When No One Is Watching

Safety professionals often discuss the concept of a safety culture but, surprisingly, have been hard-pressed to offer a solid definition or prescription for achieving positive promotion of such a thing. The difficulty may be that a positive safety culture comprises shared and accepted attitudes, beliefs and associated behaviors. While documented company policies and procedures must support it, employee actions bear greater influence. The measure of an established culture comes down to what employees do when no authority figure is looking. 

Approaching from a technical perspective, the term “culture” was first used in the aftermath of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. In the post-investigation summary, safety culture was defined as “an organizational atmosphere where safety and health is understood to be, and is accepted as, the number one priority.” For employees to be safer at the workplace, safety must become part of a company’s overall corporate culture as it involves all employees, from top to bottom, and a significant financial investment.

When trying to develop a safety culture in a company, it’s important to understand that it is neither possible nor feasible to simply insert it into an organization. Even the best safety systems available are destined to fail without a supportive corporate mindset. A safety culture is not a one-size-fits-all concept; it must be designed to the specifics of a company. The environment, company procedures and each individual will influence the safety culture.

Some industries and companies are more effective at developing and incorporating a safety culture into their workplace and their employees’ everyday lives. These organizations have several factors in common.

A commitment to safety must be present at all levels. Safety and health is adopted as a core value, and the company demonstrates that it actively cares for its work force. The company exhibits this position from the top management to the newest and least experienced employee. It’s crucial that management displays its safety commitment by introducing and enforcing compliance with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) policies and procedures. This can also be accomplished through the evaluation of employee safety performance and having clear and consistent rewards for actively contributing to safety.

Safety is viewed and treated as an investment, not simply a cost. The management of safety and health issues is treated as a means to improve the overall performance of a company. Money assigned to safety and health demonstrates to all employees that their well-being is worth the company’s financial investment.

Money is not the only resource that a company will need to invest. Time must be allocated for safety training and reviews, inspections, risk assessments and investigations. Lacking the ability to deal with these issues during the workday demonstrates to the employees that their safety isn’t important enough to address during work hours.

A safety and health system is a continuing endeavor. This type of system can’t simply be added to a company’s policies. It is a dynamic system that must be reviewed for weaknesses and ways to strengthen safety performance.

Training and information is provided to everyone. It’s logical that employees who receive regular safety and health training are more likely to be aware of these types of issues and how their actions can affect themselves and nearby workers. This awareness helps them to make better choices and perform more safely each day. Employees who have received proper job training and are aware of the associated hazards of the role they perform or supervise are less likely to suffer or cause injury. The bottom line is that training, both safety and job-specific, helps to minimize the risk of employee injury.

Safety is measured and tracked. This is achieved through reviews, reports, safety inspections and risk assessments. Quantifying safety ensures that management, supervisors and employees are all on the same page as to what is safe and what is not.

The work environment is blame-free. An important aspect of a safety culture is reporting and investigating unsafe issues. It’s crucial that everyone understands that the main point of these activities is not to assign blame but to correct unsafe practices, thereby keeping all employees safe. Fully incorporating a safety culture into a company will sometimes require embracing and accepting bad news.

Companies must celebrate their success. In a good safety culture, it is valuable for everyone to be aware of safety by celebrating successes. This can be accomplished through recognition, rewards, reinforcement and feedback.

All these factors are common to highly functioning safety cultures. This culture needs strong top-down support, good and open communication among all levels of a company, established training and reporting procedures, and built-in accountability for all employees regardless of their position in the company. The reality is that safety and health cannot be separated or isolated from the other aspects of a firm, such as employees, finances and management, since it influences and is influenced by these other aspects. To be effective, a safety culture truly must be part of the overall company culture.

About the Author

Diane Kelly

Safety Columnist

Diane Kelly is a safety and health specialist with Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. She can be reached at 800.745.4818 or dkell...

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