There is a big difference between a true safety culture and one based on compliance. This is a concept that many professionals do not fully grasp.

For those who scoff at my statement, I’m not finished. Compliance is necessary. Rules, standards and codes are very important. In fact, they give us a baseline from which we ought to derive training and knowledge sharing. But the problem with compliance thinking is simple: it is reactive thinking. Meaning, simply, that something almost always has to happen in order for these regulations to get put into effect. Someone has to suffer in order to save another’s life or limb.

Why? I could write volumes in an effort to explain my theory. The short answer is that often no one pays attention to anything other than production, until something terrible happens (get some background reading in Workplace Safety Culture 101).

Safety Culture and Proactivity

According to Merriam-Webster, a culture is defined as a way of thinking, behaving or working that exists in a place or organization. If you apply safety to this definition, you get my definition of a safety culture: "Where a group of co-workers think safely before they act, behave appropriately in the work environment, always apply safe work practices in every job task they are involved in, and never compromise safety over production." In my opinion, this is what safety is all about. This type of attitude is what keeps workers coming home to their families after each working day. You will find that this group of workers not only will have a superior safety record, but when compared with other groups where safety records are not kept as well, you will find that this group also saves their company more money than one that holds safety as less of a priority (learn more in Connecting the Dots: Safety and Profitability).

This is where proactive thinking comes into play. For example, you might think, "What can we do in order get ahead of something happening?" Obviously, you would look to what happened before, known as lagging indicators; however, it is essential to focus on what is currently being done. This action or behavior can be tracked, which will show us progress toward stated goals and objectives, or leading indicators. From the aspect of training and education, this is a good start, but you still need more to get you where you ought to be.

Safety Culture and Buy-In

You can have alphabet soup behind your name (CSP, CSHT, CSHM, etc.), but that does not mean that you can an effective leader that people will want to follow. This is not intended to offend anyone; I’m only stating that just because a person has certain credentials, does not make him an effective leader. It only means that they have met a set of criteria to take a test, which they passed, to show that they know the material necessary to gain said credential.

It takes more than a credential to effectively "lead" the development and sustainment of a safety program. Qualities such as being visible, approachable, empathetic and personable are some of the missing components necessary in order to build a efficient and exemplary safety culture.

An effective safety culture stems from employee buy-in. This occurs when employees feel that when a company or supervisor say, "Nothing is more important than an employee’s safety, and if something is observed that compromises the safety of an employee or the team, anyone has not only the right, but the responsibility to stop a job before someone gets hurt," they believe it and practice it (see 5 Reasons You Struggle with Safety Buy-In and What to Do About It).

Do you represent a company where this rare gem of values is actually practiced as it is preached?