Developing a Safety Culture

By : Jim Pinto,
San Diego, CA.

An effective safety culture is not just a set of policies and procedures - it’s embedded in the organization. It relates to the "soft stuff" of humans interacting with each other, vs. procedures for interaction with "things" such as systems and equipment.

This article was published by:
May 2010

Safety culture is the prioritization of the value of safety at every level in an organization.

It defines the extent to which individuals and groups take personal responsibility for safety; the way they act to preserve, enhance and communicate safety concerns; how they strive to learn, adapt and modify individual and organizational behavior based on lessons learned from mistakes; and how they strive to be honored through these values. This is strongly influenced by top management, and includes the behaviors of everyone in the organization.

An effective safety culture is not just a set of policies and procedures—it’s embedded in the organization. It relates to the “soft stuff” of humans interacting with each other, vs. procedures for interaction with “things” such as systems and equipment.

A culture is created by people. It determines how each person shows up at work, with an attitude and energy that affects everyone. The myriad of interactions that take place all day, every day, make up the culture. An effective safety culture cannot be measured through failures; it leads toward the desired goal of zero safety incidents in the work place, similar to a “zero-defects” quality culture.

Leadership key

A good safety culture has established goals and objectives, with visible leadership and assigned responsibilities. Good leadership makes the difference between transitory “flavor-of-the-month” initiatives and long-term continuous improvement processes. Establishing a safety culture is a top-management priority, though employees too have the responsibility to follow procedures and think about how they work. It should not be considered as an additional duty, work that requires extra cost and effort. Every decision must have the safety perspective; every activity must be conducted safely.

The reduction of injuries and safety incidents is a lagging indicator, and doesn’t provide much insight into preventing future injuries. Leading indicators result from regular and consistent audits, logging results and tracking progress over time. Examples of leading indicators include information gleaned from safety-incident investigations, recording the number of unsafe acts and observing details of “near-misses” that could have resulted in injury.

A good safety culture often translates into improved discipline in other areas of operations, beyond just fewer on-the-job injuries and less lost time. People begin to follow other procedures and processes more closely as well. Beyond just the obvious safety improvements, companies benefit from increased productivity and overall operating efficiency through improvements that include things not readily visible, such as improved quality, low equipment damage and elimination of litigation issues, production delays, fines and the like. Reduction of these indirect costs increases profitability.

How does one develop a safety culture in organizations with multiple locations, across facilities, countries and cultures? The culture change starts with management commitment and continues throughout the organization. Organizations with a positive safety culture are characterized by communication founded on mutual trust, by shared perceptions of the importance of safety and by confidence in the efficacy of preventive measures.

A zero-incidents safety culture is a concept whose time has come. It is both a challenge and an opportunity.

There are three stages in the development of a good safety culture.

  1. Reactive: Workers react to safety incidents, instead of thinking about how to prevent them.
  2. Independent: Once people view safety as having primary importance, they practice safety because they want to do it, not because they are being told to do it.
  3. Interdependent: Every employee is looking out for others. It’s the “brother’s keeper” mentality.
At this stage, any employee should be comfortable to call out a safety issue to anyone, irrespective of management level.

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Copyright 2006 : Jim Pinto, San Diego, CA, USA