An organization's safety culture reflects the attitudes, beliefs, perceptions and values that employees share regarding safety. Since the devastating incident at Chernobyl in 1986, there has been a growing recognition of the importance of an organization's safety culture on safety performance.

For improved safety performance, an organization's safety culture must promote a sense of shared responsibility for safety through genuine empowerment. The organization must truly value safety and everyone in the organization must feel responsible for others' safety as well as their own. Further, the culture must encourage individuals to act on that feeling of responsibility by taking action every day to possibly prevent injury to others. Such "Actively Caring" is the cornerstone of a world-class safety culture.

Achieving such interdependency is a journey. For most, the next steps of this journey require transformational change which is accomplished through 1) a strategic plan and a leadership team energized around that plan, 2) defined safety roles and responsibilities, 3) the needed knowledge and skills to excel at those roles and responsibilities and 4) safety management systems aligned with the desired culture.

1. A 'Call to Arms'

Given a true leadership commitment to safety, the challenge is to translate this commitment into action. A key step in any successful change effort is to create a degree of discomfort with the status quo and a sense of urgency to change. Although alarming events such as a serious injury can serve as a catalyst, they come too late. This sense of urgency must be created prior to experiencing a wake up call.

A critical review of the organization's safety culture, including benchmarking against the characteristics of a truly world class safety culture, helps define for leaders what excellence can be. Further, a thorough safety culture assessment is instrumental to identify the strengths and weaknesses of current/past safety systems and the key barriers that must be overcome to move safety forward. Perceptions of employees, gained through instruments such as a Safety Culture Survey, are necessary inputs to truly understand the culture as it exists on the 'shop floor.'

Following this analysis, the organizational leadership must set a clear agenda for change and drive and monitor its implementation. This should include establishing:

  • A clear vision (what the desired culture will be like) and objectives
  • Agreement of the steps that must be taken
  • A leadership team that is unified, energized and prepared to lead the change
  • A communication strategy to ensure that the message is consistent across the organization

2. Establish Expectations

Having articulated a vision and created a strategic plan, the next phase is to establish expectations across the entire organization, for world-class safety performance requires everyone to be engaged in safety improvement activities and behaviors. Line management has to own safety, with the strategic direction coming from senior leadership. Safety professionals play a supportive role in the safety effort, providing technical and professional advice. Safety committees play a different, but equally important role, acting as a conduit between management and operations. Employees must then passionately carry out the day-to-day activities and behaviors which exemplify the desired end state. As such, individual roles and responsibilities must be clearly defined. Every member of the organization, from the director to the most junior employee needs to know what s/he is held accountable for and what s/he can expect from supervisors, peers and direct reports.

Further, a system should be in place which recognizes and rewards successful performance, where performance is measured by more than conventional lagging indicators such as recordable rate and similar KPIs. Having explicitly defined the role and responsibilities of individuals at every level of the organization, a meaningful set of leading indicators can readily be developed.

Finally, it is important to integrate safety roles and responsibilities into the organization's performance management processes (e.g., performance evaluations). This ensures safety roles do not exist in isolation, but as an integral part of overall performance expectations. Individuals and teams should be recognized for safety achievement (beyond simple prizes or gimmicks) and coached and helped to remove barriers where needed.