Organizational Culture and Safety Performance

Does your corporate culture promote safety? How can you make safety part of the corporate culture?

by Zack Mansdorf, Ph.D., CIH, CSP, QEP

An organizational culture that supports safety is essential for the prevention of injuries and illness. Management systems and programs can provide an effective safety framework; however, it ultimately is the worker's perception of the value of safety to himself and the importance of safety to the organization that governs safety performance.

Simply put, for true performance, you need both the underlying systems and an organizational culture that supports them. This is often called "safety culture."

What is a safety culture? "Culture" is defined in my version of Webster's Dictionary as "the concepts, habits, skills, arts, instruments, institutions, etc., of a given people." This definition also can be applied to how organizations and the people who make up organizations feel about safety. The British Health and Safety Executive has one of the better definitions, which was derived from its work in the safety of nuclear installations. Paraphrasing, it defines safety culture as the product of the individual and group values, attitudes, competencies and patterns of behavior that determine the commitment to, and the style and proficiency of, an organization"s health and safety programs. Safety culture is "the way we do things around here," and reflects how we collectively value safety.

Organizational culture is learned quickly by those joining an organization, and is supported by the [organization's] survivors. It is learned by observing the successes and failures of their peers and others in the work environment, from written and unwritten organizational rules and through their own job experiences. Once established, it can be difficult to change corporate culture, since one aspect of essentially all cultures is that they resist change. This has been dramatically demonstrated by the failure of recent large merger attempts in which the two partnering companies had vastly different organizational cultures.

The best examples of how safety culture can affect work are the ones that we have all experienced at some time in our careers. As we all know, safe work rules can be destined to failure if management and the workers do not equally support them. For example, a rule requiring the use of safety glasses can be quickly diminished if a senior manager walks around the plant without them. In this case, the organizational or safety culture promotes a sense that the rules do not really matter.

A situation in which the supervisor and fellow workers look the other way "in order to get the job done," is a more subtle, but equally destructive practice that leads to an undesirable safety culture. I recall a serious chemical accident that resulted from the use of an air-powered wrench to unbolt a large pipe flange. The supervisors and workers knew that the work rules required use of a hand wrench in case the pipe was under pressure. Nevertheless, the supervisor looked the other way at the common practice of using prohibited air wrenches, since they were much faster and easier to use. The organizational culture supported this practice by promoting the unwritten message that the faster turnaround was more important than safety.

Just where does safety culture fit in?

New safety concepts, while not quite as quite as prolific as the flavor-of-the-month business management concept guaranteeing fabulous success to any business who uses it, have included a number of novel approaches designed to create incredibly safe workers and workplaces. These have included systems safety (e.g., fault tree, MORT) approaches, the advent of widespread compliance auditing, loss control and integrated risk management approaches, behavior-based safety approaches and ISO-like management systems approaches. The motive driving the search for new approaches is the fact that we have reached a plateau in the downward trend in occupational accidents and illnesses. Safety managers and others, under the pressure of continuous improvement expectations, have become increasingly desperate to find ways to show improvement in company safety performance, compared with last year's performance.

While many of the new or rejuvenated (some would argue that none of this is new) approaches have great merit, none has delivered breakthrough performance improvement. What is different about the renewed interest and refinement of approaches based on changing the safety culture? It is that a safety-supportive culture alone is not enough. It must be paired with, and supported by, other approaches. Technically driven safety programs and a management system are necessary for an effective safety culture. The safety culture fits within the context of organizational values, behaviors and practices and the recognition that programmatic approaches need organizational and individual alignment. Simply put, it is the recognition that, without management and worker buy-in, no safety program can be truly effective.

The Unwritten Rules

How many of us recognize the catchy phrase "Safety First"? It's a common banner found in myriad businesses. Although this message appears on the bulletin board at many organizations, it is my hunch and observation that only a few practice what they preach

What happens when safety is not first, yet the organization says it is? It sends the message that some rules can be broken or stretched.

What happens when an organization prohibits any printed matter except that of the company or information related to the company (a real "safety" rule I recently saw)? The point is that what is said and what is practiced can be quite different, and that stupid rules encourage unwanted behaviors.

Peter Scott-Morgan, in his book The Unwritten Rules of the Game: Master Them, Shatter Them, and Break Through the Barriers to Organizational Change (McGraw-Hill, 1994), describes the importance of recognizing that what drives organizations is not usually the official policy, but the unwritten rules. He further characterizes the unwritten rules through an analysis of motivators, triggers and enablers. In his characterization, motivators are the goals that individuals strive for. Triggers are the conditions that need to be satisfied. Enablers are people who can make achieving the goal possible. Once the analysis is done, the ultimate solution is relatively simple, but sometimes difficult to implement. Scott-Morgan urges changing the unwritten rules to follow what you or your organization really want.

Assessing Safety Culture

How does one assess the safety culture in an organization? There are a number of methods available; however, they generally center on worker and management perceptions and opinions as they relate to safety. In this case, it is perceptions and opinions that count, not reality or facts. (I know this is difficult for most of us to handle.)

The most common means for collecting this information is through questionnaires or interviews. The interview technique, while more labor-intensive and generally requiring a third party, is probably the best method to explore employee perceptions and opinions about the organization and safety. A combination of focused interviews and general questionnaires can also be used.

Whatever method is used, the survey must be done in a way that protects the anonymity of the respondents. It is also very important to make sure that the sponsor is prepared for potentially bad news. (Remember the old saying, "Don't ask the question unless you are prepared for the answer."?)

The typical diagnosis is not hard to predict. It usually involves a serious gap in the safety message and philosophy between the most senior management and the supervisor and workers. My experience is that the message typically gets lost within middle management. Usually, this is a consequence of what we described previously as the unwritten rules of the game: saying that safety is most important; but rewarding those whose behaviors and actions provide short-term gains, while placing others at risk (e.g., allowing the unit to run outside operating limits so as not to lose production, postpone repairs or require tired workers to work overtime).

Based on this experience, I would identify key stakeholder groups as:

  • Senior management
  • Middle management
  • Supervisors
  • Workers
  • Safety, health, and environmental personnel, and
  • Contractors (supervisors and workers).

Information collected can be used to compare and contrast the perceptions among each of these groups. Contractor information is quite useful, since it will have a substantially different perspective that is based on comparing your company with others for whom it has worked.

Typical questions that might be used in a worker interview include:

  • What are the company policy and goals for safety?
  • What do you feel is your role in the safety program?
  • How does your immediate supervisor support safety?
  • Do you feel that senior management actively supports safety?
  • Do you feel adequately trained to do your job safely?
  • Do you feel that the work rules and regulations for safety are necessary?
  • What pressures are put on you that may affect safety?
  • How would you compare safety at your company, compared with others of a similar business?
  • Do you and other workers have a say in identifying and fixing hazards?
  • What do you feel should be done to improve safety?

While these examples are typical, they will vary, depending on the audience and the means of collecting the information. Whatever the means of data collection, the ultimate goal is to evaluate the existing organizational culture and identify gaps and unwritten rules of the game that discourage safe behaviors and practices. These leverage points then can be used to help gradually change the organizational culture and the perceptions of the employees about the importance and value of safety.

Improving Safety Culture

How do you improve the safety culture of an organization?

First, it is important to recognize that organizational culture develops over the life of an organization. As many CEOs have found, culture is difficult to change quickly - if at all. Dr. Steve Simon, an organizational psychologist who has published in the health and safety literature on safety culture, has said, "To change organizational behavior, group norms, not individual attitudes, should be addressed." How does one go about moving that big ship at sea?

While there are a number of ways to stimulate cultural change, most focus on employee involvement, two-way communication and training. Employee involvement may include such measures as visioning to establish the safety goals and philosophy, establishing clear employee responsibilities and accountability in safety, sharing performance data with all employees, and instituting programs that encourage active employee involvement in safety.

It is not enough to simply state a new policy or rule. Effective, two-way communication that emphasizes shared values and goals, rather than the traditional top-down, hierarchical policies, is necessary.

Training that is keyed to the role and responsibility of each participant in the safety program is the third key element. Training should be used to make sure that we equip each person with the knowledge and tools necessary to carry out his function and make sound decisions. For example, how can we expect a worker to report hazards if he does not know what they are? How can we expect a supervisor to do a great accident investigation if the supervisor has never been adequately trained in root cause analysis? All of this takes on even greater importance when you consider the widespread push to move safety and health responsibility down through the line organization.

There are many tools and approaches available today that can drive safety performance improvement, but they all require a workplace culture that recognizes and embraces safety as a key goal of the organization and its employees in order to be successful. Likewise, an organizational culture that does not value safety and that rewards risky or unsafe behaviors is destined for a major adverse event, no matter how hard the safety manager works or how good the systems are.

If you're not getting the safety performance you need or deserve, it may be time for a culture check.

Contributing Editor Zack Mansdorf, Ph.D., CIH, CSP, QEP, has more than 25 years of technical and strategic experience in safety and health management. He is a past president of the American Industrial Hygiene Association and a director for the Board of Certified Safety Professionals.

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