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Why Creating a Safety Culture Is Better Than Relying on Compliance

By Timothy McFarlain, COSS, OSHT, ASHM
Published: September 26, 2019 | Last updated: September 30, 2019 09:31:10
Key Takeaways

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

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 give us a baseline for training and knowledge-sharing. But the problem with compliance-based thinking is simple: it is reactive. Meaning 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.


(Learn more in Workplace Safety Culture 101.)

Safety Culture and Proactivity

I define safety culture as follows: "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, CHST, 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 of and sustain, a safety program. Qualities such as being visible, approachable, empathetic, and personable are some of the missing components necessary in order to build an 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.

(Learn 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?


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Written by Timothy McFarlain, COSS, OSHT, ASHM

Profile Picture of 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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