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How to Create a Safety First Culture

By Bryan McWhorter
Published: August 11, 2015 | Last updated: June 6, 2017 07:15:02
Key Takeaways

Tips for creating an effective safety first culture with all employees.

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Step by Step

It has been seven years since we initiated our safety first culture. We went from having one of the worst sites for worker safety in our company to one of the best.

I remember tuning into a safety webinar, hoping to gain some new insights. The webinar was on how to create a safety first culture. The speaker listed the key items needed to drive the change. To my surprise, he listed all the actions we had already taken! In effect, he described our safety program. I was disappointed that I didn’t get any new information, but it did validate we were on the right track.


In this article I will share with you the key elements and activities that made the difference. I am fully confident that what worked for us will work for you as well.

Step 1: Admit There is a Problem

We had always had a safety team and initiatives. They just weren’t successful. Ever. Not even close. We had launched new safety initiatives over and over. Here are a few of the approaches we took that did not work:

  • We gave prizes for worker safety
  • We reprimanded people for getting hurt (yep, blame the person that got hurt!)
  • We had people fill out a form whenever they found an unsafe condition. Our safety manager had hundreds of these, too many for one person to address
  • We held monthly safety meetings with a mix of hourly and salary employees
  • We promoted safety in Town Hall meetings and company newsletters

I’m not saying any of those listed actions won’t work, but on their own they produced no positive results for us. Our greatest asset at that time was a management team and company that really cared. They were committed to do whatever it took to turn this around. So, in the "pro" column, we had passion, determination and commitment. In the "con" column, none of us had any experience in improving workplace safety. We had to start at ground zero and build a new safety program from scratch.

Register for my free webinar: How Effective Hazard Assessments Improve Your Safety Culture

Step 2: Make the Commitment. Safety Comes First!

We launched our own in house media blitz announcing a change in our values. This began with a letter created and signed by our plant manager stating that safety is our number one goal. The letter stated we would not put people at risk for production numbers. He meant it. He would reinforce this message at every meeting he attended and I believe he still does. As part of an awareness campaign for "Safety First" we...

  • Mounted 3 electronic information boards at strategic places in our facility. They alerted everyone to our safety status
  • We designed and gave away free safety t-shirts to anyone that completed a safety project
  • We set a rule making safety the number one agenda item for all meetings in our facility. It did not matter what the meeting was for, it began by discussing safety. This kept safety at the forefront as an important topic
  • We would no longer have monthly safety meetings and a “safety team.” We would make everyone part of our safety team and hold safety meetings weekly that anyone could attend. We would hold these before or after a shift to make attendance easy
  • We created a core safety team and a safety roadmap to follow

Step 3: Walk the Talk


It was common for supervisors and salary personnel to walk out on the shop floor without hearing protection, even though this was a safety requirement. By breaking this rule, they were undermining the entire safety initiative. Management quickly addressed this. Everyone had to follow all safety rules. Our factory was over forty years old and this was the first time the salary personnel had to comply with all safety rules including proper PPE. This was huge; It told people management was serious.

Step 4: Train and Empower

We scheduled a full day of safety training for everyone. I know this is a big overtime investment. Done right, you will be dollars ahead in savings from reduced accidents. When employee safety is placed first, morale improves, which in turn can boost production goals. In our session, we included all required safety training and taught the three leading indicators for safety:

  1. Short Cuts
  2. Snap Decisions
  3. Complacency

Since safety typically relies on trailing indicators…we taught our employees to watch for the leading indicators and address them. These were behaviors that everyone could look out for.

We empowered employees to identify safety improvements and implement them. All safety projects had to be cleared through me, to make sure no regulations were being violated. This took me just a few moments each day, since our safety project was logged onto a central database that was easy to use. They also had to get the OK from their department teams. This helped filter ideas for the best solutions.

A full day of training is not needed to accomplish this. It is just the path we chose. Training can be done as part of smaller meetings and this may work better for you.

Step 5: Effective Safety Team Meetings

This is such an important topic, and I will address it in a future article in more detail. Our weekly safety meetings formed the basis for much of our success. We included:

  • More training as needed on safety topics and to improve safety knowledge
  • Health tips and information for well-being beyond just work
  • We had fun by keeping the atmosphere light-hearted
  • We gave teams the opportunity to show off safety solutions in their areas

Our safety meetings always followed the same structured agenda. Employees knew what to expect and how to prepare. I believe 90% of the safety projects we implemented came directly from shop-floor personnel. They were the ones at risk of injury and the ones most motivated to come up with solutions.

Step 6: Celebrate Success!

Every month we hit our safety goals we celebrated. We did everything from cooking steaks on a grill to making ice-cream sundaes. We put cookies or cakes in breakrooms and promoted our accomplishment.

One thing I noticed about these events was that it increased our sense of community. We are social beings and it is great to interact with coworkers as friends sharing the accomplishment. The celebrations can be small and simple. Celebrating in some way validates management is paying attention and appreciates the achievement.

Don’t let up

Once you have momentum behind your safety initiatives, don’t let up. If you do, you will most likely see a rise in accidents. It’s human nature. We invest time, money and energy in what’s important. No investment equals not important. When management stops backing and promoting safety, so will everyone else.

What’s important to my boss, is important to me, is the attitude most employees adopt. Since safety takes extra effort, management must show they appreciate and encourage those efforts.

From Kansas to Indonesia

Since the safety turn around in our factory, I have had the opportunity to visit factories and speak about safety in many great locations. I was happy to see other sites have the same success we had.

Some of our safety projects developed by our employees in Kansas were being used in China and Indonesia. This was very rewarding for the employees that developed those ideas. A good friend and safety colleague in Mexico had created a safety first culture in their factory. They enjoy the benefits of much fewer accidents and happier employees. I visited them for safety on a couple of occasions and was amazed at the safety program they created.

Safety First Culture

I urge you to look at your safety program. Take a moment and consider these questions:

  • Is employee safety the number one matrix in your business?
  • Do your employees feel their safety and well-being is important to management?
  • Do you have a sense of “community” where employees look out for each other?
  • Is the extra effort needed for safety valued and supported?
  • Do you celebrate safety success and continually validate its importance?

If your answer to those questions was “Yes” then you are already enjoying the benefits a safety first culture provides, including few accidents and good morale. If the answer is “No,” then consider establishing a safety first culture.

If someone does not care about my safety, they don’t care about me. Elevate safety to where it belongs: number one. When you put safety first, everything else falls into place. Its human nature; we all want to succeed at work, but it should never be at the sacrifice of health and safety.

Register for my free webinar: How Effective Hazard Assessments Improve Your Safety Culture


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Written by Bryan McWhorter | Lead Safety Advisor, Author, Writer, Speaker

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Bryan McWhorter is a safety professional with eight years of experience in driving and teaching safety. Bryan gained his knowledge and experience as the safety officer and Senior Trainer for Philips Lighting. Philips is a strong health and well-being company that promotes a safety first culture.

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