How Effective is Your Safety Culture?

SINCE the 1970s, the safety profession has continued to excel. In that time philosophies have changed, but the never-ending quest for "zero accidents" remains the same. The 1990s explored the human element and behavioral safety. Behaviorists believed employee-driven processes with detailed statistical analysis, systems involving expensive software, videos, and training manuals would help drive safety.

They were right! But remember, we live in America, and profit is the name of the game. What can typically be said in a sentence or paragraph is turned into a book. Of course, any program that is supported or mandated by management will have an effect on safety performance. The key here is management's commitment.

Take this simple test.

Do employees try to identify hazards?



Do employees council one another on unsafe behavior?



Are trends discovered before incidents occur?



Do department managers support change?



Can you measure safety without using incident rates?



Have past programs produced long-lasting results?



If you answered "No" to any of these questions, then the following article may shed some light on how to achieve an effective safety culture.

Safety is a way of life, both on and off the job. Risk ultimately plays a factor in how we make decisions. As human beings, we learn mostly from our experiences and exposures. But to obtain a true cultural shift you must teach people how to think, what to observe, and how to react with regard to safety.

It must become second nature for people to recognize and avoid risk. A change of this magnitude does not happen overnight; management has to understand how a cultural shift occurs and be prepared for the long road ahead.

The Building Blocks
There are four main areas of a safety program that, when implemented correctly, can help create and maintain a safety culture. Heavy focus has to be placed on training, participation, accident prevention, and accountability when evaluating any existing safety program.

Understand, regulatory affairs always will drive industry, but the days of five-minute videos, sporadic training, and meeting the minimal intent of the regulation are gone. Those who are succeeding today in the cultural battle recognized yesterday that people are the key.

1. Orientation & Training
The first exposure any new employee should have to a company is the orientation program. Too often, the new-hire orientation consists of a summary benefits review, completing insurance forms, reviewing the attendance policy, issuance of an employee handbook, and some type of basic safety overview. Employees then are rushed to the floor to begin OJT (on-the-job training). The message sent to the employee at this point is confusing. As the employer. you have preached safety without any review of the production or management systems. This type of orientation typically leaves the new hire feeling lost and overwhelmed.

New-hire orientations should last a minimum of two to four days. They should cover HR policies, company philosophy, an overview of the safety/environmental programs, all regulatory required training, and usually an introduction to the quality systems. Multiple speakers should present the materials in order to break up any monotony. During this time, it is a good idea to have an informal lunch with the plant manager, department managers, and supervisors. This will help new hires later match faces and names. Simply put, instilling the company's safety philosophy in the beginning will carry on throughout the employee's career.

Training, on the other hand, always has been a difficult topic to broach. Management should understand training is an investment. The amount of time spent by the company will determine the competency level of the employee. A shift in regulatory requirements over the past decade has directed companies to verify competency levels. Of the training media available today, computer-based or online training is gaining in popularity. Companies have found that retention levels are much higher because of the required interaction of the employee, and the old saying "a picture is worth a thousand words."

Computer-based training allows the user to go at his own pace, while it holds his attention by asking questions and requiring physical interaction with a keyboard or touch screen. This is a far cry from a dark room and a video or the monotone speaker for six to eight hours of presentation. At the end of each section, tests are given where a passing percentage has been predetermined before the user can advance. Ultimately, a final exam is taken and a competency level is established for the employee.

Cost tends to be the Achilles' heel of the program. But before price dictates the direction the company will take, a thorough review of the pros and cons must be presented to management. Remember, training is an investment and one of the basic building blocks of any safety culture.

2. Participation
Ask yourself this question: "Do our employees report unsafe conditions or near misses?" If your answer is "sometimes" or "no," then you are missing one of two key elements of any proactive safety culture. Participation has to be a "buy in." Mandating a program does nothing more than create an inconvenience in the mind of the employee, but a program that is driven by the employees will gain overwhelming acceptance.

Safety has to be delegated to every individual in the facility. In return, each employee has to understand that he can make a difference. A simple way to achieve this level of awareness is by thinking outside the box: Instead of one safety committee for the whole plant, create department safety committees chaired by the production or department managers. Elect team leaders in different areas on each shift to serve as liaisons between supervision and the employees. This will keep all activities at the department level rather than being lost at the top.

By creating this type of organization, you will involve more employees, be able to respond to problems faster, and involve more members of management.

3. Prevention
Lip service in ths area over the years has fallen on deaf ears; phrases such as "Safety First" or "Safety's Number One" have achieved nothing. For years, the average employee has perceived production as the bottom line. This is especially true when management continually stresses pounds, pieces, or making daily quotas.

A simple change in management commitment can make all the difference. A sound philosophy that hits home with almost every employee is not "Safety's Number One," but rather, "Production is number one, but we are here to produce our product as safely as possible." Employees are not blind to the company's needs. They understand that without production, sales are lost and paychecks are not printed. But a company that honestly puts safety in perspective will gain the respect of its employees.

One the oldest, least used tools of the safety trade is the near miss report. Implemented correctly, it will serve as a cornerstone. Safety committees traditionally handle complaints and for this reason have been looked upon as a necessary evil. However, let's go back outside the box again: If a system is constructed to use the near miss report as a flag, safety committee members can focus their constructive energy on being proactive rather than reactive. The trick is in obtaining the participation and thus the report.

By implementing an incentive system based on participation rather than incident rates or goals, you create a motivator for personal gain. Let's face it, employees come to work to maintain a level of livelihood, not because they want to spend eight hours per day on an assembly line. Incentives can be as simple as gift cards to local retailers, drawn each month from a pool of those employees who participated by submitting near miss reports. Once the team leader has the report in hand, the department safety committee can determine a course of action above and beyond the immediate corrective actions taken at the time of the report. Team leaders, while endorsing the employee's eligibility for the monthly drawings, can follow items to completion.

Incentives should be awarded at the department level. Anyone doing the math can see that her chances of winning in a drawing are much greater when it involves only department employees rather than the plant population. By fixing items as they are discovered or positively counseling unsafe acts, your committees ultimately will reduce the number of potential exposures and at-risk behaviors.

4. Accountability
This is one of the hardest mindsets to break or build. When it comes to enforcement of the law, society takes the attitude of "I saw nothing!" or "Leave me alone and I'll leave you alone." Attitudes such as these can be extremely dangerous when allowed to exist in the workplace. Employees have to understand that a mistake by one can affect them all. When a program is incorporated where employees want to participate and are rewarded for finding hazards or identifying problems, you are building a positive mindset.

All too often, management systems award discipline at the drop of a hat. Accountability and discipline are not the same; they should be addressed separately. In a culture where employees interact with one another, they should be allowed to recognize their mistakes without repercussion. Through positive counseling, supervisors and managers can assist employees in determining which actions or changes can be made to eliminate future occurrences.

However, it is management's responsibility to clearly define the rules. If there are certain actions or activities that will warrant immediate discipline, those must be spelled out in black and white.

For example, wearing seat belts on fork trucks is a company policy. This type of policy can be used as a conditioning tool to help employees acquire a good habit. So what if a driver forgets to buckle his seat belt one out of a hundred times or walks out of the bathroom with her safety glasses still on her forehead? Let that be an opportunity for a co-worker to intervene, get credit for a near miss, and resolve the item through peer pressure. A couple of jokes or an "I got you!" can be much more impressive than a disciplinary slip in the file.

The opposite is true, however, for written policies that have been identified as serious offenses. These typically relate to operations or procedures that when disregarded can result in serious injury or death. Discipline must then follow a strict management policy that is equally and fairly applied.

A poor practice is to involve the safety manager in any disciplinary proceedings. The safety manager has enough challenges getting employees to open up and discuss issues without making him just another member of management. The key is still allowing the employee to intervene in less-serious infractions, thus reinforcing positive habits. When the plant population is allowed to practice this skill, accountability and ownership in the program will positively grow. Employees will begin to realize they can make a difference and that everyone is accountable for her own actions.

Safety cultures are nothing new. How a company implements its management systems and determines who will drive them will ultimately affect its success.

Safety professionals around the world know being proactive rather than reactive produces results. Many of the programs in use today incorporate employee participation, such as OSHA's Voluntary Protection Program, Process Safety Management, and ISO's standards. These systems recognize the value added when employees are the driver and management is the vehicle for change.

This article originally appeared in the September 2003 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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