Implementing a comprehensive safety program is crucial to protecting workers from occupational hazards. Simply having the framework doesn’t mean that employees are completely committed to creating and maintaining the safest work environment. This can only be achieved by developing a strong safety culture. However, safety culture is not a one-size-fits-all concept. It must be tailored to the company, environment, procedures and each worker.
The safety culture concept is derived from studies of organizations that consistently minimize adverse events despite working in complex and hazardous environments. Experts discussing safety culture have had difficulty coming up with a solid definition. However, according to OSHA, “Safety cultures consist of shared beliefs, practices, and attitudes that exist at an establishment. Culture is the atmosphere created by those beliefs, attitudes, etc., which shape our behavior.”
A strong safety culture typically leads to lower incident rates, less turnover and absenteeism, higher productivity and fewer at-risk behaviors. However, it is impossible to simply add safety culture to a safety program or make it appear within an organization. Even the best-written safety programs are destined for failure without buy-in from all parties.
According to the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM) article “Understanding and Developing Organizational Culture,” an employer must begin with a thorough understanding of what culture is in a general sense and what their organization’s specific culture is. At the deepest level, an organization’s culture is based on values derived from basic assumptions about the following:
Human nature: Are people inherently good or bad, mutable or immutable, proactive or reactive? These basic assumptions lead to beliefs about how employees, customers and suppliers should interact and how they should be managed.
The organization’s relationship to its environment: How does the organization define its business and constituencies?
Appropriate emotions: Which emotions should people be encouraged to express, and which ones should be suppressed?
Effectiveness: What metrics show whether the organization and its individual components are doing well? An organization will be effective only when the culture is supported by an appropriate business strategy and a structure that is appropriate for the business and desired culture.
What successful organizations do
Some industries and organizations are more successful at establishing safety culture than others. Common elements present in a safe workplace include commitment to safety at all levels, adopting safety and health as a core value, demonstrating that the company actively cares for its employees and buy-in from all workers. This means commitment from upper management down to the newest and least experienced employees.
Employers should consistently enforce compliance with OSHA regulations, policies and procedures. They must be timely and vigilant in adhering to injury and illness reporting and all record-keeping requirements and deadlines. Adherence to other relevant industry consensus standards such as the National Fire Protection Association Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace (NFPA 70E) also is essential. This demonstrates to employees the importance of safety in the workplace and the levity of OSHA guidelines.
Organizations should view safety as an investment to improve overall performance. A financial commitment to safety and health demonstrates to employees that their well-being is important. However, it takes more than money. The company must allocate time for safety training and reviews, inspections, risk assessments and investigations to develop a safety culture. If not, workers perceive that their safety is not a priority.
Awareness leads to better choices
Safety culture is an ongoing endeavor that must be reviewed for strengths, weaknesses and methods of improvement. Education and training increases the likelihood that employees are familiar with hazards and how their actions can affect themselves and others. This awareness helps them make better choices and perform tasks in the safest manner possible. Employees who have received proper job training are more aware of the hazards associated with the roles they perform or oversee. Therefore, they are less likely to suffer or cause an injury. As a result, this knowledge and awareness can serve as a baseline for strong safety culture.
Measuring, tracking and determining the efficacy of workplace safety is another important part of evaluating the strength of overall culture. This can be achieved by conducting reviews, safety audits and inspections as well as risk or hazard assessments. It is important to factor in leading and lagging indicators. Leading indicators are based on observation, operations or systems that affect safety. Lagging indicators are a measure of results such as those established by calculating injury rates. Those figures are compared through benchmarking and shared with workers. Quantifying safety ensures that management, supervisors and employees are all on the same page when it comes to safety.
Another characteristic of strong safety culture is a blame-free environment. Employees must feel comfortable reporting hazardous conditions or unsafe practices to their superiors without fear of scrutiny or repercussion. If workers are uncomfortable speaking up, the unsafe condition may not be corrected, which may result in an injury or accident. Moreover, setting that precedent can lead to underreporting of injuries and illnesses when they do occur.
Some companies create incentives for employees not to report injuries and illnesses, which is not only indicative of poor safety culture, but violates OSHA recordkeeping rules and can result in fines and citations. In an organization with strong safety culture, everyone understands the common goal is to correct unsafe practices and keep all employees safe. Full immersion in safety culture calls for embracing and accepting the good with the bad.
Conversely, companies should celebrate and raise awareness of their successes. This can be accomplished through recognition, rewards, reinforcement and feedback. It can also be achieved through evaluating employee safety performance and having clear, consistent rewards for actively contributing to safety. It is estimated that organizations with safety incentive programs experience more than a 40% lower average lost-time workday injury rate. Incentives range from recognition and pizza parties to gift cards and bonuses. Individuals, teams, departments and even the entire company can earn rewards, depending on the program. However, employers should understand that recognition-based incentives have been proven to be more effective than financial rewards. Poorly designed programs can result in underreporting of accidents, incidents and near-misses.
Hiring and recruiting
Additionally, hiring and recruiting plays a role in safety culture. According to the SHRM, “HR has a vital role in perpetuating a strong culture, starting with recruiting and selecting applicants who will share the organization’s beliefs and thrive in that culture. HR also develops orientation, training and performance management programs that outline and reinforce the organization’s core values and ensure that appropriate rewards and recognition go to employees who truly embody the values.”
Developing or improving safety culture takes time and requires building trust and gaining buy-in from everyone. If an organization is starting from scratch, steps to establishing a culture include creating an oversight and steering committee; developing a site safety vision; aligning the organization; defining specific roles; developing a system of accountability as well as measures, policies for recognition, rewards, incentives and ceremonies; implementing process changes; communicating performance metrics and results; and providing ongoing support.
Some other indicators that an organization has a strong safety culture include a lack of competing priorities where safety always come first; high participation rates in nonmandatory trainings or briefings; employees’ knowledge of safety and health; and employee reports of high job satisfaction. Organizations that have poor safety culture are likely to have high turnover, poor engagement from employees, unhappy workers, weaker customer relations and lower profits. The most successful companies don’t view safety as an option, but as a condition of employment.
These are all elements of a strong safety culture. High-functioning, effective employers have strong top-down support, good and open communication, well-defined training and reporting procedures, and built-in accountability for all employees regardless of their position in the organization. The truth is that safety and health cannot be separated or isolated from other pillars of the company, such as employees, finances and management, since it influences and is influenced by these other components. To be effective, a safety culture truly must be ingrained in the fabric of the overall company culture.
Header image by Getty Images.
About The Author
O’CONNOR is safety and regulatory affairs manager for Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm. Reach him at [email protected].