What Is the Difference Between a Safety Culture and a Safety Climate (and Why Does It Matter?)
Taking a snapshot of your safety climate is a great way to measure the strength of your organization's safety culture.
When speaking of organizations and individuals, the words "safety culture" and "safety climate" are sometimes used interchangeably. That's understandable – they both speak to something about the character of an organization or workplace – but they are distinct concepts, and we might overlook some important aspects of workplace safety if we mistake one for the other.
While they are different, organizational effectiveness, profitability, key employee retention, and systems effectiveness depends on both.
What Are Safety Culture and Climate?
Let's start with definitions so we know what we're dealing with.
Safety culture is the way in which safety is managed in the workplace. It is the combination of beliefs, perceptions, and attitudes employees have toward the safety of workers and the overall safety of the work environment.
A safety culture is all about shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices.
(Learn more in Workplace Safety Culture 101.)
A safety climate, on the other hand, is the perceived value placed on safety in an organization at a particular point in time. These perceptions and beliefs can be influenced by the attitudes, values, opinions, and actions of other workers in an organization, and they can change over time and across different circumstances.
One way to think about the difference is to compare culture and climate to safety audits and safety inspections. Audits let you know how the system is doing, while the inspection is more of a snap-shot at a particular point in time.
(Learn The Proper Way to Conduct a Safety Audit.)
Why You Should Measure Your Safety Climate
Why is this important? Well, every organization has a culture, and hopefully one facet of it is a great safety culture.
Taking a measure of your organization's safety climate is a way to take the temperature of its safety culture. If the climate is positive, then the safety culture is probably strong. If it's negative, you might need to take steps to foster a stronger culture of safety among your workforce and management.
(Learn 5 Ways to Foster Accountability and Improve Safety Culture.)
And of course, the climate shifts, so you can't just measure it once and call it a day. If you run a survey about safety culture during Family Appreciation Day, you will get some pretty rosy results. If you run the same survey after a serious incident, the results will be far different.
Measuring climate sounds complicated, but there are plenty of e-tools to measure safety climate. They are essentially survey instruments tied to spreadsheet functions, but they allow safety pros to not only find out how company personnel feel about the way things are going but also produce a great report to use for review and decisions.
(Find out how to Get Your CEO to Support Safety with the Curve Approach.)
But why should you measure at all? Because measuring the climate gives us a way of comparing our perception of how safe our workplace is with its actual safety performance. Plenty of us think that our workplaces have a strong safety culture, but unless we take its temperature by regularly evaluating the safety climate, we can't know for sure.
Measuring also helps you reinforce your safety efforts and gives you the data and information you need to effectively implement change.
Of course, before using a measurement tool, you'll need education up front so everyone knows the baseline rationale behind using it. You'll also need to take an initial snapshot of your workplace climate. That will give a baseline and show you where you're starting from.
And lastly, please share the results with everybody and only use the information you collect if you have received enough input from the workforce to make the data statistically valid.
Written by Henry Skjerven
Mr. Skjerven has consulted professionally for over 27 years, with extensive Canadian experience, literally from coast to coast but with a home base in Western Canada. His experience ranges from marketing, adult education, and heavy transportation (rail) to municipal public works, fleet and transportation, oil and gas construction in the tar sands, emergency response (Fire and Ambulance), Public Works, Parks and Recreation, Security, as well as human resources and software systems, including enterprise style projects.