A Real Workplace Puzzle: The Ins & Outs of Safety Culture

What is safety culture? For some, it’s a buzzword that is oft-used but not truly understood. While safety culture isn’t tangible, it is definitely measurable. It’s also plastic. If your organization’s safety culture isn’t where it needs to be, it can be changed or strengthened. If your organization lacks safety culture, implement one. In order for an organization to successfully implement and foster a culture of safety, it is imperative that safety culture is first understood. It is also important to understand that implementing or strengthening safety culture requires the ability to manage change and shifting values. Knowing how to drive change in a positive manner will ensure the embrace of the safety culture, thereby increasing the success of your organization’s safety culture and program.

What is Safety Culture?

Safety culture is a broad concept that is usually taken to reflect the qualities of the organizational culture that affect safety attitudes and behaviors. The problem with a definition like this is that it doesn’t really tell us what safety culture is! What does it actually mean in practice? Simply put, it’s the “way things are done.” In an organization with a strong safety culture, the way things are done means safely. The people within the organization view safety as both an individual responsibility and an integral part of operations. Safety culture is also the attitudes and behaviours that drive the safe behaviours. These are developed through the support of top management, and leadership by example of supervisors, managers, and even the CEO. Top management who practices what they preach will have an easier time of developing a safety culture within all organizational practices. Strong safety culture in the workplace is identified in workplaces that support the following activities:

  • Communication: Safety messages are communicated organization-wide. As well, all employees receive training on safe operating processes, policies, and procedures. There is a safety board that is updated regularly, and there are frequent messages and updates from top management that are circulated company-wide.
  • Training: Training is provided to employees on a regular basis, and is monitored for effectiveness. If skill gaps are identified, they are rectified through training and coaching.
  • Top-Down Support: Safety is supported and practiced at all levels. Buy-in comes naturally because safety is ingrained in all of the company’s operations and processes.
  • Reporting Culture: Hazard reports are welcome, rather than discouraged. When employees feel comfortable reporting hazards, they’ll be more apt to do so. The reporting culture is further strengthened when the employer takes action to control or remedy reported hazards immediately.
  • Involve workers: Buy-in and participation increase tremendously when workers have input into workplace safety processes, policies, and program elements.
  • An Active JHSC: To get an accurate read on an organization’s safety culture, examine the JHSC. Is it active and effective? If so, you can bet that the safety culture is strong and that the JHSC gets the support it needs to run like a well-oiled machine.

What isn’t Safety Culture?

There are a few terms that get used interchangeably with safety culture that don’t actually define or encompass safety culture. Those terms include safety climate, organizational culture, and safety leadership. However, all of these do play an integral role into how the safety culture is developed and supported organization-wide.

  • Safety Climate: this differs from culture because it describes the perception among all organizational members (worker to CEO) of the importance of safety in the workplace. This contributes to a strong safety culture because employees need to believe that safety is important.
  • Organizational Culture: Organizational culture refers to the culture of the organization as a whole; safety culture is just one aspect of the organizational culture. Like safety climate, if the organizational culture is poor, it can be expected that the safety culture isn’t great either. A positive organizational culture that aligns with company goals and visions is an essential foundation for safety culture. 
  • Safety Leadership: Safety leadership describes the ways in which the organization and its leaders promote safety. When leaders actively support safety, there are fewer incidents and more positive safety outcomes.

Neither safety climate, organizational culture, nor safety leadership is safety culture; however, all three are vital components in a positive safety culture. It can’t exist without them, because as with any culture, there are many moving parts and layers to a positive and active workplace safety culture.

When Safety Culture Backfires

Safety culture requires balance. While it needs to be strong and effective, as with anything, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Sometimes, safety culture can backfire. It happens when the culture of safety becomes too focused on stats and numbers. That hyper-focus on things like “number of days without incident” or “number of days without a lost-time injury” can sometimes backfire, because it may cause injuries, accidents, illnesses, or hazards to go unreported. The best way to combat this is to adopt a culture that encourages reporting, even at the cost of breaking a safety streak.

Some safety professionals believe that another way that safety culture might backfire is if employers put too much focus on a “safety first” mindset. The argument is that safety isn’t generally first, but that touting it as such can reduce the effectiveness of the message altogether. Read more about this concept here.

How to Manage Change

Implementing or strengthening a positive and effective safety culture requires more than stating that “we’re going to strengthen our safety culture and change the way we do things.” When an organization undertakes to implement a major change in its organizational strategy, business model, or organizational culture, it must undertake major change management strategies. Change is never accomplished overnight. Make no mistake: a shift in safety culture requires the same amount of change management! Consider the generic model of change and how it applies to the organizational safety culture:

  1. Recognize the need for change
  2. Diagnose what needs to change
  3. Plan for, and prepare to, change
  4. Implement the change
  5. Sustain the change

While each phase is important, it’s the ability to recognize that a change is needed, and the ability to sustain a change once one is implemented that really ensure the continued success of an organizational change, including a change in the company-wide safety culture. 

Tips for Keeping Workers Motivated

When it comes to workplace health and safety, it can sometimes be challenging to keep workers motivated to work safely. This can be true even when the safety culture is operating as expected. To keep workers motivated and to keep the safety culture operational, try the following:

  • Communicate often: the more transparent the organization is about safety efforts; the more workers will be willing to do their part. If safety feels like it’s imposed, workers may lack the motivation needed to work safely and identify hazards.
  • Reward safe behaviours: too often, safety is only discussed when unsafe behaviours or conditions are present. Be sure to reward safe behaviours. Frequent and timely positive feedback is a great way to reinforce desired behaviours.
  • Make reporting part of the job: reporting hazards must become part of every worker’s job description, and reported hazards must be met with positive enthusiasm. If a worker reports a hazard and is treated as a nuisance for doing so, you can guarantee that worker won’t report the next time.
  • Let innovation flourish: allow workers to bring forward ideas for continuous improvement. They are the ones most familiar with the job processes and materials. Listen to them when they say they have an idea that can make the work safer.
  • Participation breeds buy-in: the more you allow workers to participate in health and safety initiatives, the more buy-in there will be among them. Workers who contribute have a better understanding of the “why” behind policies and procedures, and that makes them more likely to follow them, and encourage others to as well.

When it comes to safety culture in the workplace, there are many ins and outs, tons of moving parts, and many contributing factors. However, that doesn’t mean that an effective and positive safety culture is unobtainable! Quite the contrary; an active and positive safety culture is a key component in your organization’s strategy for long-term success!

Written by Jennifer Miller | Curriculum Development Coordinator


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