Safety culture discussions take place in boardrooms every day. Research and experience have taught us the level of safety performance we achieve is often driven by our company culture. It is a company’s daily assumptions, behaviors and practices that actually drive or create the cultural subset we call “safety culture.”
Each tragedy our industry endures is followed by intensive, and often public, investigations. These detailed reports reveal it is our organizational culture, and its resulting safety culture, that often play a significant role in these events.
So, how do we build a high performance safety culture? The strategies for building or enhancing a company’s safety culture are relatively simple, but we should not confuse simple with easy. The task of changing an organization’s culture is quite challenging, but it is clearly worth the effort.
Here are three steps for building or changing a company’s safety culture:
• Become a reporting culture. Employee fear is the primary reason most companies suffer from a lack of reporting of minor or near miss incidents — fear of being blamed for taking a shortcut, fear of being blamed for shining the spotlight on the “way we’ve always done it,” fear they won’t get called back for the next project and fear of being perceived as “not being a team player.” It is human nature to try to avoid being blamed and to stay out of trouble. Disciplinary policies are one example of the difficulty in building a good safety culture. Emphasizing discipline over reporting does not build a safer culture. Instead, it often drives reporting underground. Folks in the field also realize additional time and effort are created when incidents are reported. People tend to avoid additional work especially when they do not see the added value. High performance safety cultures encourage reporting by creating systems with appropriate follow-up and ease of use. When employees fail to report, companies go unaware of risks that could otherwise be addressed.
• Develop safety awareness with value added safety rules. We all have heard the adage “our safety rules were written in blood.” While this is largely true, a focus on rules tends to stifle our understanding of the risk. For example, an investigation into the 1999 Glenbrook rail accident in Australia that killed seven and injured 51 showed the commuter train operator had an abundance of safety rules and procedures to follow — eight volumes of them! With that many rules, how can we expect anyone to truly know and understand them all? The volume of rules alone prohibited any of the field employees from knowing them and essentially made them unfeasible for field use. Consider the golden rule of safety rules — rules should be developed with user input. They also should be dynamic, practical, effectively communicated, routinely monitored and enforced, updated regularly and continually improved.
• Leaders must be seen. Leaders create culture as they create companies. While cultural understanding is desirable for each of us, it is essential for our leaders. The best way for leaders to learn the culture they have created (or inherited) is to spend time monitoring worker performance. One useful technique is simply to use work sampling. Work sampling involves walking around, observing, engaging and providing immediate feedback related to the work observed. Feedback must be immediate, constructive and meaningful. Listening to workers is yet another valuable part of work sampling and can produce an amazing amount of information.
To successfully implement changes in its safety culture, each organization must customize these simple, but effective, techniques to obtain the desired results. Supervisors and workers are more likely to support these efforts when safety metrics and key performance indicators are designed to develop and support a culture where people are trusting yet held account-able for supporting safety efforts. Building a strong safety culture helps build a better and more responsible organization.
For more information, please contact Charles Johnson at (281) 478-6200 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.