How To Transform Your Company’s Safety Culture

It is rare, that a company or operation will consider their safety programs and performance proprietary, even with competitors. Yet with the abundance of ideas and programs, standards and best practices, all in the public domain, why do companies see vastly different outcomes in their safety performance? The answer in many cases is culture.  

Safety Culture: What Is It and Why Should I Care?

Culture is both the first and last line of defense against injury and loss. More specifically, safety culture ensures that employees follow designated processes and systems, and when those processes fail and those systems break (and they always do), a good culture will assert itself to drive the proper response. Here are some important characteristics to note:

  • Culture is defined as a shared set of common values, experiences, beliefs, and characteristics
  • Culture is learned by observation, experience, and example, it is not taught
  • Culture is a living entity – it requires investment or it will rot
  • Culture is messy
  • The culture of safety are those values and beliefs that are commonly shared in work place operations – it is heavily influenced by factors outside the workplace

In short, EMPLOYEES are ultimately the ones who must evaluate the risk and decide whether it is acceptable.

Spend Little Externally, Spend A Lot Internally

Rarely will a management team deliberately makes shortcuts to safety. Almost all firms we have worked with have made a significant investment in time, money, and personal commitment to safety. The key is to allocate your resources in the right places.

From experience, we recommend spending a little on external resources and spending a lot internally. The external investment you should consider is one that yields an objective that:

  • Identifies the roadblocks of the message that diffuse management intent due to differing value systems
  • Identifies the proper solutions to improve the culture

The internal investment is the willingness by the organization to undertake the journey toward an interdependent safety culture. It is not a third party that will lead the organization through the transformation and there is no substituting capital for labor for this path forward. This approach is analogous to utilizing a personal trainer. The trainer can advise you on what and how to achieve fitness, but cannot do the work for you.

Creating an Interdependent Safety Culture

An interdependent safety culture is a group culture that represents a transition from a systems-based, management-led safety culture to one that is focused on people. Experience shows that safety performance improves as organizations move from a dependent to an interdependent safety culture. Interdependent safety cultures promote:

  • Leadership
  • High safety consciousness
  • Helping others/working together
  • Open reporting
  • Accountability
  • Pride in safety achievements

The interdependent stage provides the platform for sustainable safety performance. Here are some tips for changing behavior:

  • Focus on leading and lagging indicators
  • Remove incentives for not getting injured and create incentives for reduced risk
  • Use mistakes to understand root cause
  • Report, track and correct near misses more frequently
  • Solve problems based on dialog and understanding

Introducing and embracing the concepts of culture and values in most firms, and especially those in technical or engineering endeavors, remains an uphill battle. What transpires all too often is the diffusion of the message regarding safety for the simple lack of culture, but with the right approach and effective leadership an interdependent safety culture can become a reality in your organization.

For more on safety and culture, sign up for our upcoming webinar, Promoting Safety Through Leadership.