A Helmet Can be a Cowboy Hat: What Cowboys Can Teach us About Safety and Procedure

Safety and procedure are necessary for any workplace to run right and minimize risk. But, if you’ve been around industrial workers for even a short amount of time, you’ve likely heard people or groups referred to as “cowboys.” You’re probably already conjuring up an image of this person in your head. This person is rough, tough, and “old school.” This person looks at danger and shrugs. This person has their own way of doing things, but they get the job done by golly. Sure, they might not follow all the rules, but there’s begrudging respect because they get results.

The problem is that begrudging respect keeps us from improving as a team and keeping safety and procedure top of mind. It can’t just be about “getting it done”; it has to be about getting done correctly.

We’ve been conditioned by media and entertainment to respect the cowboy and just get out of their way. It’s the rogue cop that destroys half a city block but still gets the bad guy. The dark superhero protects us all even though the clueless DA, so stuck on the rules, calls them a menace. It’s the worker who says, “get out of my way, bumbling supervisor, so I can deftly show you how easily I can plug that well, tame that machine, or quiet the plant and establish my role as the protagonist with all the skills and no time for your politics.”

The idea of the “cowboy” is a dangerous concept that provides cover for supervisors and managers who want to turn a blind eye. “Old Bob, he’s a cowboy. I just cut him loose, and he gets the job done.” The implication is, “I’m sure I don’t want to see how he does it, but since he’s not getting hurt and producing like crazy, I’m certainly not going to coach him to be safer or ask him to change dangerous behaviors. He’s a cowboy; whatcha gonna do?”

You might think you work in an industry where the excuse for not adopting an improvement initiative or new, safer expectation is something to the effect of “I don’t think that will work for my guys. They’re just different. They’re a bunch of cowboys, and that’s not going to change.” But the truth is not only can it change, but it also should. 

Think about rodeo and bull riding. Twenty years ago, you didn’t see helmets, face masks, flak jackets, and mouth guards. Today you’d be hard-pressed to find a rider without these items. The cowboy, our prototypical rough, and tumble, danger-seeking, get-it-done individual, has started throwing off that definition and changing their behavior to increase their safety. If the cowboy culture can change, why can’t yours?

The next time someone tries to minimize or excuse dangerous behavior by chalking it up to cowboy behavior, point out to them that even cowboys use PPE.

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