How to Build a Sustainable Safety Culture
You already have most of the tools to build a sustainable safety culture - all you need to do is get started.
Safety culture comes from the top.
No matter how interested employees are in safety, if they don’t have managerial support, a workplace's safety culture will inevitably fall apart.
As a safety professional, you know there are many perks to maintaining a strong safety culture, but how do you bring it to life with so many restrictions on budget, time, and talent?
Locate the Source of the Problem
Your first step is to find out where your safety problems come from. This part of the process can be challenging, because it’s not always obvious that your workplace's safety culture is failing until it’s too late and an accident occurs.
Some of the warning signs that your safety culture is on the decline include:
- Routine procedural violations (such as incomplete or inconsistent inspections)
- Unsafe jobsite practices
- Frequent regional regulation violations (and the fines that come with them)
Being able to review trends in day-to-day activities is valuable here. It will provide insight in the field that isn't always visible at first glance.
Identify Manifestations of a Safety Culture on the Decline
Once you’ve identified where the deficits exist, review the ways that those problems are manifesting. Are all procedures being followed and safety inspections being performed? What about broken equipment – is it reported and repaired in a timely manner?
A failing safety culture often results from obvious neglect from management. This often leads to a breakdown in repair procedures. On a site where no one is given enough time to do repairs and hazards are left unattended to, employees will soon get the message: they will be lax about reporting, not because they don't care about safety but because they know full well that their reports will be ignored.
Empower Workers by Giving Them a Voice
The people on the front line have the most to lose from workplace safety failures. So when a company doesn't not communicate with their employees about safety, the workers feel disconnected from the procedures that were put in place to protect them (learn more in Face-to-Face Safety: The Right Way to Build a Safety Culture).
The last thing a safety culture needs is a team that feels their voices are not heard when problems arise. It is important that management not only provide a means for technicians to report on unsafe work practices, but also to respond in a timely manner when these reports come in. Giving workers a voice allows them to take ownership of their safety, alongside their superiors.
Provide Access to Safety Documents
Vertical communication is key in building a safer company culture. But it's important to remember that communication doesn't just happen between people; it also happens through official documentation.
Make sure workers have access to safety documents, regional requirements, and other specifications that pertain to safe work performance. Every safety document needs a proper home – getting an OSHA handbook won't do any good if it's just used to prop up the lunch table.
Easy access to job-specific safety requirements is critical. How-to guidelines, information about safety hazards, and PPE specifications for the job should never be tucked away and difficult to find. Reminders are especially important for new employees or when the information is not intuitive.
Stay on Top of Training
Safety culture will rarely flourish without adequate training. Even the most seasoned employees should be given safety course refreshers on a regular basis, especially when their jobs involve dealing with dangerous materials like molten metal or corrosive liquids.
Not only does training impart essential information, regular refreshers also shows the team that safe work procedures are important. It's also a great way for management to show its commitment to ensuring the safety of their workforce.
Promote the Right Attitude
Safety culture may come from the top, but it works through the people. That means attitude is a large piece of the safety puzzle. Managers can provide workers with all the training and tools available, but if it’s done begrudgingly or dismissively, these efforts are likely to be unsuccessful. If workers realize that company leaders approach safety procedures like they're just going through the motions, they'll take the same approach, too.
Going through the motions is not enough. All that training is meant to prepare workers to follow safety procedures – whether or not they’re necessary for regulatory compliance. No matter the region, weather conditions, and daily tasks they face, workers need to know that they can trust their common sense and the procedures put in place to keep them safe.
Accidents can still happen, even when technicians follow all the rules (but see The Journey to Zero! for another take). One of the most important steps to building a safety culture is to learn from the things that go wrong despite your best efforts. Companies need to be flexible enough to incorporate the lessons they learn from these events into future procedures and on other jobsites.
Safety Culture Is a Marathon, Not a Spring
Bringing all aspects of safety into your organization can be difficult, and it’s sometimes hard to find the time or budget to fulfill all requirements.The good news is that many of the aspects of safety culture are already available to you. Commitment from management, communication between company leadership and field teams, and the motivation to maintain a safe and unfailing environment are all free. And once that strong foundation of safety is in place, the rest can follow as resources are available.