Next Level Safety Cultures

Senior managers have become increasingly aware of Safety’s potential returns, well beyond loss reduction. And Safety culture is an especially hot topic among leaders who sense something is missing— that performance could be better.

Their instincts are probably right.

Culture is like the air we breathe: invisible, but very real. It’s what people really believe but don’t necessarily talk about— what you can get away with vs. what sparks the attention of Executives. What you have to do to get promoted, and much more.

There are likely thousands of cultures. In fact, many pocket cultures can exist within one company. And a plant’s graveyard shift typically has very different “air” than its day shift.

So why bother focusing on Safety culture? If you, like me, are dedicated to significant, ongoing improvements, it’s important to first map where you want to go. Identifying your level of Safety culture can also help communicate urgency for change up and down your organization.

Practically, I’ve found there are four overall stages of Safety culture. Many companies “graduate” up these cultural levels; others become mired at one level. If this is your case, consider how this 4-stage overview might provide perspective for becoming unstuck.

1. Forced Safety Culture. Here, Safety is “Done To” others—by command and control. These companies inherently view Safety as a blockage to business. So they do the least necessary to stay in compliance with regulating agencies. Managers similarly expect compliance from workers.

Safety people are typically understaffed and can think of themselves as Safety Police: enforcement first, surprise inspections to unearth violations. Punishment soon follows, so workers cover their rears in accident investigations and audits.

2. Protective Culture, where Safety is “Done For” workers. Performance is average. This type of company begins seeing Safety as important. They often proclaim, “Safety is #1!” (They then lose credibility when production or other pressures take front seat.)

They seek to make the workplace safe by controlling, top-down, benevolent parent-like, and to bypass the need for strict compliance. Common thought process: “If everyone did as they were directed, all would be well.” This culture is big on policies and procedures. And if one policy doesn’t get results, “experts” write even more explicit directives.

Emphasis is on engineering fixes, dealing with injuries after they’ve occurred, and incentives. This culture still seeks quick and cheap solutions to complex and longstanding problems (back belts, safety bingo, etc.).

Managers are often perplexed at lackluster performance, then blame workers for “not doing what’s good for them.”

3. Involved Cultures are “Done With” employees—and well done. Performance is above average. Managers see Safety as an opportunity to involve workers and boost morale. Emphasis goes beyond injury prevention to “soft benefits”—retention, building trust, receptivity to change, engagement, more. This culture trains supervisors and discusses off-work Safety. Training becomes geared to judgment, problem-solving, and skills. Involved companies approach behavioral auditing as a more positive process than do Forced cultures.

As one EHS Director said, these companies have done a good job of “picking off the low-hanging fruit.” But there’s still potential produce left unharvested on the tree.

After significant improvements, attentional/ behavioral/statistical performance regrettably plateaus when the culture dwells on self-congratulations (such as shoulder injuries from patting themselves on the back). Managers worry about workers becoming “complacent” but often don’t see they’ve modeled overself- satisfaction.

4. Integral Cultures are those where Safety is “Done By” workers, for themselves. Performance is global class—and continuously watched.

People see Safety as energizing, interesting and practical.

Self-regulation is the norm; people engage in safe actions even when they know no one’s watching. This culture focuses on self-monitoring more than external auditing. Motivation moves toward recognition, beyond external incentives. Executives often actively sponsor new initiatives. Safety committees are active and have decision power, training, and often a budget. Some employees become trained as catalysts of Safety improvement (trainers, coaches, and reinforcement agents). There’s a strong focus on off-work Safety training, with PPE to take home.

This culture has significant internal drive to remain cutting-edge, pioneering new and effective initiatives and not resting on their laurels.

Safety Culture Reflects Overall Culture
These descriptions are only the tip of an iceberg. There’s much more to each culture than I can cover here: motivational systems, leadership styles, approach to prevention, and post-injury reactions.

Safety cultures strongly reflect overall culture. I’ve never seen a strong organizational culture that had a weak Safety culture, and vice versa. So by leading stronger Safety culture, you can in turn move your company to higher ground in performance, profitability and morale.

This article originally appeared in the May 2008 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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