June 21, 2018 2:00 pm
Safety culture involves all the overt and implied rules, expectations, history and rules of thinking that a group of people share and follow. It involves developing both express and implied understanding of safety as it applies to a given workplace or company. It’s not simply a procedure or guidebook; safety culture is about how people live and function safely in a work environment. Obviously, that goes a lot deeper than just a few pages of rules and how-to instructions.
The best starting place is to understand where your company or workplace is currently. This is known as an as-is assessment. You need to have a good understanding of your current condition to understand what to change and improve.
A baseline assessment essentially applies the minimum safety criteria needed to have a passable safety culture. Consider it a set of minimum requirements that should be met under any condition. If these MQs are deficient, then the workplace isn’t safe, bottom line. A baseline is a floor from which to build. Typical baseline assessment criteria involves both safety conditions as well as safety performance. So, for example, a good baseline would include a goal of no accidents for a set time period, i.e. six months, and increased safety training to be completed by all personnel handling a particular part of machinery. Both elements have to be met as a minimum criteria. From there, the operating floor can try to improve performance knowing the minimum level needed.
A baseline assessment that just defines criteria isn’t enough. An organization has to know whether basic safety criteria are even being met at all. This requires an active evaluation, checking and testing for safety training, safety performance and accident avoidance via physical inspection, checking training records and reviewing accident reports. Once these metrics are collected regularly, then management can begin to plan improvements.
Organizations are made of people, and employees follow examples set by the management of the organization. It’s not enough to tell people to behave safer; they need to see their leadership is following the very same expectations in safe behavior that rank and file are doing. If leadership is acting erratic and unsafe but expecting everyone else to operate equipment and behave with more restriction, the hypocrisy will actually cause more damage than if there were was no safety training required at all.
Accident records are not just for lawyers or HR managers. They represent a treasure trove of where improvements can be made. Frequently, accidents tend to follow human behavior where the same mistake is being made again and again. By looking at the records of past accidents, trends and patterns can identify where to focus extra attention.
An effective safety culture is not an illusion or make-believe goal. It is actually possible to make a real, safety-focused workplace happen. But it involves everyone in the given program or office to be engaged and proactively working towards keeping everyone safe.
Clearly, one of the most overt factors is that safety training is made available, employees are required to take it, and follow up training is provided as well to both reinforce and add to people’s knowledge. What good is training if employees only receive safety guidance once every five years? Training should be regular and informative with new information and new tools people can incorporate.
Safety doesn’t stop with a given set of expectations and guidelines. It should be regularly updated with new ideas, ways of implementing safety, and additional tools people can use to spot problems and accident risks before they occur. For example, case studies, examples in other companies where risks were ignored, and success stories can be updated regularly so people learn how safety applies in different situations.
The organization also needs to be honest and clear about what is expected of staff at every level. No one should be exempted from safety training and focus. Where there are any differences, the reasons should be explained clearly so everyone understands why. This avoids comparisons as well as confusion and frustration about employees being treated differently.
Management and supervision assume the added role of proactively making sure everyone is following through on the safety commitment of the organization. This means employees in key lead roles and experienced positions are pointing out to others how to comply, what resources are available for safety understanding, and correcting issues where they appear instead of ignoring them.
No one should be afraid to speak up when there is a safety risk or concern. Sometimes things can be explained and confusion removed. In other cases there is a genuine issue that can then be addressed. However, issues can’t be resolved if no one speaks up and points out a problem when it appears. For example, one of the key aspects that airport law enforcement stress is for people to report things when they see something odd. A thousand eyes are far more effective than a few. “If you see something, say something.”
A key factor in change is making sure to incorporate different needs and perspectives. If an organization simply defines safety from one office’s perspective, it’s frequently wrong, especially when there are big differences in how different areas physically operate. Safety programs should be flexible enough to accommodate differences and tailor to them instead of ignoring needs entirely.
Where work production needs to be stopped temporarily or delayed, it should not be discouraged. A major cause of accidents becoming full blown injuries and serious problems is the fact that people are afraid of being punished if they report a problem that delays activity. Management needs to remember that an ounce of productivity is typically outweighed a thousand times by the cost of an injury.
A second problem in many companies is that safety is seen as a chore versus a duty. Many managers portray it as a necessary evil to keep occupational safety inspectors away and avoid penalties, versus safety training and awareness being treated as everyone’s fundamental responsibility to keep their coworkers safe.
A number of major companies have produced very notable examples of safety management, leading by example how other companies can control injuries and workplace risks effectively.
General Motors represents a major player in industry, and their mission statement includes a clear commitment to safety for not just their employees, but everyone in the community affected by General Motors’ activities beyond what the law requires.
For example, part of their mission statement includes the following:
“…At the new GM, we make a strong commitment to our customers, employees, partners and other important stakeholders. We state proudly our five principles that guide us in everything we do:
Note that the very first bullet is specific to safety and quality, not just quality, sales or production. From the top down, the company puts safety as a key priority in all activities as a result.
Caterpillar has instituted a program where specific, safety-trained professionals work inside the company,proactively training, identifying and helping improve safety levels across the organization. These Environment, Health and Safety (EHS) Professionals are visible boots-on-the-ground working on real-time safety implementation.
Pepsi has messaged to its employees a clear commitment to safety beyond just the need to pass OSHA inspections. Instead, the company is proactively training people to see safety as a basic human right for everyone, not just an operational cost and meaningless requirement.
So, given the above, is safety for your workplace out of reach? Absolutely not. Instead of settling for having to deal with a recurring pattern of accidents, your organization can and should be pushing for full performance and zero accidents year-round.
Safety is like learning a language; it has to be reinforced and practiced daily, weekly and monthly. It requires engagement and social interaction, not messaging from a corner office without a face behind the voice. Workers should invest in your safety program instead of feeling burdened by it. Communication of safety needs and expectations is a key step any organization can make with little or no cost immediately.
A program should be put in place educating all employees, including leadership, of proper safety compliance, awareness, and how to use safety-promotion tools daily. A consistent dedication to regular training shows commitment to safety expectations on everyone, and employees follow through on safety culture when it continues to be encouraged top-down.
Again, accountability starts with leadership first. Supervisors and managers have to be onboard as fully embracing safety as a priority. And where staff have shown great proactive efforts, they should be rewarded and shown as examples to follow by everyone else.
Don’t give lip service to a workplace safety commitment. It will be seen as false by affected staff very quickly. Instead, use your intranet tools to easily distribute information to everyone, use your supervisors for follow up and compliance checks, and use outside resources to bolster your internal efforts where expertise in specific areas can help reinforce your message. By sustaining a combined and ongoing effort, your organization will realize increased safety awareness surprisingly quickly, and more importantly your accident rates will decrease notably. That means a better working organization overall.
This blog post is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. No attorney-client relationship is created between the author and reader of this blog post, and its content should not be relied upon as legal advice. Readers are urged to consult legal counsel when seeking legal advice.