Next Level Safety Cultures
- By Robert Pater
- May 01, 2008
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
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
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/
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-
4. Integral Cultures are those where
Safety is “Done By” workers, for themselves.
Performance is global class—and
People see Safety as energizing, interesting
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.