Building A Positive 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. There are four distinct building blocks that create a foundation on which a more effective safety culture can be built.
1. Using the right performance indicators
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.
Unfortunately, in many organisations, managers only attend to safety during safety meetings, audits and reactively, when there is an incident. Managers attend to what they are measured on because those measures are associated with consequences (positive and negative).
Too many organisations still measure safety mainly via incident rates, which 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.
Incident rates can get better or worse with absolutely no change in safety conditions or behaviours. The result is that organisations can go for long periods of time without accidents, despite having an unsafe work environment. When the incident rate is low, most assume all is well with safety and focus on other priorities.
So, one important step to building an effective safety culture is to change the way safety is measured. While incident rates are a necessary metric, they should be part of many. The majority of measures should focus on proactive behaviours on the part of all employees – measures that track what people are doing to prevent accidents: this ensures that safety is attended to all the time, not just when there are incidents.
2. Avoiding blame culture with forward looking accountability
Accountability is essential in all aspects of business, but particularly for safety. Unfortunately, accountability is too often thought of as synonymous with blame and negative consequences.
Backward-looking accountability is about assigning blame; finding the individual who made the mistake and delivering punishment. While sometimes this is the right thing to do, there are many downsides to such action. Blaming and punishment very rarely results in a safer workplace.
Forward-looking accountability acknowledges the mistake and any harm it caused, but, more importantly, it identifies changes that need to be made, and assigns responsibility for making those changes. The accountability is focused around making changes – building safe habits and a safe physical environment – that will prevent a recurrence, and not on punishing those who made the mistake.
Effective safety cultures accept that mistakes are an inevitable part of the workplace, but are relentless about learning from those mistakes.
3. Building good relationships between all levels
Relationships matter a lot in safety. Great safety cultures are characterized by good relationships at all levels, which enable open, honest conversations about what is working, what is not, mistakes that have been made and what needs to change. As noted above, mistakes are great opportunities to learn, but workers must trust that if they tell management what really is going on, management won’t overreact. This trust is most likely found in the context of good working relationships.
Many leadership behaviours contribute to creating good relationships.
Having a good relationship doesn’t mean being nice all the time or being soft on safety. Good relationships include accountability and constructive feedback. Positive employee-management relationships include mutual trust and respect as a foundation for a partnership around safety.
4. Positive reinforcement
A high standard of safety requires that people don’t just follow procedures and wear PPE. Exceptional safety happens when people look for and report hazards, give peers feedback on safe and at-risk behaviour, make suggestions for improvement and, most difficult of all, admit when they have made mistakes, so lessons can be learned.
This extra employee effort is created using positive reinforcement. When people are recognized for what they do well in relation to safety and when reporting concerns is met with reinforcing consequences, employees will be more engaged in safety.
Rather than an incentive system, these goals can be achieved using positive reinforcement. This approach ensures accidents are reduced for the right reasons – because people are working safely – and helps capture the extra effort that is essential for a positive safety culture.
These four drivers are largely the work of management. Management should build the foundation for a positive safety culture. Once the foundation has been built, the frontline workforce will increase its contribution. It is through this joint effort that organisations can create and sustain a safety culture that works.