Making Safety a Culture, Not Just An Initiative

April 11, 2007
An organization's safety culture must promote a sense of shared responsibility for safety through genuine empowerment.

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.

3. Develop Safety Leadership

Not only do line managers need to take ownership and be held accountable for safety similarly to other core processes, they need to be equipped with skills to drive performance and motivate their direct reports and peers to be actively engaged in the change program. Building the safety leadership skills of managers is a crucial step along the safety journey. Developing these skills increases individual and organizational safety commitment and helps translate this commitment into concrete strategies and tactics through tools and techniques.

The first step to determine what additional skills are required at each level of the organization is to develop a competency matrix for leaders. The competency matrix is a tool to map the existing strengths and weaknesses of leaders to those needed to successfully drive change. This builds a picture of the organization's training needs which feeds into the design and development of appropriate safety leadership training.

Finally, it is not enough to deliver training, however good its contents or outstanding its delivery. Leaders and managers need to be supported to ensure they are able to apply the skills and techniques learned. The training must be reinforced through periodic assessment, coaching and mentoring.

4. Align Safety Systems

Organizations rely on a number of formal processes and procedures to manage risk, such as safety rules and procedures, training, hazard identification and correction, discipline, incident reporting and analysis, safety communications, safety suggestions, and rewards and recognition. Each safety management system has an important contribution to make in terms of not only improving workplace safety, but also positively impacting an organization's safety culture. At best, when the system is poorly designed or operating ineffectively, its ability to affect beneficial change is compromised. At worst, a poorly designed, badly implemented, or ill-functioning system can have a destructive influence on an organization's safety culture. Culture improvement is inhibited, for example, when:

  • incident analyses create an air of mistrust and fault-finding
  • safety incentive programs discourage injury reporting
  • accountability processes fail to recognize individuals for their accomplishments, and
  • performance evaluations focus on outcome number rather than process accomplishments.

Organizations serious about changing their safety culture must critically analyze and modify each safety management system to be certain it fosters the desired Actively Caring culture.

A true step change in safety performance will require more than simply ensuring a safe work environment. It will require more than ensuring that individuals perform their own jobs safely. Safety excellence will require that individuals work together, going "beyond the call of duty" for the safety of one another. Through purposeful efforts to transform the organization's safety culture, leaders can drive passion through the organization from the top, engaging with the whole organization and bringing everyone on board for the journey.

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