building a sustainable workplace safety culture

Culture change in an organization of any size is not a simple process. When it comes to workplace culture, many elements contribute to creating and sustaining a strong culture of safety.  While it is likely that some of these elements vary from organization to organization, there are four distinct cornerstones that create a foundation on which a more effective safety culture can be built, despite complexity and variability among organizations.

Cornerstone 1:  Leading Indicators

Safety culture heavily is influenced by metrics. How safety is measured can fundamentally change how safety is managed, and how safety is managed is a primary contributor to an organization’s safety culture. In companies with strong safety cultures, safety is embedded in daily management; it is part of the fabric of daily activity.  It infuses every interaction, every decision and every behavior.

Unfortunately, in many organizations, leaders only attend to safety during safety meetings, audits and reactively, when there is an incident. The reason lies in metrics. Managers attend to what they are measured on because those measures are associated with consequences (positive and negative).

Too many organizations still measure safety largely or exclusively via incident rate (or similar lagging metrics such as DART, lost-time case rate, severity rate, etc.). Such measures tell us how many people got hurt and how badly, but they are not good measures of what leaders are doing to prevent accidents and incidents.

Because of the natural variation in these numbers, incident rates can get either better or worse with absolutely no change in safety conditions or behaviors. The result is that organizations, and departments within organizations, can go for long periods of time without accidents, despite having an unsafe work environment. This statistical fact works against keeping a focus on safety.

Managers and supervisors can do nothing around safety for a period of time and be reinforced with a good incident rate. Such is not the case for other business objectives like productivity, quality and reliability. Those objectives tend to have much more sensitive measures and thus are more immediate with certain consequences for management behavior. In the context of these other important business objectives (and their powerful consequences), it is easy for the well-intended manager or supervisor to put safety on the back burner. When the incident rate is low, one can assume all is well with safety and focus precious time on other priorities.

So, one important foundational step to building an effective safety culture is to change the way safety is measured. While incident rate is a necessary metric, it should be one of several. The majority of measures should focus on proactive behaviors on the part of all employees – measures that track what people are doing to prevent accidents. When there are measures of what leaders do on a daily and weekly basis to prevent accidents, immediate and certain consequences can be engineered in to ensure those activities occur. This ensures that safety is attended to all the time, not just when there are incidents. Daily and weekly accountabilities will raise safety to an equal playing field with other business objectives and help infuse safety into all parts of work.

Building the Foundation for a Sustainable Safety Culture
EHS Today