Anyone involved closely with workplace safety will have heard presentations, webinars or people just generally talking about the need to develop an organizational “culture of safety” in order to reap long term incident reduction benefits.
It's a term that, despite being around since the Chernobyl disaster in the 80's, has become a bit of a buzz word more recently with safety professionals and modern business leaders. But what are the building blocks to creating this type of positive behavior within your teams and how do you ensure that your efforts focus on real improvements rather than adding gimmicks or additional bureaucracy?
In recent times, it has been unfortunate that so called safety improvements from overzealous safety officers or from those looking to delay a job have given safety some bad press. However, adopting a safety focused culture does not have to limit your ability to get work done, nor does it have to lead to a reduction in productivity when implemented correctly.
What is a Safety Culture?
Safety culture in its simplest form is related to the principles or values an organization attaches to the prevention of worker injury, or to put it another way… the way in which a company “thinks” about safety. Adopting a safety culture can be achieved within an organization of any size, but it is not something that can be completed overnight. It should be seen as a journey of continued improvement.
Outlined below are 6 areas to assist the implementation of a safety culture in any organization. There are of course others that could be included here, but implementing each of those below would be a major step towards ensuring a sustainable safety approach is achieved.
To get long term commitment your organization and teams need to be excited about making an improvement. Maintaining motivation about safety means communicating real benefits which are relevant to your team and explaining the rationale behind it. Encourage support from all levels of the business to help refine your ideas and trust that employees will want to support your efforts if you remain positive and actions taken are relevant.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that introducing gimmicks is a way to excite people. It's not. You can suck all the energy out of a room the minute the safety “word-search” activity is produced or an outdated safety video is shown.
Take time to celebrate major milestones and to congratulate those who are willing to make significant contributions.
You can suck all the energy out of a room the minute the safety “word-search” activity is produced or an outdated safety video is shown.
People are more likely to engage if they are not on the defensive. In order to truly understand, not only the learnings from incidents and near misses but elements that may overtime contribute to incidents, an inclusive approach to feedback is required ensuring the team can talk openly about problems, potential improvements and opportunities.
While this certainly doesn’t mean that deliberate acts or behavior should go without being addressed, it is important that everyone feels they can provide feedback without negative repercussions.
Generating an environment where improvements can be suggested without department protectionism is critical to developing a positive safety culture.
Establishing a safety culture needs people to support the organization’s vision, so make them part of the plan from the start. Take your team members and co-workers with you on the journey rather than pointing to a destination. Give trust to your local team. They will be more likely to want to engage with the program and to reinforce any new procedures long after the first safety sign is erected.
Companies trying to “get serious” with safety oftentimes immediately put up a new set of safety signs prohibiting this and that. While well intentioned and likely warranted, this may be seen as enforcing rules from the top down. You will likely gain greater buy-in by giving local supervisors a say in how improvements can be made – they are part of the solution.
Sustained Approach – Consistently and Continually Improve
We can all recall projects or initiatives which start with enthusiasm. These are usually accompanied by big announcements and then over time motivation slowly fades. This can happen when people are distracted by other priorities, management support weakens or when the project encounters a challenging situation.
Any plans should be realistic and based upon the level of support your organization can sustain, not just when you start off. This doesn’t mean significant safety risks don’t need to be dealt with... these of course should be addressed right away, but in terms of training, environment and procedural implementation it is better to introduce a culture of safety program in a way it can be sustained by the organization. You’ll want to avoid a one step forward, two steps back approach, which results in employee frustration and eventually disengagement.
The journey to a true safety culture is a marathon not a sprint.
One important element of consistency is how you apply resources to any plan – while it is not always necessary to have a dedicated safety professional in house (skills or trainers can be brought in as required, especially for smaller businesses), it is important that anybody who is assigned responsibilities alongside another function has the bandwidth capable of sustaining the assigned responsibilities.
The purpose of communication should be to pass on information about all elements relating to safety including positive messages. This goes beyond communicating incident rates and recent occurrences. Where workers have experienced improvements in working conditions or are perhaps trying out a new tool/method – share these with the organization to show that safety is not just about rules and procedures.
If you want to change the behavior of your workforce, consider how safety messages are transmitted, are they just posted on a board or are they included in a monthly meeting or shared using digital media which is more accessible and iterative. The way in which an organization communicates about safety will demonstrate the commitment your organization has to making changes and improvements. Simply posting safety results without really sharing the why is not sufficient.
Top Level Support
Are senior managers committed and engaged? I don’t mean do managers attend meetings… or do they say the right thing during facility tours this means doing the right thing when no one is watching – being committed to a culture of safety means wanting to see daily improvements in the way the organization is addressing safety related matters and being prepared to support the safety team/committee. Having support from top management is essential for success.
Commitment to a culture of safety means managers need to lead by example. This means that if rules are imposed on workers (such as wearing PPE in a particular area) leaders need to support that when they are in those areas. It’s not only about talking the talk – leaders actions are a far better measure of their support of a safety culture.
It’s not only about talking the talk – leaders actions are a far better measure of their support of a safety culture.
If a safety culture is implemented correctly and adopted by team members, not only will safety improve, but areas such as productivity, employee retention and even product quality will benefit. When workers see that the company has taken a genuine interest in their well-being, they feel valued which in most instances leads to better on the job performance.
Building a safety culture, is about attitude - your companies, your co-workers and your own. If each of the 6 areas noted above are addressed and people are committed, then your drive towards the successful implementation of a safety culture will become a reality.