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Why do you want a strong safety culture?

It has been observed at the OSHA VPP sites and confirmed by independent research that developing strong safety cultures have the single greatest impact on accident reduction of any process. It is for this single reason that developing these cultures should be top priority for all managers and supervisors.

What is a safety culture - how will it impact my company?

Safety cultures consist of shared beliefs, practices, and attitudes that exist at an establishment. Culture is the atmosphere created by those beliefs, attitudes, etc., which shape our behavior. An organizations safety culture is the result of a number of factors such as:

  • Management and employee norms, assumptions and beliefs;
  • Management and employee attitudes;
  • Values, myths, stories;
  • Policies and procedures;
  • Supervisor priorities, responsibilities and accountability;
  • Production and bottom line pressures vs. quality issues;
  • Actions or lack of action to correct unsafe behaviors;
  • Employee training and motivation; and
  • Employee involvement or "buy-in."

In a strong safety culture, everyone feels responsible for safety and pursues it on a daily basis; employees go beyond "the call of duty" to identify unsafe conditions and behaviors, and intervene to correct them. For instance, in a strong safety culture any worker would feel comfortable walking up to the plant manager or CEO and reminding him or her to wear safety glasses. This type of behavior would not be viewed as forward or over-zealous but would be valued by the organization and rewarded. Likewise coworkers routinely look out for one another and point out unsafe behaviors to each other.

A company with a strong safety culture typically experiences few at-risk behaviors, consequently they also experience low accident rates, low turn-over, low absenteeism, and high productivity. They are usually companies who are extremely successful by excelling in all aspects of business and excellence.

Creating a safety culture takes time. It is frequently a multi-year process. A series of continuous process improvement steps can be followed to create a safety culture. Employer and employee commitment are hallmarks of a true safety culture where safety is an integral part of daily operations.

A company at the beginning of the road toward developing a safety culture may exhibit a level of safety awareness, consisting of safety posters and warning signs. As more time and commitment are devoted, a company will begin to address physical hazards and may develop safety recognition programs, create safety committees, and start incentive programs.

Top management support of a safety culture often results in acquiring a safety director, providing resources for accident investigations, and safety training. Further progress toward a true safety culture uses accountability systems. These systems establish safety goals, measure safety activities, and charge costs back to the units that incur them. Ultimately, safety becomes everyone's responsibility, not just the safety director's. Safety becomes a value of the organization and is an integral part of operations. Management and employees are committed and involved in preventing losses. Over time the norms and beliefs of the organization shift focus from eliminating hazards to eliminating unsafe behaviors and building systems that proactively improve safety and health conditions. Employee safety and doing something the right way takes precedence over short term production pressures. Simultaneously, production does not suffer but is enhanced due to the level of excellence developed within the organization.

Building a safety culture

Any process that brings all levels within the organization together to work on a common goal that everyone holds in high value will strengthen the organizational culture. Worker safety and health is a unique area that can do this. It is one of the few initiatives that offer significant benefits for the front-line work force. As a result, buy-in can be achieved enabling the organization to effectively implement change. Obtaining front line buy-in for improving worker safety and health is much easier than it is to get buy-in for improving quality or increasing profitability. When the needed process improvements, are implemented all three areas typically improve and a culture is developed that supports continuous improvement in all areas. The following represents the major processes and milestones that are needed to successfully implement a change process for safety and health. It is intended to focus you on the process rather than individual tasks. It is common to have a tendency to focus on the accomplishment of tasks, i.e., to train everyone on a particular concern or topic or implement a new procedure for incident investigations, etc. Sites that maintain their focus on the larger process to be followed are far more successful. They can see the "forest" from the "trees" and thus can make mid-course adjustments as needed. They never lose sight of their intended goals, therefore, they tend not to get distracted or allow obstacles to interfere with their mission. The process itself will take care of the task implementation and ensure that the appropriate resources are provided and priorities are set.

Management Processes Typically Ripe for Improvement:
  • Define safety responsibilities for all levels of the organization, e.g., safety is a line management function.
  • Develop upstream measures, e.g., number of reports of hazards/suggestions, number of committee projects/successes, etc.
  • Align management and supervisors through establishing a shared vision of safety and health goals and objectives vs. production.
  • Implement a process that holds managers and supervisors accountable for visibly being involved, setting the proper example, and leading a positive change for safety and health.
  • Evaluate and rebuild any incentives & disciplinary systems for safety and health as necessary.
  • Ensure the safety committee is functioning appropriately, e.g., membership, responsibilities/functions, authority, meeting management skills, etc.
  • Provide multiple paths for employees to bring suggestions, concerns, or problems forward. One mechanism should use the chain of command and ensure no repercussions. Hold supervisors and middle managers accountable for being responsive.
  • Develop a system that tracks and ensures the timeliness in hazard correction. Many sites have been successful in building this in with an already existing work order system.
  • Ensure reporting of injuries, first aids, and near misses. Educate employees on the accident pyramid and importance of reporting minor incidents. Prepare management for initial increase in incidents and rise in rates. This will occur if under-reporting exists in the organization. It will level off, then decline as the system changes take hold.
  • Evaluate and rebuild the incident investigation system as necessary to ensure that it is timely, complete, and effective. It should get to the root causes and avoid blaming workers.

Obtain Top Management "Buy-in" - This is the very first step that needs to be accomplished. Top managers must be on board. If they are not, safety and health will compete against core business issues such as production and profitability, a battle that will almost always be lost. They need to understand the need for change and be willing to support it. Showing the costs to the organization in terms of dollars (direct and indirect costs of accidents) that are being lost, and the organizational costs (fear, lack of trust, feeling of being used, etc.) can be compelling reasons for looking at needing to do something different. Because losses due to accidents are bottom line costs to the organization, controlling these will more than pay for the needed changes. In addition, when successful, you will also go a long way in eliminating organizational barriers such as fear, lack of trust, etc.: Issues that typically get in the way of everything that the organization wants to do.

Continue Building "Buy-in" for the needed changes by building an alliance or partnership between management, the union (if one exists), and employees. A compelling reason for the change must be spelled out to everyone. People have to understand WHY they are being asked to change what they normally do and what it will look like if they are successful. This needs to be done up front. If people get wind that something "is going down" and haven't been formally told anything, they naturally tend to resist and opt out.

Build Trust - Trusting is a critical part of accepting change and management needs to know that this is the bigger picture, outside of all the details. Trust will occur as different levels within the organization work together and begin to see success.

Conduct Self Assessments/Bench Marking - To get where you want to go, you must know where you are starting from. A variety of self-audit mechanisms can be employed to compare your site processes with other recognized models of excellence such as Star VPP sites. Visiting other sites to gain first hand information is also invaluable.

Initial Training of Management-Supervisory staff, Union Leadership (if present), and safety and health committee members, and a representative number of hourly employees. This may include both safety and health training and any needed management, team building, hazard recognition, or communication training, etc. This gives you a core group of people to draw upon as resources and also gets key personnel onboard with needed changes.

Establish a Steering Committee comprised of management, employees, union (if one exists), and safety staff. The purpose of this group is to facilitate, support, and direct the change processes. This will provide overall guidance and direction and avoid duplication of efforts. To be effective, the group must have the authority to get things done.

Develop Site Safety Vision, key policies, goals, measures, and strategic and operational plans. These policies provide guidance and serve as a check-in that can be used to ask yourself if the decision you're about to make supports or detracts from your intended safety and health improvement process.

Align the Organization by establishing a shared vision of safety and health goals and objectives vs. production. Upper management must be willing to support by providing resources (time) and holding managers and supervisors accountable for doing the same. The entire management and supervisory staff need to set the example and lead the change. It's more about leadership than management.

Define Specific Roles and responsibilities for safety and health at all levels of the organization. Safety and health must be viewed as everyone's responsibility. How the organization is to deal with competing pressures and priorities, i.e., production, versus safety and health, needs to be clearly spelled out.

Develop a System of Accountability for all levels of the organization. Everyone must play by the same rules and be held accountable for their areas of responsibility. Signs of a strong culture is when the individuals hold themselves accountable.

Develop Measures and an ongoing measurement and feedback system. Drive the system with upstream activity measures that encourages positive change. Examples include the number of hazards reported or corrected, numbers of inspections, number of equipment checks, JSA's, pre-start-up reviews conducted, etc.

While it is always nice to know what the bottom line performance is, i.e., accident rates, overemphasis on these and using them to drive the system typically only drives accident reporting under the table. It is all too easy to manipulate accident rates which will only result in risk issues remaining unresolved and a probability for more serious events to occur in the future.

Develop Policies for Recognition, rewards, incentives, and ceremonies. Again, reward employees for doing the right things and encourage participation in the upstream activities. Continually reevaluate these policies to ensure their effectiveness and to ensure that they do not become entitlement programs.

Awareness Training and Kick-off for all employees. It's not enough for a part of the organization to be involved and know about the change effort - the entire site needs to know and be involved in some manner. A kick-off celebration can be used to announce it's a "new day" and seek buy-in for any new procedures and programs.

Implement Process Changes via involvement of management, union (if one is present), and employees using a "Plan To Act" process Total Quality Management (TQM).

Continually Measure performance, Communicate Results, and Celebrate Successes. Publicizing results is very important to sustaining efforts and keeping everyone motivated. Everyone needs to be updated throughout the process. Progress reports during normal shift meetings allowing time for comments back to the steering committee opens communications, but also allows for input. Everyone needs to have a voice, otherwise, they will be reluctant to buy-in. A system can be as simple as using current meetings, a bulletin board, and a comment box.

On-going Support - Reinforcement, feedback, reassessment, mid-course corrections, and on-going training is vital to sustaining continuous improvement.