By Samuel Sanguedolce, MS, CIH, CSP
Safety culture is a term that was first introduced by safety experts investigating the Chernobyl nuclear accident. It was concluded that a poor safety culture was a contributing factor to the disaster. Evidence of this failed safety culture was apparent in basic faults in organizational structure, climate, and safety procedures.
Today, the term safety culture is used to describe the degree to which an organization has embraced safety as one of its core values. A company with a strong safety culture is one that recognizes the importance of safety and provides a work environment where management and employees both are dedicated to maintaining a safe work environment.
A core value
Safety can be one of many components that comprise the company’s overall culture. Incorporating safety, along with other company values such as quality and productivity, will help to create a positive safety culture throughout the organization.
The accepted philosophy is that in order for a safety program to be effective, regardless of the specific industry or occupation, it needs the support of senior leaders on down. In order to establish a strong and efficient safety culture, management must “walk the walk” and safety must traverse all lines of the organization, from senior executives to field workers conducting subsurface investigations. When management makes safety a priority it sends a strong message to its employees. It signifies that safety (and thus the well-being of the organization’s employees) is a fundamental value of the company.
One way a company can communicate to its employees that safety is a primary business value is to put it in writing. If an organization routinely publishes a company newsletter or similar publication, it can be used to state or reinforce that safety is important. In the newsletter, the organization’s leaders may want to recognize exceptional safety behavior, mention a successful safety program, or recognize an employee who reported an unsafe condition that may have prevented an injury to a fellow employee.
The nuts and bolts
Here are some basic ways an organization can incorporate safety into their existing culture:
- Employee safety incentive programs. Employees can be recognized and rewarded routinely (e.g. weekly, monthly, etc.) for submitting a safety suggestion that helps enhance the safety of the work environment. Winners can have their pictures posted in the facility, be recognized by management in front of their coworkers, be given a priority parking spot, or receive some type of prize (like a gift certificate). The company must be sure to respond to and recognize all suggestions submitted (not just the winning suggestion) to ensure any hazardous situation identified in the suggestion is addressed and to ensure continued employee participation in the program.
- Incorporate safety into company meetings. If a company conducts “all hands” meetings, senior leaders can use this opportunity to acknowledge an employee who demonstrates exceptional safety behavior or submits a great safety suggestion. In the field, managers should discuss a safety issue pertinent to their current project during their daily “tailgate” safety meetings. The safety topic may be as basic as going over tips on how to avoid heat stress in the hot weather. During these meetings, managers should also allow time for employees to present and discuss unsafe conditions, near misses, and any hazardous condition they’ve encountered as well.
- Safety audits. What does the company do versus what is required? Are there any gaping holes in the company’s safety program? Is additional safety training needed? Do company procedures need to be revised? Companies must routinely assess their existing programs to ensure their continued effectiveness and implement changes as necessary. Managers can be trained and tasked to conduct routine safety inspections of their departments to ensure they are involved in the company’s safety program.
- Establish a safety committee. A safety committee comprised of employees from all levels and departments within the company is a good platform for discussing recent accidents, conducting accident investigations, responding to employee safety suggestions and concerns, conducting workplace inspections, and recommending new safety programs and policies to senior management.
- An environment of trust. When a positive safety culture exists employees feel that they can come forward to their supervisor with their safety concerns and that their issues will be addressed and rectified without any repercussions. In the absence of this trust, potentially costly incidents that could have been averted may go unreported or employees may pursue the services of outside regulatory agencies to address their concerns.
- Safety outside of the workplace. Consider conducting an annual Safety Week event where the company’s safety and health professionals provide safety literature, meet face to face with employees, and promote the company’s safety program. In addition, you will want to consider inviting members from your local emergency response organizations (local fire department, ambulance personnel, a representative from your local chapter of the American Red Cross, etc.). Information and tips on emergency preparedness, fire safety, hazards of carbon monoxide, proper installation and use of child car seats, or the appropriate use of child safety helmets can be of value to all employees. Training in Cardio Pulmonary Resuscitation (CPR), first aid, and how to use an automated external defibrillator (AED) are skills employees can use in the workplace and at home. In addition, inviting local emergency responders to your facility increases their familiarity with your employees and building, and helps foster a positive relationship.
A company creates and sustains a strong safety culture because it believes it is the moral and ethical thing to do. It recognizes the fact that when upper management genuinely cares about their employees’ well-being (e.g. by providing a safe work environment) it can be a strong motivator, even more so than monetary rewards.
It’s well established that a strong safety program makes good financial sense and may also present a return on investment. Reducing accidents and enhancing employee safety awareness may drive down insurance rates, the potential for fines, worker compensation rates, and lost production time.
From a public relations perspective, a company with a positive and effective safety culture will be perceived as one demonstrating a strong ability to manage risk, which in turn promotes increased productivity and financial performance. A positive safety culture implies strong leadership, social responsibility, and good corporate citizenry. A company without this mindset may be perceived as lacking mutual trust between management and worker, and may result in low employee morale, high worker turnover, and decreased productivity.
How do you know when you have it?
How do you know when a company has achieved a positive safety culture? It will be evident in each employee of the organization. If you walk up to any employee at any level within the company, he or she will speak of the company’s safety program with a sense of pride. In addition, achieving a strong safety culture should be considered a work in progress, where there is no tangible endpoint. Working toward this goal should be viewed as an ongoing process, based on an initial assessment of the existing safety culture, determining priorities for change, the actions necessary to effect the change, reviewing progress, and then repeating the whole process ... indefinitely.
Anticipating health and safety issues and taking action to prevent them is a long-term and profitable investment for companies. For more information on industrial hygiene and methods for promoting health and safety in the workplace, as well as a listing of industrial hygiene consultants, please visit the American Industrial Hygiene Association website at www.aiha.org.