Culture is complicated and it has a major impact on how we behave. It's everywhere, and the workplace is no exception. When it comes to safety, that's a big deal. A healthy workplace culture can motivate safety and help the company reach its safety objectives. But a dysfunctional work culture? That's just trouble waiting to happen.

Culture is a powerful thing, but it can be somewhat fuzzy, so it's not always clear how to improve the culture in your workplace.

In this article, we'll help you get a handle on safety culture. We'll go over the basics and give you some concrete steps so that you can implement one in your workplace.

Origins of Safety Culture

For many of us, safety culture feels like a new concept, but the term was first introduced by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in its report on the nuclear reactor accident at Chernobyl in 1986. At the time, the IAEA defined the term as:

the product of the individual and group values, attitudes, perceptions, competencies and patterns of behavior that determine the commitment and the style and proficiency of an organization's health and safety management.

(See Lessons from 3 of the Worst Workplace Disasters for related reading.)

In a paper delivered at the third International Conference on Working Safety held in the Netherlands in 2006, Frank Guldenmund defined it as "those aspects of the organizational culture which will impact on attitudes and behavior related to increasing or decreasing risk."

NIOSH further refined the definition, stating that "a safety culture reflects the shared commitment of management and employees toward ensuring the safety of the work environment".

All these definitions capture a basic idea. Safety culture is something that must permeate an entire organization. Its application largely depends on investment, training, employee attitude, environment, location, laws, customs, and practices in the industry.

(For related reading, see Why Creating a Safety Culture Is Better Than Relying on Compliance.)

How to Develop a Safety Culture

To develop a safety culture, management must display a concern for safety-related issues. They must also make safety discussions a daily practice in their organization.

Safety culture should be established at every level of an organization as a regular practice. Most importantly, everyone in an organization should be encouraged and awarded for innovations and good practices, while also being discouraged from not observing safe practices.

(Learn more in Your Incentives Are Compromising Safety Culture.)

In some organizations, meetings or conferences start by asking "Are there any safety issues?" This carries a powerful message down the ladder.

The Basics of a Safety Culture

All of the elements of safety culture must be present if it is to take hold and become embedded in the organization. The key elements of a safety culture are:

  • An organizational commitment to safety that is reflected in decision-making practices and investments, corporate values, and best practices that go beyond mere compliance
  • Active employees who supervise others and their on-the-job conduct to reinforce the safety values supported by management
  • Official safety systems, such as reporting, feedback, and response
  • Unofficial safety systems, such as verbal instructions pertaining to safety behavior and rewards for safe actions
  • Accountability, authority, and professionalism

Introducing a Safety Culture

Management plays the most important role in introducing a safety culture. They set the tone for the workplace, and their good example and consistent encouragement does a lot to improve workplace behavior and attitudes.

Here are some ways organizational leaders can promote a safety culture.

Make Safety a Top Priority

Management roles are also leadership roles, and management carries a lot of influence over the culture of the organization and the attitudes of the employees.

Of course, the commitment to safety will only improve safety culture if it is visible and evident to employees at all levels of the organization. It should, therefore, be reflected in management's official statements, as well as their stated goals and values.

Assess the Workplace Directly

Safety walk-arounds by senior managers are a good way to stay on top of the true safety conditions in the workplace. It will provide a good sense of what is working and where conditions or conduct could be improved and made safer.

Management walking the floor and checking things out also serves as a good visual reminder of the high priority they place on safety.

(Learn more in Face-to-Face Safety: The Right Way to Build a Safety Culture.)

Effective Communication

Effective communication is the backbone of a strong safety culture. It's a good way to show that management is responsive to safety concerns.

Management should provide feedback on all safety issues, including accidents, near misses, and problems noted and reported.

Office memos, posters, announcements, and newsletters are effective ways of directly communicating safety values.

Training and Engagement

Providing essential and supplementary training plays an important role in encouraging employee engagement and active participation in keeping the workplace safe.

Establishing a learning culture keeps the organization constantly refreshed and up to date. It also empowers employees to identify and change unsafe working conditions.

(Find out Why Worker Engagement Is Key to Data Capture and Tracking Safety KPIs.)

Tools for Building a Visible Safety Culture

These tools will help make your commitment to safety visible:

  • Strategic planning sessions
  • Allocating budget toward health and safety
  • Forming EHS committees
  • Establishing safety and health representative networks
  • Arranging meetings and conferences
  • Systems for capturing employee feedback and suggestions
  • Analyzing various safety metrics, including accident and incident rates
  • Discussing reported accidents, hazards, and near misses

(Learn about 5 Metrics EHS Departments Should Be Tracking.)

Conclusion

Safety culture grows out of an organizational commitment to safe practices. It needs regular practice to make it a habit and requires that top managers display their pledges for safety in their everyday activities, communications and movements.

But remember what we said about culture in the beginning? The key thing to remember is that it influences behavior. Over time, those changes can seriously diminish your incident rates.