Workplace Safety Culture 101
Safety culture grows out of an organizational commitment to safe practices.
Culture is everywhere, and the workplace is no exception.
And when it comes to safety, that culture is a really big deal. A strong and healthy workplace culture will encourage safe behavior and help an organization reach its safety objections. But a dysfunctional work culture? Well, that's just trouble waiting to happen.
Scratch the surface of a company with a bad safety record and you'll often uncover a culture where safety is sidelined. It's that powerful. So, unsurprisingly, safety professionals and employers alike have tried to find ways to foster a safety culture in their workplaces.
But here's the trouble. Culture is complex, fuzzy, and difficult to pin down. It's not easy to measure. There won't be a culture meter on your safety software's dashboard that lets you keep tabs on it.
So while everyone wants to lead a workplace with a strong culture of safety, it's not always clear how to achieve that goal.
Thankfully, you've found this article. Because that's precisely our goal for today: to help you get a handle on safety culture and share concrete steps you can take to improve the culture in your workplace.
The Origins of Safety Culture
Safety culture might feel like a new concept, but the term was actually 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 safety culture 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.
The concept was a necessary corrective to the standard approach of tracing the cause of workplace incidents back to the actions of individuals. While individual action undoubtedly plays a role, a disaster like the one at Chernobyl couldn't be fully explained and understood without taking the workplace culture into consideration.
In a paper delivered at the third International Conference on Working Safety held in the Netherlands in 2006, Frank Guldenmund simplified the concept, describing 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 the fundamental idea behind safety culture - that while made up of individuals, each workplace has a shared attitude or mindset that sets the tone for behaviors and practices.
When an employee has to decide whether to cut corners or follow safety procedures to the letter, report a possible safety hazard or ignore it, remind a coworker to put on their safety glasses or shrug it off as none of their business, the workplace culture will influence their choice. If there's an overall sense that safety matters, it will translate into safer conduct..
(For related reading, see Why Creating a Safety Culture Is Better Than Relying on Compliance)
How to Develop a Safety Culture
Right, so we've established that it takes a strong safety culture to nudge people in the right direction. But what does it take to actually create that kind of culture?
Well, first it's important to understand that it can't be dictated by fiat. Having management tell workers that they need to value safety won't really have much of an impact on the culture. It takes more than that. It takes genuine action that demonstrates a concern for safety.
That starts with a robust safety program. Policies and procedures that stick to the bare minimum required by OSHA and other regulators sends a clear message that the employer cares about safety - but only so far as they have to. Having a safety program that goes well beyond the bare necessities is an important step to showing workers that the organization truly values their safety.
It's also important to make safety a daily topic of concern. Yes, the safety signs are posted all year round, but that doesn't really cut it. Signage is essential, but it's a passive approach to safety. To show a real commitment, you need something more proactive.
That will look slightly different across workplaces, but it can involve a combination of safety meetings, safety moments, toolbox talks, or an open door policy with the safety team. If supervisors, managers, and company leaders engage workers in safety discussions on the daily, it shows that safety is an organizational value, not just a formality.
There also needs to be an incentive structure that rewards safety, rather than punishing it. Many well-meaning employers have attempted to motivate workers by offering rewards or kudos for things like low incident rates or accident-free months. Unfortunately, this usually backfires. Instead of encouraging workers to be safe, it mainly discourages them from reporting unsafe behavior, minor incidents, and near misses - all of which are essential data points for improving the safety of your workplace.
(Learn more in Your Incentives Are Compromising Safety Culture)
The Basic Elements 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 for reporting, feedback, and response
- Unofficial safety systems, such as verbal instructions pertaining to safety behavior
- Accountability, authority, and professionalism
Indicators of a Weak Safety Culture
The following are some indicators that a safety culture could use some work:
- There's a general assumption that the safety systems are good enough
- It's been a while since anyone has bothered to propose a way to make the workplace safer
- There's a backlog of preventative maintenance and other proactive safety tasks
- Operations sometimes exceed safe operating limits without first undertaking a detailed risk assessment
- When safety procedures are violated, there is no action taken to investigate or correct the issue
- Practices that were deemed unacceptable years ago (e.g. when the safety program was first implemented) are now tolerated
- Workers and supervisors sometimes feel the pressure to put production over safety (e.g. when deadlines are tight)
- Formal discussions of safety are infrequent (weekly, monthly, or quarterly rather than daily)
(Learn about 7 Leading Indicators of Safety Worth Tracking)
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 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.
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 initiatives
- Forming EHS committees
- Establishing safety and health representative networks
- Arranging meetings and conferences devoted to safety issues
- Instituting 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.)
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 the key thing to remember is that it influences behavior. We all want workplaces with lower incident rates and fewer injuries, and building a safety culture is the best way to get there.
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