Culture is a complex generalized behavior pattern of a nation, society or an organization that is derived from knowledge, ethics, moral, customs, law, beliefs, practices and other common habits. In other words, culture is complicated but also has a major impact on people. So how can organizations go about developing a safety culture? Here we'll examine the basics.

Origins of Safety Culture

The term safety culture 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 to and the style and proficiency of an organization’s health and safety management."

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". According to NIOSH, "a safety culture reflects the shared commitment of management and employees toward ensuring the safety of the work environment".

In other words, safety culture is something that must permeate an entire organization. Its application largely depends on the 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

Developing a safety culture, then, requires that management display and discuss safety-related issues and make safety discussions a day-to-day practice in an 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 and discouraged or punished for not observing safe practices. In some organizations, meetings or conferences start by asking "Are there any safety issues?" This carries a powerful message down the ladder. (Safety moments are another common strategy for creating a safety culture. Read more in Why Safety Moments Matter.)

The Basics of a Safety Culture

To truly create and embed a safety culture within an organizational culture, all of its elements must be present. The key elements of a safety culture are as follows:

  • An organizational commitment to safety that prioritizes safety in decision-making and investment. It is reflected by safety values, fundamentals and best practices beyond compliance.
  • The presence of active employees who directly supervise others and their safety behavior to reinforce the safety values supported by the management. This group includes supervisors, maintenance people and safety trainers.
  • The development of official safety systems, such as reporting, feedback and response.
  • The presence of unofficial safety systems, such as verbal instructions pertaining to safety behavior, and rewards and punishments for safe and unsafe actions. Accountability, authority and professionalism are also part of a safety culture.

Introducing a Safety Culture

To introduce a safety culture, the management plays the most important role. This means that management needs to actively set a good example and encourage employee safety consistently. (Also check out, Essential Elements for Creating a Workplace Safety Culture.)

In fact, strong leadership is paramount in setting safety culture. Here are some ways organizational leaders can help promote a safety culture:

  • Safety should be a top priority in making every decision. Management should give safety a high position in the organization’s goals and in all situations.
  • Commitment to safety should be visible. Management must demonstrate visibility and repeat their commitment to safety throughout all areas of the organization.
  • Safety walk-arounds are good practices that may be conducted by senior managers on a regular basis. This is a visible way for managers to stay on top of true safety conditions in the area within their jurisdiction.
  • Good safety culture needs effective communication, such as reporting and feedback on all safety issues such as accidents, near misses and safety concerns and problems. This sends a strong message that management views safety performance as important as other organizational goals.
  • Active employee participation is vital for accident prevention and hazard reduction. Training plays an important role in the employees’ engagement.
  • Establishment of learning culture in the organization where all employees are involved in learning by contributing their thoughts for safety improvements. Learning culture empowers employees to identify, learn and change unsafe conditions and behaviors.
  • Employees should be awarded for good safety performance. This should include ideas and acts that improve safety and also voluntary contribution to safety.
  • Employees should feel free to report unsafe and near miss issues without fear that they may be held responsible. Senior managers should display their care for such reports by having an "open door policy."
  • Effective communication is a key to success for a positive safety culture. It may be achieved through an existing safety policy, office memorandums, posters, announcements, newsletters and reports.
  • An organization’s safety management system (SMS) should be should be headed by the most senior person in the organization, with the support of the senior management team and safety professionals. Its activities and achievements should be made visible regularly.

Visible Tools of Safety Culture

Organizations may follow the following tips to establish a positive safety culture and create safety-building tools"

  • Setting strategic planning sessions
  • Allocating budget toward health and safety
  • Forming environment, safety and health (ESH) committees
  • Establishing safety and health representative networks
  • Arranging meetings and conferences
  • Introducing suggestion schemes
  • Analyzing accident/incident rates, compensation costs and absenteeism rates
  • Discussing reported accidents, hazards and near misses


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 have a real impact on accident rates.