Why Safety Culture Is More Important than You Think
Safety should be universal, but many organizations find themselves falling short. The key difference? A clear and consistent safety culture.
Safety is a topic that is universally shared. It is rare that a company or operation will consider its safety program and performance proprietary, even when differentiating itself from competitors. So why, with the abundance of ideas, programs, standards, and best practices, all of which are in the public domain and easily accessible via the Web, do companies see very different outcomes in their safety performance?
The answer is culture. Specifically, the safety culture of the operation and how it is adding to or detracting from safety performance. Culture is both the first and last line of defense against injury and loss. It ensures that employees follow designated processes and systems, and when those processes fail and those systems break (and they always do), culture asserts itself to drive the proper response through the value system that is in place within the organization. Incident analysis will almost always show a chain of events occurred that led to an injury. It is never one thing that causes an accident.
Culture is defined as a shared set of common values, experiences, beliefs, and characteristics. The challenge of any management team is figuring out how to create a shared view of safety throughout the organization that will be that extra line of defense against accidents and injuries.
Introducing and embracing the concepts of culture and values in most firms, and especially those in technical or engineering endeavors, remains an uphill fight.
Replacing Hope with Belief
In my 30 years of work in safety, I have rarely encountered a management team who deliberately made shortcuts to safety. A majority of teams I have encountered have made a significant investment of time, money, and personal commitment. What transpires too often is the diffusion of the message, either verbalized or acted out, from senior management regarding safety. When the message is diffused, the “Tone at the Top” cannot be guaranteed to be translated to a “Belief at the Bottom” because the culture is lacking—that is, common beliefs and experiences do not exist.
However, there are numerous examples of a culture driving phenomenal safety outcomes. Two surprising examples are the U.S. Navy Nuclear Program and the U.S. Coast Guard. The U.S. Navy Nuclear Program has completed 60 years without an accident. That’s quite a feat when you consider their operating environment:
- The majority of the employees have only a high school education.
- Employees are paid approximately minimum wage.
- Those in the program are required to work away from home around 6 months a year and have only limited contact with loved ones.
- They work and live in tight, confined spaces.
- Their facility is operated under extreme pressure, cold, and corrosive environments.
- Any accident would almost certainly result in death to all the employees and catastrophic devastation to the surrounding environment and communities.
The U.S. Coast Guard’s safety culture may seem less surprising because, like most first responders, they train for every scenario. Regardless, every emergency call they undertake requires adapting on the spot to be successful without losing sight of safety objectives.
Implementation Cost (Zero Is a Very Large Number)
To successfully build a safety culture, spend little on external resources and spend a lot internally.
The external investment companies should consider is one that yields an objective that:
- Identifies the roadblocks, shunts, or short circuits that exist that diffuse safety culture messages, and
- Identifies the proper solution to improve the culture.
The internal investment is demonstrated by the willingness of the organization to undertake the journey toward an interdependent safety culture. There is no third party that can lead the organization through the transformation, and there is no substituting capital for labor on 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.
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