Achieving a Safety Culture is no Accident

Construction Worker - Safety Culture

When accidents happen at the workplace, the ensuing investigation for the cause often leads to failures of employees or machinery.

But that’s not the whole story.

The root cause is often much broader in scope, and can be traced back to organizational shortcomings – specifically not creating a safety culture from the start.

So what exactly is a safety culture? No, it doesn’t involve the safety dance, but if your workplace requires the wearing of personal protective gear, the answer is important to you.

Defining Safety Culture

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) introduced the term safety culture in the reporting of their analysis into the nuclear reactor accident at Chernobyl. Many different definitions of the term exist. The United Kingdom’s Advisory Committee on the Safety of Nuclear Installations (ACSNI) has developed one definition that is widely used today:

“The safety culture of an organisation is the product of individual and group values, attitudes, perceptions, competencies and patterns of behaviour that determine the commitment to, and the style and proficiency of, an organisation’s health and safety management.

Organisations with a positive safety culture are characterised by communications founded on mutual trust, by shared perceptions of the importance of safety and by confidence in the efficacy of preventive measures.”

Robert Sumwalt, the Vice-Chairman of the United States’ National Transportation Safety Board defines it more simply, stating

“I define safety culture simply as doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.”

What Price Safety?

Safety costs money. One has only to look at the flood of catalogs offering safety equipment, services, and training. Safety equipment such as personal protective equipment, ventilation hardware, signage, and software to track and maintain material safety data sheet information has a direct cost.

Internal safety administration such as safety meetings, writing safety minutes, accident investigations, development and publication of safety procedures and so on take employees away from their “normal” duties and has a negative effect on production.

These costs are controllable. But what are the costs of an accident?

Accidents can cause damage, injury, and death. They can reduce or stop production, cause employee lost time, result in an increase in benefit costs, and so on. A reputation for a poor safety record can lower the perception of the overall quality of the company to customers, insurers, competitors, and to high-value prospective employees.

Major accidents often result in punitive measures from regulatory authorities such as OSHA and to litigation on behalf of the injured party. In other words, a single accident may be disastrous for the organization and the people that run it.

Preventing accidents, injuries and occupational illnesses is simply good business.

Attributes of a Successful Safety Culture

The following attributes in organizations and businesses represent effective safety cultures:

  • Promotion of safety as the top priority – The prioritization of safety as above all else, including product quality, end of quarter or end of year production pressures, and so on, must never waver. In other words, this must not be just a lip-service statement.
  • Executive ownership and promotion of safety – Employees are unlikely to fully support a safety program if they do not consider that all levels of the organization, in particular the top level, are fully invested in it themselves.
  • A strong safety administration – There are many aspects to safety administration. It usually centers on a safety committee that is engaged and interested in the process and that recognize the benefits of their involvement. They hold regular safety meetings, arrange for internal and external safety audits, carry out formal investigations of accidents and incidents, and collect and review data on “near-miss” reports.
  • Prompt feedback on safety inputs – Nothing discourages an employee from making safety suggestions faster than a lack of feedback. An employee should receive immediate recognition of the receipt of the suggestion. The safety committee should follow up with information on the results of any discussions and risk analysis, and what the resolution.
  • Blame-free environment – The aim of any investigation or audit should be to identify safety issues, not to apportion blame to an individual. If an employee has “caused” an accident, there is usually a deeper root cause reason, which should become the focus of any investigation or remedial action. Having a focus on blame restricts open communication and is counter-productive to the whole safety effort. Of course, this cannot be applied to instances of gross negligence or deliberate acts designed to cause damage or injury.
  • Shame-free environment – This attribute is perhaps more an indicator that a safety culture is in place in the organization. It is human nature to avoid admitting to a mistake and appearing foolish to colleagues. A readiness to admit to mistakes throughout the employee population is a sure sign that everyone recognizes that safety is uppermost in their minds.
  • Empowerment – Employees that are empowered and in a blame-free environment develop the confidence to speak out to their colleagues and their managers they see lapses in safety awareness.

Controlling the Cost of Safety

Once a safety program is established, there is likely to be a continuous flow of safety-related suggestions for the safety committee to address. A formal risk analysis offers the safety committee a way to quantify a possible hazard.

The committee evaluates the suggested hazard for validity. If it is not valid, no further action is taken other than informing, with reasons, the employee that made the suggestion. If it is valid, the committee assigns a numeric value to three areas of the hazard—the likelihood that the accident will occur, the possible severity of the accident should it occur, and the cost of mitigating the hazard.

The sum of these values gives a rating that helps the committee to determine the effectiveness of mitigating the hazard. The result of this analysis offers a direct measure of the value to the organization of taking action to address the hazard.

It is important that this process is open and it’s also very helpful to involve the employee that made the suggestion in the process. Involvement is the best feedback of all.

There are many different facets involved in developing a safety culture in an organization. It depends largely on human factors such as recognizing the value of safety, acceptance of change, a willingness to admit mistakes in your own actions and to point out mistakes in the actions of others.

Changing the culture of an organization is a big challenge, and the cost of safety initiatives can be substantial in some industries. However, knowing that these changes can save lives is truly something to dance about.


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