacent units, communicated our location, and fired flares into the night sky to alert friendly forces. Once the misunderstanding was rectified, we safely withdrew from the area. The after-action analysis became pivotal, enabling us to reconstruct the entire situation alongside our command teams and the friendly unit involved. This military "near miss" prompted a reevaluation of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). This experience resonates with the world of EHS, where near miss reporting becomes a crucial mechanism for learning, improving, and ensuring that every day is an opportunity for a safer tomorrow.


The key takeaway for EHS leaders is the importance of unwavering vigilance, adaptability, and prioritizing team well-being. Implementing these ideas goes beyond compliance, fostering a culture of ingrained safety, resilience, and continuous improvement. By embracing these principles, EHS leaders fortify their teams against complacency, ensuring a safer, more resilient workforce.

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