How Do You Create a Culture of Safety? Toby Ellis Shares 3 Secrets. - Southern Site

How Do You Create a Culture of Safety? Toby Ellis Shares 3 Secrets.

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We all want an effective safety program and low incident reports, but the real question is—how do we get there? Buzzwords are neat, and research-based theories may look good on a website. But what are the keys to building an authentic safety culture that truly impacts your organization?


Construction veteran Toby Ellis took time away from his role in business development to formalize the safety program at Southern Site, but the catalyst for doing so didn’t spring out of thin air. Southern Site had just formed when one of their guys had an accident that could have had a severe outcome. “He’s okay,” Toby says with hesitation in his voice, “but it could have been so much worse.”

It wasn’t in his job description, but Ellis came to Ryan (Clinard) and said, “Look, the only thing we’re doing consistently right now is being inconsistent.” Right then he decided to take on the full responsibility of organizing their Safety Program.

By the time OSHA got back to Southern Site to address the incident in question, Ellis had already put every single person at Southern Site through the pilot that would become their current safety program. Two years later, Toby’s just getting started on building out the vision he has for a dynamic, robust safety program.

1: Start ‘Em Young

Toby’s intuitive genius lies in focusing on young people with no construction experience. He teaches them that safety is simply a part of how Southern Site performs the work they do. 

People are encouraged to be completely transparent—to speak up if they see anything unsafe, no matter who or what it is. Ellis tells them directly, “I don’t care if the foreman’s doing it! If you see something, you stop ‘em, and nobody’s gonna get onto you about that!” When they do, they’re not reprimanded but rewarded.

“I have young people telling the seasoned guys, “we don’t do it like that.” They won’t do something the wrong way, and they hold the team accountable.” 

2: Safety IS The Story

Toby’s latest safety class, Safety 101, covers hazards, control points, and how to keep danger down to a bare minimum. Unlike separate safety narratives, he weaves the information into the history and the ‘why’ behind Southern Site. 

“Every quarter, I fill this class with new hires. Everyone gets roped into my class, which starts them off on the right foot of having a pretty good understanding of who we are, what we are, and why we have the policies we do. I teach them that safety is not a separate part of our company.”

3: One-on-One Attention

 Toby’s two sons are a testament to his passion for young people and construction, having followed their dad’s footsteps into the trades. It’s evident that he also takes a fatherly approach to teaching safety, one person at a time. Whether in the field or one of the Southern Site offices, Toby is known for sharing his genuine concern for individuals in what Nikki DeLuca affectionately calls “The Toby daddy talk.” 

“I pull kids aside and explain to them why I care about them, why I want them to do this. This is not just a job, it’s a career. I explain how it affects their family and our Southern Site family.” 

“You can laugh,” he says lightheartedly, “but these guys remember the stuff we talk about. I know because they find me later and say ‘what you said, it really stuck with me.’”

Ellis’ Background

Ellis has done just about everything there is to do within the world of construction, from managing big teams for Rogers Group, to owning his own asphalt and paving business, to working for the City of Gallatin as the Assistant Director of Public Works. He’s truly a father when it comes to construction, and his safety leadership at Southern Site is a gift that will affect the team for decades to come. 

For more on how our safety program is developing, check out our safety page at!