Matching Your Organizational Culture to the Safety Mission

Leadership is the key to an ideal safety culture.

Every year, the U.S. Department of Labor publishes a national census of fatal occupational injuries for the previous year. For several years, the same work-related fatal injury events consistently have been among the most frequent, with transportation events leading the way, followed by falls, struck by objects, and homicides (U.S. Department of Labor, 2011).

There are dangers and threats in every occupation, and it is imperative that managers and workers alike become acutely aware of the hazards associated with their jobs, as well as the preventative measures necessary for minimizing them. Many workplace fatality investigations point out the same areas of concern regarding worker safety, the same recommendations for improvement and standards for safe practices. The primary contributing factors to fatal workplace injuries are human error, procedural insufficiency, and equipment insufficiency. How much does organizational culture have to do with these factors? What constitutes a culture of safety within an organization, and what issues serve as barriers to achieving a healthy safety culture?

According to NIOSH, there is a concern the revolutionary changes that have occurred in the workplace have outpaced our knowledge and ability to identify hazards, train workers, and implement systems and procedures to prevent workplace injuries and fatalities (2002). Other experts have long maintained that the quality of an organizational safety environment is directly related to the culture of that organization and that of the leadership and management within the organization. These are key elements necessary for establishing an enhanced safety culture in the workplace.

Piers, Montijn, and Balk (2009) have defined a safety culture as a set of enduring values and attitudes regarding safety issues and shared by every member at every level of the organization. This means members are aware of the occupational risks associated with their professions, whether in the private sector or local, state, or federal government. Regardless of the type of organization, if unacceptable values and attitudes are not changed or challenged, they are given validity through actions. These actions can become a dangerous part of an organization's safety culture if they are not corrected.

A simple way of explaining organizational/safety culture and how it may evolve is told in the following short story about a behavioral experiment:

A group of scientists put five monkeys in a cage. In the center of the cage was a stepladder, and a banana was hung from the very top. The monkeys scurried up the ladder to retrieve the banana, and then the scientists sprayed them with freezing cold water to prevent them from reaching the banana. Each time they tried to go up the ladder, they were again sprayed until no monkey went up the ladder.

The scientists removed one monkey from the cage and replaced it with a new monkey. The new monkey saw the banana, saw the ladder and attempted to go up. The four original monkeys, afraid of being sprayed with water, assaulted the new guy to prevent him from going up the ladder. He had no idea why he was being assaulted, but he didn't go up the ladder again.

A second original monkey was removed from the cage and replaced with a new one. Same thing: The new monkey attempts to go up the ladder to retrieve the banana and, once again, the newest monkey is assaulted. Except this time, the first new monkey takes part in the beating of the newest monkey. He has no idea why he is participating in the beating, but nevertheless, it happened to him. This continues until there are no original monkeys in the cage that were sprayed with cold water. But no monkey dares go up the ladder out of fear of being assaulted, not of being sprayed with cold water.

This story is a simple way of saying, "It's always been done this way!"

Some of the most visible indicators of a safety culture include the attitude, behavior, and commitment of the formal leaders and especially the informal leaders in the organization. In order to ensure safe practices in the workplace, there needs to be a clear connection between these human factors and the training programs, policies and procedures, and enforcement practices employed by the organization.

With that in mind, leaders who demonstrate these critical human factors in a positive way are in a position to ensure a healthy safety culture. The attitudes, behaviors, and commitment of leaders and managers inherently influence the entire organization. "Managerial commitment is defined as 'engaging' in and maintaining behaviors that help others achieve goals" (Cooper, 2006).

The ABCs of Safety Leadership

  • Attitude: All leaders must adopt a "Safety First" attitude and be cognizant of the risks employees face and the actions taken to reduce or eliminate them. Attitude is often difficult to measure and must come from within the individual, especially leaders. Leadership by example is what others see in us on a daily basis. Do we walk the talk? We can measure our own attitude by evaluating how we deal with risks when nobody is there to see us. Do we fasten our seatbelts every time we are in a vehicle–while on duty and off duty? Does our leadership style reflect the appropriate safety attitude for a given risk scenario? Do the safety policies, procedures, and enforcement processes within our organizations reflect the same appropriate values and safety attitudes?
  • Behavior: People can see behavior (also described as actions). They can measure it, judge it, and they can mimic it. If leaders behave safely, then they are demonstrating their expectations for others, and it is much easier to hold them accountable for the same behaviors. Some folks behave a certain way because they are told to or because the administrative consequences are too severe. The kind of accountability we are talking about is the kind where safety behavior is based on our attitude and is practiced because the health, wellness, and survival consequences are too severe. It is the leader's responsibility to draw clear lines between acceptable and unacceptable safety behaviors. Furthermore, these lines need to be backed by organizational training, policies, procedures, reporting, and enforcement practices that provide continuity to the process.
  • Commitment: This is where it all comes together: behaviors repeated over and over again that demonstrate a true belief in something. Or, as Webster's puts it, "The state of being bound emotionally or intellectually to a course of action." Are you committed to improving the safety and health and welfare of every member in your organization and in enhancing personal and organizational accountability? Are you emotionally bound to the course of action that best demonstrates appropriate safety behaviors? If you have the right attitude, and you demonstrate and expect the right behaviors that show your true commitment, then it stands to reason that the rest of the organization will champion those same traits.

James Reason (1998), who is noted for safety and human behavior research, maintains that culture evolves gradually based on local conditions, past events, the character of leadership, and the dynamics of the workforce. By far, leadership is the most influential of these factors. However, one driving question needs to be asked: Does culture drive behavior, or does behavior drive culture? If leaders are committed to achieving a safe organizational culture and they demonstrate the attitudes, behaviors, and expectations consistently, then one can assume that, in a healthy organizational environment, others will adopt and advocate those attitudes and behaviors, as well. Over a period of time, based on Reason's philosophy, leaders who are acting and doing (leading by example), supported by organizational controls, will lead to thinking and believing by others, which will in turn lead to an ideal safety culture.

Whatever position you hold within the organization, your ABCs are a part of the culture. The question left to ask yourself is, what ABC pledge can you make to influence a positive safety culture?

1. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (August 2011). National census of fatal occupational injuries in 2010 (preliminary results). USDL-11-1247.
2. Cooper. D. (2006).The impact of management’s commitment on employee behavior: A field study. American Society of Safety Engineers. 3 18-22. Retrieved from
3. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. (2002). The changing organization of work and the safety and health of working people. Retrieved from
4. Piers, M., Montijn, & Balk, A. (2009). Safety culture for the ECAST. Safety Management System Working Group. Dutch National Aerospace Laboratory.
5. Reason, J. (1998). Achieving a safe culture: Theory and practice. Work & Stress, 12(3)293-206.

This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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