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 by going over the basics of it, and we'll give you some concrete steps so that you can implement one in your workplace.

Origins of Safety Culture

For most of us, the 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 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".

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 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 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 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, 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, reflected in safety values, fundamentals, and best practices that go beyond merely ensuring compliance
  • The presence of active employees (including supervisors, maintenance personnel, and safety trainers) who directly supervise others and their on-the-job conduct to reinforce the safety values supported by management
  • 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 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 in the decision-making process. Give safety a high position in the organization's stated goals and values.
  • The commitment to safety should be visible.
  • Safety walk-arounds by senior managers are a good practice to stay on top of the true safety conditions in the area and they serve as a visual reminder of the high priority placed 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. Reporting and feedback on all safety issues, including accidents, near misses, and safety concerns are key components of that communication. Office memos, posters, announcements, and newsletters are effective forms of direct communication.
  • Active employee participation is vital for accident prevention and hazard reduction. Training plays an important role in the employees’ engagement.
  • A learning culture keeps the organization constantly refreshed and up to date. Fostering ongoing learning empowers employees to identify, learn, and change unsafe workplace conditions.

Visible Safety Culture Building Tools

These tools will help you build a safety culture by making your commitment to safety visible.

  • Setting strategic planning sessions
  • Allocating budget toward health and safety
  • Forming EHS committees
  • Establishing safety and health representative networks
  • Arranging meetings and conferences
  • Introducing suggestion schemes
  • Analyzing various safety metrics, including accident and incident rates
  • Discussing reported accidents, hazards, and near misses

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.