Creating a safety culture: Prioritizing health & safety yields results

April 19th, 2012 by Julie Ferguson

We’ve long held that safety starts in the corner office. Many safety and health programs are little more than window dressing – lots of banners and lip service, but scant in managerial support. A recent study demonstrates that employers who prioritize workplace health and safety in a meaningful way by creating a safety culture can yield positive results and reduce losses. The study showed that “workers who believe they work in a safe environment experience 32% fewer injuries.”
David Shadovitz of Human Resource Executive reports on the study conducted by researchers at the University of Georgia’s College of Public Health in his article The Value of Safety Climates. As opposed to focusing on one industry or occupation, this study used data from the 2002 General Social survey and the NIOSH Quality of Work Life module, encompassing “a broad spectrum of employment situations.”
One of the survey authors says that the findings “…put hard numbers behind a long-held perception: that there’s a correlation between safety climate and workplace injuries.”

One other interesting factor that the study revealed is that work/life issues matter: “In situations in which work interfered with family life or family demands affected job performance, the researchers find that the risk for injury increased 37 percent.”
Study authors say that the findings point to the need for efforts to be more closely coordinated between Human Resources and health & safety, and to break down the barriers that so often exist in organizations. Study authors call for a “a more comprehensive and integrated approach to safety.”

What is a “Safety Culture”?
At its very essence, a safety culture is a pervasive core, shared organizational value. Here are two definitions that we like:

Safety Culture is the way safety is perceived, valued and prioritised in an organisation. It reflects the real commitment to safety at all levels in the organisation. It has also been described as “how an organisation behaves when no one is watching”. (Source: Skybrary).

The enduring value and priority placed on worker and public safety by everyone in every group at every level of an organization. It refers to the extent to which individuals and groups will commit to personal responsibility for safety; act
to preserve, enhance and communicate safety concerns; strive to actively learn, adapt and modify (both individual and organizational) behavior based on lessons learned from mistakes; and be rewarded in a manner consistent with these values. (Source: Safety Culture: A Concept in Chaos).

For a more in-depth analysis, we point you to the Conference Board’s research report, Driving to “0”: Best Practices in Corporate Safety & Health (PDF), which conducted a study on how leading companies develop safety cultures.
Key Components of a Safety Culture
In the original article cited in this post, one of the study authors said, “”If you talk to people who do safety inspections, they will often tell you that the first impression they get when they walk into a factory or construction site — how neat it is and whether employees seem to be actively engaged — tells them whether or not a worksite is safe or not.” We’ve had the same experience – the truly excellent companies stand out: safety is a pervasive value that you notice from the minute you walk in the door until you leave. Based on our experiences with thousands of employers, we’ve compiled some of the best practices that we’ve observed among organizations that do things right:

  • Does health & safety commitment start at the top? Here’s one quick check: Is health & safety included in your organization’s mission statement? Does the President/CEO articulate the health & safety vision? Everyone knows that what the head honcho wants done is what gets done. If it isn’t on his or her radar as a top-tier priority, it won’t be on the radar for managers either. “Captain Sully” Sullenbeger speaks about how values start at the top and require “authentic action.”
  • Are sufficient resources allocated? Management must back the corporate commitment with dedicated budgets, staff, and resources commensurate with the goals. This includes maintaining equipment and facilities and allocating training resources.
  • Are there written policies and procedures? Are essential functions and physical demands of each job documented? Management should also capture the company’s commitment to safety in a written policy that is distributed to all employees and regularly reinforced.
  • Are health & safety goals on the “managerial dashboard”? The old adage about “what gets measured gets done” has more than just a grain of truth to it. Is health & safety included in annual business plans and goals? Are health & safety goals addressed and progress measured in concrete metrics? Does health & safety get reported on in business reviews the way any other critical business process would be addressed?
  • Is there accountability? You won’t be able to take a bite out of losses without teeth in your program. Health & safety goals should be a part of every job description and every performance review at every level of the organization.
  • Are comprehensive inspections for hazards and behaviors conducted regularly? Do senior managers participate in walk-throughs and inspections? Does the CEO?
  • Do managers and supervisors “walk the walk”? In all-too-many many organizations, safety is just something expected of the line staff. Do managers and supervisors keep the rules themselves? Are visitors and vendors indoctrinated to safety rules at the onset of any visits?
  • Is health & safety addressed in a meaningful way in employee orientation? Studies show that new hires are at greater risk of injury than experienced workers. Is job safety training the first thing addressed in any new hire training? Does the worker have hands-on training in not just how to do the job, but how to do it safely? Is particular care taken with workers who pose risk challenges, such as young workers and workers who don’t have strong command of the English language? Peer-to-peer buddy systems that monitor new employees for safety can be particularly effective.
  • Is safety training and communication ongoing process? In good organizations, training is not a “once and done” affair and safety value communication isn’t relegated to an annual speech. Employees are retrained, processes are re-evaluated, and expertise is shared on a continual basis via team meetings, newsletters, company intranets, formal training sessions, and more. Remember to offer training when employees change jobs or get assigned new responsibilities. And don’t forget to “train up”: Many middle and senior managers don’t know the real day-to-day hazards inherent in their own business or appreciate the role they play in fostering – or perhaps sabotaging – a safe work environment.
  • Is there strong employee involvement? At minimum, employees should be involved in in safety committees, inspections, and shaping corrective measures for eliminating hazards. Good organizations help to imbue a sense of ownership in employees at all organizational levels and encourage workers to share ideas that eliminate unsafe acts and working conditions for themselves and others. Employers need to create a climate that allows frank and open feedback from employees and must work to overcome the perception that giving safety-related feedback creates interpersonal conflict.
  • Is there a process for analyzing all accidents and near misses? We favor the term “analysis” over “investigation” to emphasize that the exercise is not about assigning blame but getting to the root cause of the breakdown, to understand where things broke down to learn from errors, incidents, and accidents. Immediate remedial actions should be taken.
  • Is progress recognized and acknowledged? – Mark safety milestones and progress to goals. Recognition can be simple – congratulating a work team in a meeting, free donuts in the morning or a pizza lunch to show employees that their efforts are valued. Employees sincerely appreciate recognition, which in turn increases motivation and commitment to work safely.

Additional Resources
OSHA: Safety & Health Management Systems eTool
OSHA: Creating a Safety Culture
For an abstract and a link to purchase the full study cited, see Occupational Injury in America: An analysis of risk factors using data from the General Social Survey)