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According to the UK Health & Safety Commission, a safety culture is “the product of individual and group values, attitudes, perceptions, competencies, and patterns of behavior that determine the commitment to, and the style and proficiency of, an organization’s health and safety management.”
An organization’s safety culture is ultimately reflected in the way that safety is managed in the workplace. A strong safety culture has a number of characteristics in common:
- Communication. Communication is most effective when it comprises a combination of top-down and bottom-up interaction. Senior management sets the strategic goals and vision for the company’s safety program. It is vital that all levels of management (senior, middle, supervisory) communicate the strategy clearly to the workers who have to carry out the company’s mission. It is equally important that workers provide feedback on a practical level about what’s working and what’s not. Management needs to listen, take that feedback seriously, and act on it—or workers will stop giving it.
- Commitment. It is one thing to say that safety is a priority; it is another thing to show that it is. When it comes to safety, actions truly speak louder than words. A lack of commitment, as demonstrated by action (or lack thereof), comes across loud and clear to staff. For example, requiring staff to work excessive hours to meet productivity goals, which may result in fatigue and increased likelihood of an accident, sends a clear message that productivity is more important than employee safety.
- Caring. Caring takes commitment a step further. It involves showing concern for the personal safety of individuals, not just making a commitment to the overall idea of safety. Caring is about doing whatever is necessary to ensure employees return home safely every night. Again, how employees are treated is a much stronger indicator of caring than what the company says.
- Cooperation. Safety works best if management and workers feel like they are on the same team. Cooperation means working together to develop a strong safety program (e.g., management involving line workers in creating safety policies and procedures). It means that management seeks feedback from workers about safety issues—and uses that feedback to make improvements. And it means that there is no blame when incidents occur. Incident investigations focus on fact finding, not fault finding.
- Coaching. It is difficult for everyone to remember everything required to maintain a safe working environment. Coaching each other—peer to peer, supervisor to employee, even employee to management— is an important way to keep everyone on track. Coaching involves non-judgmentally providing feedback for improvements and, correspondingly, accepting and incorporating that feedback as constructive criticism. Disciplinary actions are sometimes necessary for repeated rule violations, but punishment is not the first management action in a strong coaching culture.
- Procedures. There should be documented, clear procedures for every task. This not only prevents disagreement about what is required, it also shows commitment when things are put in writing. Procedures should be designed jointly by management and workers for practicality and to encourage improved cooperation, communication, and buy-in. Procedures should be reviewed periodically and updated, as needed.
- Training. Training is a more formal, documented process for ensuring that employees follow safety processes and procedures. Management can demonstrate its commitment to safety training by creating formal, written training materials; tracking employee training; and checking for employee understanding. Formal training should happen frequently enough for employees to feel prepared to safely do their jobs.
- Tools. All equipment and tools should be in good repair, free of debris, and functioning as designed. Inadequate tools directly impact safety/protection and indirectly impact perception of management commitment. For example, if the company doesn’t invest in appropriate PPE, good housekeeping practices, or equipment maintenance, it sends a clear message that employee safety isn’t important.
- Personnel. There must be enough workers to do each task safely. The company should not sacrifice individual safety because of being understaffed (i.e., requiring shortcuts/overtime to meet production goals). In addition, the company should have safety experts on staff that employees can go to with safety-related questions.
- Trust. Trust in the safety program, in senior management, and in each other is built when each of these characteristics is present and treated as a company-wide priority.
Benefits of a Best-in-Class Safety Culture
Strong safety performance is a cornerstone of any business. When all of these characteristics come together to create a best-in-class safety culture, everyone wins:
- Fewer accidents, losses, and disruptions
- Improved employee morale
- Increased productivity
- Lower workers compensation and insurance claims
- Improved compliance with OSHA regulations
- Improved reputation to attract new customers and employees and retain existing ones
- Better brand and shareholder value