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