When trying to make a worksite a safer place, many employers take an approach that could be inspired by the one used by OSHA. First, they set strict rules. Next, they issue stricter penalties when employees violate those rules.

Although that kind of approach might improve a company’s safety record, it usually has the unintended effect of damaging morale. In my experience, it’s a typical sign of a company that doesn’t see safety as a critically important aspect of doing business.

Compare that to companies whose leaders view safety as something more than just another set of rules. Who recognize the value of maintaining a safer workplace. Who know increased safety leads to better morale, less turnover, higher productivity, and more profits. Who also have a genuine concern for the well-being of their people, wanting to ensure everyone goes home healthy every night.

These companies understand the value of creating and maintaining a safety culture that goes beyond regulations and equipment. They deliver a clear message that safe practices are an important part of everything the company does.

Creating a safety culture involves more than simply developing programs, performing audits, conducting weekly “toolbox” training meetings at jobsites, or offering safety incentive programs. A culture is a living collection of consistent beliefs, values, and behaviors among all members of a population. It’s an attitude that flows through every level of the business, and a set of values shared by all employees.

There are negative safety cultures. The best example is when management pays lip service to safety issues but doesn’t really embrace the concept. Comments like “safety is just common sense,” “safety is the safety director’s responsibility,” “accidents just happen,” and “safety is a necessary evil,” say more about a company’s safety culture than a roomful of safety programs and procedures. If employees believe that management really doesn’t care about safety, they won’t make it a priority for themselves.

A solid safety culture nearly always provides bottom-line benefits. Because an organization that is focused on safety will have fewer injuries, it also reduces expenses related to injuries and illnesses. The number of workmen’s comp claims drops significantly, leading to lower insurance premiums. There’s usually less absenteeism and other morale-related problems. Workers who sense a strong safety culture believe that their employer actually cares about them and their well-being — and people work harder when they feel valued.

What are the most important factors in developing a safety culture? Respect and trust are two of the most essential elements in human interaction. No, you can’t expect everyone on your worksite to join hands and sing “Kum Ba Yah,” but you also cannot neglect the human touch. The very goal of a safety program is to change the behaviors of each individual. By addressing their external behaviors, you can begin to change the way they think about the actions they take in their lives.

The other critical factor is a genuine commitment on the part of the company’s leadership. Leaders of companies with strong safety cultures understand that the goal of zero injuries is possible. They demonstrate this belief in their daily actions and decision-making, and are nothing short of passionate about it.

Their companies enact effective safety processes to implement their programs and measure results. Their employees receive education and are involved in safety initiatives through which they understand their specific roles and are recognized for success. Because the culture becomes tangible, employees pay attention and implement it. Through teamwork, companies find safer, more efficient ways to complete projects and make their workplaces safer.

Finally, once you have all the basic elements in place, it’s critically important to be consistent. Even those who initially doubt the validity of a safety culture will become supporters when they see policies and practices applied consistently.

Companies successful at establishing and maintaining strong safety cultures will gain strength, provide safer work environments for employees, and build strong alliances between owners, architects, contractors, and subcontractors.