Organizational Safety Culture

Joseph DeMaria, Ph.D., CFC, CSHM, CHCM, DACFEI, MIIRSM | President & CEO, Americana Safety Associates, LLC

Organizational Safety Culture

Safety culture refers to the ways that safety issues are addressed in a workplace. It often reflects “the attitudes, beliefs, perceptions and values that employees share in relation to safety.”

The way that safety issues are addressed in the workplace and how an employer can benefit by listening and asking questions of their employees is crucial to developing a long-lasting safety culture. It’s never a “my way or the highway” but an understanding and agreement to how “our way of safely doing business” works for the mutual benefit of the employer and employee.

Safety culture is the attitude, beliefs, perceptions and values that employees share in relation to safety in the workplace. Safety culture is a part of organizational culture, and has been described by the phrase “the way we do things around here“. That old adage just doesn’t cut it any longer. Today’s employees are better educated and business and social media savvy that they can see that the old hard line of “my way or the highway” is dead on arrival with today’s workers. They know that it’s their lives that are at stake when job tasks and operations are permitted to be done in an unsafe manner in order to drive down manufacturing and production costs at their expense.

It is understood that small companies must control their costs to complete locally, domestically and in some cases, internationally. Companies have known that in order to be competitive they must find ways to reduce the costs of raw materials, supplies, parts, labor, and increase production volume to the highest levels possible, based on anticipated sales. What is often missing from these cost saving measures is how many of these business decisions adversely affects their employees, in particular, their employee’s health and safety.

Studies have found that workplace related disasters are a result of a breakdown in an organization’s policies and procedures that were established to deal with safety, and that the breakdown flows from inadequate attention being paid to safety issues by management.

A good safety culture can be promoted by senior management commitment to safety, realistic practices for handling hazards, continuous organizational learning, and care and concern for hazards shared across the workforce.

The U.K. Health and Safety Commission developed one of the most commonly used definitions of safety culture:

“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. Organizations with a positive safety culture are characterized by communications founded on mutual trust, by shared perceptions of the importance of safety and by confidence in the efficacy of preventive measures.”

Broken Safety Culture

Although there is some uncertainty and ambiguity in defining safety culture, there is no uncertainty over the relevance or significance of the concept. It has been stated that “safety culture is an important concept that forms the environment within which individual safety attitudes develop and persist and safety behaviors are promoted.”

With every major disaster, considerable resources are allocated to identify factors that might have contributed to the outcome of the event. Consideration of the considerable detail revealed by inquiries into such disasters is invaluable in identifying generic factors that make organizations vulnerable to failures. From such inquiries, a pattern emerges; organizational accidents are not simply a result of randomly coinciding ‘operator error’, chance environmental or technical failures alone. Rather, the disasters are a result of a breakdown in the organization’s policies and procedures that were established to deal with safety, and the breakdown flows from inadequate attention being paid to safety issues, thus a broken safety culture.

Culture-Building Tips

Here are a couple of tips from OSHA to get you started on building a strong safety culture at your organization:

  1. Define safety responsibilities: Do this for each level within your organization. This should include policies, goals and plans for the safety culture.
  2. Share your safety vision: Everyone should be in the same boat when establishing goals and objectives for their safety culture.
  3. Enforce accountability: Create a process that holds everyone accountable for being visibly involved especially managers and supervisors. They are the leaders for a positive change.
  4. Provide multiple options: Provide different options for employees to bring their concerns or issues full-face. There should be a chain of command to make sure supervisors are held accountable for being responsive.
  5. Report, report, report: Educate employees on the importance of reporting injuries, first aids and near misses. Prepare for an increase in incidents if currently there is under-reporting. It will level off eventually.
  6. Rebuild the investigation system: Evaluating the incident investigation system is critical to make sure investigations are conducted in an effective manner. This should help get to the root cause of accidents and incidents.
  7. Build trust: When things start to change in the workplace, it is important to keep the water calm. Building trust will help everyone work together to see improvements.
  8. Celebrate success: Make your efforts public to keep everyone motivated and updated throughout the process.
Get Our Newsletter in Your Inbox SUBSCRIBE
+ +