Why Creating a Safety Culture Is Better Than Relying on Compliance

By Timothy McFarlain, COSS, OSHT, ASHM
Last updated: September 30, 2019
Key Takeaways

Reaction-based safety programs yield lower compliance rates when compared to programs that convince employees to buy into the workplace safety culture.

There is a big difference between a true safety culture and one that is merely based on compliance.


I know some of you are scoffing at this, but hear me out.

Compliance is necessary – I'm not disputing that. Rules, standards, and codes give us a baseline for training and knowledge-sharing. But there's one big problem with compliance-based thinking: it's reactive. In other words, something almost always has to happen before the regulations kick in and do something about it. Someone has to suffer in order to save another’s life or limb.


Why is that? Why do we wait for safety to fail before doing more to protect workers?

I would need to write volumes to give you a full, comprehensive answer to that question. But the short version is simply that most organizations don't pay attention to anything other than production – until a serious incident forces them to.

Safety Culture and Proactivity

I define safety culture as the a workplace where employees:

  • Think safely before they act
  • Behave appropriately in the work environment
  • Apply safe work practices in every job task they are involved in
  • Never compromise safety for the sake of production

In my opinion, that is what safety is all about. And it's this kind of attitude that keeps workers coming home to their families after each working day.

Moreover, you will find that a group of workers who approach safety this way not only have a superior safety record, but also save their company more money than those who don't make safety a priority.


This is where proactive thinking comes into play.

Every employer and safety professional wants to know what they can do to get ahead of risks and impose control measures before something bad happens. Many of them try to do this by looking at what has happened before (events that are known as lagging indicators because they point to past actions and their consequences). This will only provide a partial answer, however. Instead, it is far better to focus on what is currently being done – on the actions and behaviors that show progress toward safety goals and objectives (known as leading indicators because they predict future safety performance).

By building a strong safety culture instead of relying on compliance, employers are being proactive about safety. They are also encouraging workers to be proactive about it as well. The result is a workplace where safety continuously improves instead of sticking to the bare minimum required by regulations and the company safety program.

(Learn more in Connecting the Dots: Safety and Profitability)

Safety Culture and Buy-In

Having an alphabet soup behind your name (CSP, CHST, CSHM, you name it) doesn't automatically make you an effective leader or guarantee that anyone will want to follow the policies and procedures you impose on them.

That shouldn't come as a surprise. After all, none of those credentials have much to do with leadership. Plenty of people have been able to meet the criteria, pass the test, and earned their certification but still struggle to convince anyone to take safety seriously.

Having a set of letters attached to your name isn't nothing – it shows that you're an expert and that you really know your stuff. It's just that developing and sustaining a safety program that truly gets results requires a lot more than expertise. You also have to make yourself visible, approachable, personable, and empathetic. Those are the qualities you need to get people to put their trust in you and really listen to what you have to say.

An effective safety culture stems from employee buy-in. Without buy-in, workers believe that every statement their employer makes about safety is empty rhetoric or pointless boilerplate. Securing buy-in, on the other hand, means that workers take those statements seriously and truly believe that their safety matters.

That's how you get people to not only comply with safety policy, but practice safety in everything they do.

(Learn about 5 Reasons You Struggle with Safety Buy-In and What to Do About It)

Building a Safety Culture that Lasts

Building a safety culture doesn't happen overnight, and creating a sustainable one takes ongoing effort.

Here are some ways to strengthen the safety culture in your organization and encourage workers to take on a more proactive attitude to safety.

  • Create awareness: Effectively communicating the risks workers encounter on the job is an important step to securing buy-in for safety. No one wants to get hurt and understanding how policies and procedures keep workers safe paints safety in a more positive light.
  • Start from the top: Many workplaces don't have a safety problem so much as a leadership problem. When management doesn't take action on safety, workers get the message that safety is a low priority. Getting buy-in from employees only works if you get buy-in from company leaders first.
  • Create a feedback system: Open the lines of communication with employees. Implement a clear and convenient procedure for providing feedback about safety. Encourage participation during toolbox talks, invite them to stop by the office with concerns, set up an online portal to report safety issues.
  • Remove blame from your incident investigations: The point of an investigation is to figure out what happened so you can prevent it from happening again in the future. It should never be to issue punishment, blame, or to name and shame any employees involved. Workers who fear they may face retaliation when they are involved in an incident will be incentivized not to report it, and discouraging reporting will weaken your workplace's safety culture.

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Timothy McFarlain, COSS, OSHT, ASHM
I have worked in the Oil and Gas industry for 14 years. Of this time, 10 years have been as a Site Safety Manager at client petrochemical construction locations. I have assisted in the development, implementation, and management of client safety programs by recommending policies and procedures in order to assist in filling gaps in client safety programs.

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