safety culture
Property Casualty

How Would You Describe Your Safety Culture?

Kevan Bakewell
Kevan Bakewell
Vice President, Enterprise Loss Control, PC

The answer to that question is critical, and it says a lot about your organization. But before I get into what I mean, here’s a quote I love to refer to:

“The only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture…”—Edgar Schein

Read that a couple of times and let it set in. That quote couldn’t be more true, right?! It sounds harsh if you think about it too hard, but that’s not the point. Culture can make or break an organization. Add to that the element of “safety,” and, well, yeah…I can’t emphasize enough the importance of culture.

Let me explain where I’m going with this. We have many clients with employees working in high-hazard environments or industries such as transportation, healthcare, heavy manufacturing, or construction. The employees sometimes work in highly fluid and changing environments with exposures to hazards that could result in high-severity injuries. Obviously, we want to be able to limit that.

One approach that’s popular recently is the concept of improving or creating a positive culture (safety culture) within your organization to reduce injuries. Numerous studies and research have shown that companies can improve not just safety results, but also morale, customer satisfaction, quality, and production. This means you stand to gain financially! Win-win!

As you know, accidents and injuries may lead to increased insurance premiums, loss of productivity, and the loss of fully trained and experienced workers. Safety has an inherent value with employees, and by beginning improvement efforts with safety, you can improve all aspects of your business.

Business leaders often talk about a safety culture or want to “improve their safety culture.” (In reality, there’s not necessarily a “safety culture,” but just culture generally.) Often, what they actually mean is safety climate rather than culture. A safety climate is the perceived value placed on safety in an organization at any given time. These perceptions and beliefs can be influenced by the attitudes, values, opinions, and actions of other workers in an organization, and can change with time. It’s the organization’s “mood.”

When talking with clients, I describe a safety culture as the value placed on safety and the extent to which people take personal responsibility for it in their organization. It’s influenced by the climate. Safety culture is often described as the “personality” of an organization or “what people do when no one is looking.”

Often, multiple cultures exist within different departments or crews and within different levels of leadership in the organization. New employees are often highly influenced by employees with tenure. New employees receive training on how a task is supposed to be done, then a tenured employee trains the employee on the quickest and easiest way to do the task. This is an element of culture. Culture usually has patterns, and changes to safety culture can be detected over time.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), cultural patterns for declining safety are:

  1. Over-confidence. A result of good past performance and unjustified self-satisfaction. (Failure to recognize declining performance.)
  2. Complacency. Minor events begin to occur but aren’t adequately assessed; oversight begins to weaken due to self-satisfaction. (No effective performance monitoring.)
  3. Denial. More significant events begin to occur. Negative oversight findings tend to be rejected as invalid, corrective actions aren’t systematically carried out, and improvement programs aren’t completed. (Lack of management awareness on deficiencies & corrective action.)
  4. Danger. A few potentially severe events occur. The organization consistently rejects criticisms, and employees are afraid to confront management. (Did not use feedback effectively.)
  5. Collapse. Problems become clear for all to see. At this point, management is overwhelmed and usually needs to be replaced.

Below are a few steps to help improve your safety culture:

  • Safety strategy — Most companies have injury reduction goals and programs. It’s difficult to hit a target (improved culture) if you don’t have a strategy. A strategy helps develop measurable goals. It’s important to develop structure (teams) for safety improvement and ensure employees have the knowledge, skills, and abilities to implement safety activities.
  • Define current state — You can determine what kind of safety culture you currently have and what additional capabilities/resources you need to improve. By understanding where you are now, you’ll have a baseline.
  • Management commitment — From owners to managers, upper management needs to hold themselves accountable to the same set of safety standards they set for their employees. Verbal, visible, and consistent reaffirmation of genuine commitment is crucial.
  • Develop safety climate — By focusing on improving commitment, caring, and coaching from the employee’s perspective, you can develop your culture.
  • Training and safety committees — Training should always be constant. Simply having a monthly safety meeting may not be enough. The formation of a safety committee can also have an extremely positive influence on your safety culture. This should include members of your entire workforce including upper management, crew leaders, and employees. There’s often a difference between the official training message and what the experienced worker — the old-timer — says to the newcomer: “Yeah, that’s what you learn in the classroom, but that’s not the best way to do it.” The solution isn’t to depend just on the training department, but to make training a joint effort with operators, managers, and engineers.

It’s possible to improve the entire business by focusing on improving your safety culture. That’s great news, right? Safety culture change, or any improvement in safety leadership that’s led by the safety department, potentially sends the message that safety owns the safety aspect of the culture and the business leaders own the business. Ultimately, safety culture changes when there’s strong leadership and accountability throughout the organization…starting at the top.

If you’d like to talk about this further or would like someone to examine the safety culture you have in place, reach out! We’d love to talk with you.

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