Positively shifting a safety culture

Safety professionals frequently promote the benefits of having a positive and proactive safety culture. Upper management’s perception of their company’s safety culture may be that they have a decent safety culture, when in actuality they do not. The reality is that every company and every jobsite has a safety culture, good or bad — it’s just that some companies are more successful than others in accomplishing and maintaining a strong and effective culture, which places safety in the forefront of everyday job activities. The movement of a safety culture into one which produces positive results requires time, patience, and commitment from management and employees.

The benefits of a strong and effective safety culture has been documented in publications and studies for years. We have seen that when employees who know that safety is their company’s top priority, they are in turn more productive, more satisfied with their jobs, and less likely to leave the company for another. A company will benefit by having fewer incidents and injuries, which improves production, keeps insurance costs lower, less work time loss, and gaining other monetary and non-monetary benefits associated with high employee morale.

Progressive and positive safety cultures don’t just happen. They’re the product of several factors and a concerted effort on the part of everyone involved, from the top of management to the newest hire. That’s because a safety culture encompasses not only the workers’ attitudes and actions, but the expectations and participation of managers and supervisors, plus the previous experiences of employees. We all bring unique personalities and behaviors to our jobs, shaped by what we’ve seen and lived through. As a ship cannot alter its course on the quick movement of the controls, neither can a shift in safety culture occur with one safety campaign.

The need to shift

How does a manager know that their company’s safety culture needs to shift? Sometimes, it’s by recognizing unhealthy attitudes or noticing unsafe behaviors, but the most telling sign is jobsite safety statistics. Reviewing OSHA logs, the number of recordable and non-recordable incidents, work orders, and activities across the company may provide basic clues as to whether there are opportunities for safety improvements within the culture or company.

Don’t stop there. Take a deeper look at the metrics to determine where incidents are happening and what they involve. For example, are you seeing more lacerations in a particular location or connected to a particular process? Is your biggest issue slips, trips, and falls, and if so, where and when do they tend to happen? For example, an increase in work orders for carpet tiles to be replaced, and in tandem to an increase in first aid cases due to slips, trips, and falls, should be an indication that a safety event is occurring across the company.

By tracking data you may discover that 80 percent of the incidents at your facility are the results of slips, trips, and falls. Often the response to that kind of situation is some kind of incentive program focused around slips, trips, and falls. Initiatives are great when they take hold and if next month’s data shows a reduction, unfortunately managers assume their efforts are successful and they move their attention to their other responsibilities. Safety is taken care of, and now I can concentrate on expense reduction.

Take a deeper dive

The initiative may have sown the seed, but will not take root if not embedded in the safety culture. Safety initiatives need long-term nurturing, so that they become part of the culture. A movement to a safety culture shift includes looking at all the factors contributing to the incidents, many of which tie back to behavior. It involves taking a deeper dive into incidents and performing some detective work.

With slips, trips, and falls, the underlying problem is frequently housekeeping issues. As you look deeper, you begin to notice debris on the floor or spills that haven’t been properly cleaned. Nobody takes responsibility for the housekeeping, but it affects everyone who uses the area. When there’s a piece of debris that presents a trip hazard, and workers and supervisors walk past it without doing anything, that’s a flawed safety culture.

I’ve tested those situations. For example, on one jobsite, I deliberately dropped a glove up against a wall, not in the outlined walkway, but just outside the walk line where it could be clearly seen by all who passed it. For three days, I watched employees, supervision, and management walk past that glove as though it wasn’t there. All it would have taken is for one person to slip on it, and you can envision what injuries may have been involved. We lead by example, if management doesn’t see it as a hazard, then why should we expect the employee to?

Culture must be universal

Management’s actions are a critical element in creating a safety culture. When supervisors tell employees about their expectations for safety on the jobsite, and the employees then notice that those supervisors aren’t living up to those expectations, they assume safety isn’t really all that important. Everyone from the CEO on down, and from bottom up, must demonstrate that they take safety seriously, because a safety culture is built by everyone.

That also includes new hires. You can’t assume that someone who is new to the site will share the team’s understanding of safety, so a new employee safety orientation program is needed. In addition, many jobsites involve a mix of permanent employees and outside contractors who may change, and that can create different expectations about safety. Part of the safety plan must include orientation to ensure that everyone who sets foot on the site — whether they’re classified as an employee or a contractor — fully understands the culture and expectations of the safety culture.

Accentuate the positive

I’ve found that the most effective way to shift a safety culture is to work on changing employee perceptions of safety through positive behavior-based observations and interactions. That makes sense, because nobody wakes up in the morning and says, “Hey, I hope I do something that injures me today.”

Some companies address safety issues through disciplinary actions. This type of policy doesn’t increase safety on the jobsite, but it does teach employees not to speak up for fear of being punished. People who are currently working for your company or on your jobsites may have been treated that way in previous jobs, making them reluctant to embrace your positive and effective safety culture.

When someone gets hurt on a jobsite or a serious near-miss occurs, it’s important to investigate the root cause — not to determine who’s to blame, but to better understand why it happened. There are always environmental factors that push and cause individuals to make the choices that lead to the injury or event. It’s the safety professional’s responsibility to identify and address those factors, beyond placing blame on the individual. Look past the injured person, and what influenced their behavior that lead to the event. If people feel they’re in an environment where they can report things without retribution, we will get to the truth.

The punitive approach to safety uses several tools to spot violations, such as inspections, audits, and finger-pointing. I prefer a more positive approach, that’s less of a formal inspection and more of a “walkabout,” where the safety professional travels around the site and talks with the workers. It involves watching how they work, asking whether they have any concerns about safety, and showing appreciation for the good things they do to protect themselves and their co-workers.

Focus on near misses

One approach that can create significant results in being proactive, as well as capturing different levels of event reports, is by creating a system for informing of near misses, concerns, and suggestions. Near misses are a lagging indicator of safety problems, however they can be predictive of unsafe events and behaviors. When coupled into a system where all reporting is welcomed, and appreciated great things begin to occur in the safety culture. Unfortunately, near misses tend to be underreported, because workers either don’t recognize what near misses are or are afraid that calling attention to them will result in a reprimand.

Workers need not fear reporting what they see on the jobsite, if they do then they won’t report it. On one jobsite, I used SharePoint to develop a reporting system that kept employees anonymous. I knew the reporting parties, but deleted their names and kept that information confidential, because I knew workers wouldn’t trust the system if their names were attached to reports. Over next few years, that system led to a significant increase in near miss reports and a corresponding reduction of safety incidents resulted. This environment/culture was a safe place for reporting anything related to safety, without the fear of being reprimanded. On a positive note the system grew beyond near misses to include safety suggestions, and safety concerns, and positive reporting of safety behaviors. Employees at all levels recognized the value of the system for bringing attention to safety issues, good and bad.

In addition, an effective near miss system needs to report back to the reporting employee, so they know they are being listened to and that their reports are creating a safer workplace. After the report came in, and the employee didn’t check the “anonymous” box, EHS even invited them into the investigation to resolve the concern. After we’d investigate a near miss (or other safety topic), we’d use an email to communicate with the employees to say here’s what was reported, here’s what we found out, and here’s what we did to keep it from happening again. That communication gives them the power to take their own safety in their hands and the motivation to make a report the next time they see something. After all, they’re closest to the work, so you need to rely on them to be your eyes and ears.

Starting the shift

How can a company begin the process of shifting its safety culture into one that is effective, positive, and sustainable? Before you can determine how to improve things, you need an honest appraisal of the current situation. One way to do that is through an anonymous survey. As with near misses, workers need to feel they can share information safely. A survey may not tell you everything you need to know, but it will provide a baseline from which to start. Share the results of the survey with the employees, so they know they’ve been heard.

Remember that habit and culture predict safety outcomes, and if you want your employees to have a safety culture that’s positive and productive and keeps everybody safe, then you’re going to have to lead by example. Everyone from supervisors on up must practice what they preach. That way, when new hires look around, they’ll see that everyone one puts safety in the forefront of all tasks, no matter how large or small, and they will want to follow the actions and behaviors of the culture in order to be successful. When you witness daily positive safety actions, choices, and behaviors of individual employees that is when you know you have a solid safety culture.

Speak To A Safety Professional

Click here