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Defining and Creating a Successful Corporate Safety Culture

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Many companies are frustrated by such nagging health and safety issues as the failure of workers to consistently perform start of shift equipment inspections, wear personal protection equipment, or to report near misses.

Through training, vigilant supervision and the threat of punishment, workers typically become compliant in following procedures, but a more challenging issue is how to engage and motivate employees to move beyond minimum compliance to become relentless champions of hazard reporting, concerned mentors to peers, and valued problem solvers for the organization at large. One way to address these motivational issues is through the development of a safety culture.

An organization’s safety culture is often described in terms of its approach to safety, and as Cox and Cox suggest, embodying "the attitudes, beliefs, perceptions and values that employees share in relation to safety.” There is a body of agreement that a safety culture is required, but often it seems to be based on values and beliefs, or on end results such as injury reduction targets. The missing ingredient is how to best fulfill those values and achieve targeted reductions.

As Dr. Aubrey C. Daniels and Dr. Judy Agnew point out, “Most definitions of culture are values-based and, while this is an excellent starting point, such definitions do not make clear how to make it happen. We define culture this way: Patterns of behavior (what we say and do), encouraged or discouraged, inadvertently or intentionally, by people or systems over time.”

Daniels and Agnew expand upon their definition in their belief that:

  • Culture is revealed through behavior. Having noble aspirations and stated values can be a useful starting point, but it ultimately comes down to walking the talk. What do the behaviors of your employees tell you about your safety culture?
  • Behavior shapes culture. Daniels and Agnew believe that culture is an expressed through behaviors, and that as proponents of behavior based safety, they conclude that such behaviors are influenced by consequences. Behaviors can be encouraged or discouraged. Care must be taken to promote the behaviors that will best embody a positive safety culture.
  • Behavior is reinforced both intentionally and inadvertently. Daniels and Agnew observe that in the complexity of operations, the wrong message can easily be sent. Cumbersome accident or near miss reporting requirements can discourage reporting, for example, or over-emphasis on production can inadvertently result in praise of employees who cut corners in order to boost output.
  • Behavior is influenced by people and systems. The authors caution that behavior can be shaped by a myriad of systems and people over time. Such systems may include training, equipment, procedures, communication processes, hiring and promotion practices, staffing levels, relations with suppliers and contractors, etc. All must be considered with respect to how they influence worker behavior either in a negative or positive way.
  • The Characteristics of a Strong Safety Culture

    Daniels and Agnew go on to outline what they feel to be the characteristics of a strong safety culture. Some of those characteristics include:

  • The embodiment of safety into all aspects of work life, rather than as a standalone topic. Do your meetings treat safety as one merely one isolated segment of the agenda, or is it considered in every agenda item?
  • A “relentless” pursuit of hazards, both in regard to their identification as well as to their remediation.
  • A sense of pride not just in achieving safety goals, but in the daily process that makes achievement possible.
  • Emphasis on correcting safety system failures rather than blaming workers for near misses or accidents.
  • Elimination of excessive paperwork, computer data entry or other barriers to reporting accidents and near misses.
  • A comfort level among employees at all levels in stopping each other when at-risk behavior is observed as well as in acknowledging when safe behavior is identified.
  • Open, honest conversations about safety successes and failures, and what still needs to change.
  • Initiating Cultural Change

    In order to facilitate cultural change, Daniels and Agnew present a “Working Backwards” model that starts with identifying target employee behavior on the front line, and then working back to consider what supporting behaviors by supervisors, managers and executives best promote those front line behaviors.

    Workers in a positive safety culture will exhibit such behaviors as following procedures, encouraging peers to act safely, performing pre-job reviews, reporting all hazards, and providing feedback to supervisors and peers.

    Supervisors support workers by mindfully reinforcing worker behaviors, proactively addressing hazards, holding safety meetings, performing safety audits, and providing feedback to others.

    Managers in turn support supervisors by establishing a positive safety accountability for supervisors, starting each meeting with safety, remediating hazards as soon as possible, and prioritizing safety resources.

    Top executives bolster the efforts of their direct reports by incorporating safety into the fabric of the decision making process, creating positive accountability for managers with respect to safety, creating realistic budgets to support safety initiatives, and consistently communicating safety expectations.

    Daniels and Agnew believe that companies can have a much better record than simply minimum compliance with safety rules. If participants at each organizational level behave in a supportive fashion, then employees will increasingly become engaged in consistently performing the behaviors that will result in the emergence a positive safety culture and an enduringly safer workplace.

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