Safety culture is the way we do things and the reason why we do them.
The chief job responsibilities of most safety and health practitioners—regardless of career maturity—is most likely compliance, building management systems, training and implementing programs that keep people and the work environment safe. We support this work by identifying the hazards and errors posing risks to the work system and then employing control measures to eliminate or mitigate those hazards.
But what happens when some of those risks appear unmeasurable? How do we recommend additional programming that is often judged on perceptions, feelings or even unpopular realities to corporate leadership?
Safety culture is a term that penetrates numerous C-Suite discussions. Some celebrate that fact, yet many are trying to determine if safety culture is the missing link to safety success. There’s a reason why—a positive safety culture is hard to achieve and even harder to sustain—but it is the missing link that influences good safety performance.
Another dilemma is whether we need to improve safety culture or organizational culture. Both are closely related. Corporate culture is defined as the moral, social and behavioral norms of an organization based on the beliefs, attitudes and perceptions of its employees. Safety culture is defined nearly the same: as an organization’s underlying beliefs, truths, ideas, assumptions, values and practices demonstrated between its members. How we behave and show these attributes are mission-critical to success.
The Link between Safety Culture and Organizational Culture
What is also important to understand is that safety culture is, in all reality, a subculture of organizational culture. It’s simply a granular focus in one part of the overall management system, and can be stalled or elevated by corporate culture.
The reality is that the first discussion corporate leaders should have is, “Do we have the right organizational culture that reflects how we want to protect our people, and if not, how can we improve?”
If an organization is brave enough to answer that question, it can improve. Want to go from good to great? Support culture and develop a robust management system that embraces compliance, builds worker knowledge and capability, mentors and coaches for the desired behaviors and employs the management leadership lever to push it all forward.
A Journey of a Thousand Miles
Organizations desiring a better safety culture are undertaking a journey. The journey starts with a single step and is marked by milestones as the culture develops. Before even starting this journey, the first objective should be to understand the table stakes. Ask these questions of leadership: How robust is the safety management system? How effective are our safety policies? Do we ensure compliance, and are we developing people with the knowledge and skills needed to succeed?
Since cultural development is centered around moral obligations, social norms, truth, beliefs, values and practices, it boils down to a common denominator. People matter, and they are seeking a relationship and partnership with the organization.
When considering safety culture development, the value for worker safety must be evident. The glaring reality is that workers’ desire to partner with the organization is significantly shaped by their perceptions. Workers need to feel safe in their work environment and understand that their supervisors and senior leaders care and value them. Organizations should also be aware that with increased corporate CSR and ESG reporting, safety performance will undergo new scrutiny from the shareholders. As a result, protecting the company brand will only grow in importance, further elevating the need for cultural improvement.
Four Key Ideas to Begin the Journey
Set a clear safety vision and active mission. A clear safety vision and mission are often overlooked in a leader’s work, but it’s significant to do. Without thinking and discussing broadly, a work plan without a vision is simply a set of objectives hoping to land successfully. Leaders should assemble a cross-section of people representing all levels—from the front line to the boardroom—and discuss honestly what safety culture success looks like to the organization.
The vision should be challenging but straightforward, easy to remember and elevate culture as a chief value. After setting the vision, develop the mission that gives more understanding and how the organization plans to get there.
Position safety as the chief organization value. Moving vision to action is paramount in cultural development. Safety as a value should be viewed as the operational fabric of the organization, not a separate function. It should be integral to every business activity.
In most cases, an organization should assess itself against a robust management system like ISO 45001 or ANSI Z10, but with a specific focus that asks, “How does this management gap affect the culture and our value for safety?”
For example, having a poor machine guarding program and asking for safe behaviors without affording employees’ adequate protection is simply fruitless. A worker’s perceptions are your cultural reality. Therefore, organizations must be sincere to minimize risks in the work environment.
Adopt guiding safety principles. One of the most significant opportunities for cultural improvement is moving from a rules-based safety process to one that relies on safety principles. Not to say that the workplace doesn’t need rules, but recognize that workers face an abundance of tasks every day that exist on the margins of safety rules. They must decide how best to interface with possible inherent risks of such tasks. Adopt safety principles that guide employee behaviors and actions.
Here are three that may have merit in your organization:
- Any person can and must confront unsafe behaviors and conditions. No one is authorized to disregard such a warning.
- No one is expected to perform any function or accept any direction they believe is unsafe to themselves or others or creates an unsafe situation, regardless of who directs such an action.
- Anyone who feels that an operation is unsafe will shut down that process and work with appropriate team members to ensure a safe situation.
Safety principles cover a large expanse beyond rulemaking and encourage genuine employee engagement with the key intent to leverage workers to protect themselves and guard each other. For example, how will they stop work when it’s viewed as hazardous, and what are the behaviors that are pivotable in those moments of decision? If done well, it demands communication, and that drives cultural improvement.
Develop positive relationships and celebrate wins. An essential step for a leader is to develop positive relationships to ensure workers have a voice in safety. Make it easy for your workers to approach leadership with safety concerns and be ready to respond with an action that positively shows their concerns’ value. Of course, active listening is not saying everyone will have a good idea or are correct in their assumption. Still, it does mean you value their words enough to listen and respond with action or comment.
Finally, celebrate the wins. Acknowledging your safety culture journey gives credit where credit is due and recognizes achievement. Recognize people one-on-one and specifically, the whole team’s actions that made the difference and the processes that contributed to reaching milestones. Don’t be afraid of sharing how difficult it was to reach the goal or the hurdles along the journey, but look for the opportunity to celebrate their significant part in our winning culture. It’s partnership in action.
Creating a workplace free of illness and injury begins with one crucial decision: Making safety a core value and making an effort to prove such value. While there are several other values by which an organization is judged, one holds sway above the rest, and that is protecting workers and ensuring they can return safely to their families at the end of every work shift. Therefore, safety should be an organization’s chief value.