Culture, Leadership Critical to Reducing Workplace Injuries

A behavioral safety expert, who testified during the April 1 Senate Employment and Workplace Protections Subcommittee hearing on the dangerous patterns of workplace safety violations, emphasized that organizational leaders can drive company culture to make workplace safety a priority.

Carmen Bianco, an executive consultant with Behavioral Safety Technology (BST), told OccupationalHazards.com that company leaders significantly can influence the effectiveness of injury reduction programs through the cultures they create. If the culture only focuses on productivity, for example, there isn’t much room for safety, Bianco said. But when companies successfully communicate that productivity cannot exist without safety, they can better reduce on-the-job injuries.

“[Company leaders] communicate their message through the things they focus on, setting the right vision, challenging and inspiring the workforce,” he said. “They really get around and embrace that vision, to build the team and collaborative environment where everyone's voice is heard.”

These leaders, he added, are “building a culture in which they value every employee and what they bring to the table.”

Bianco was hesitant to presume that the companies named during the April 1 hearing – BP, McWane and Cintas, for example – were at fault because the company CEO or other organizational leaders were not effectively communicating a culture of safety throughout the company. Without conducting an assessment of these specific companies, he said, “it's difficult to tell what has been going on there.”

Initiating Safety Culture

According to Bianco, studies of more than 150 sites in North America show that companies reduce injuries more effectively with comprehensive employee-engagement approaches than with traditional safety programs alone. Companies in the study group achieved an average 25 percent reduction in injury rates after the first year, increasing to an average 65 percent improvement after five years, he said.

In Bianco’s experience, he said some companies are willing to place safety at the highest priority, but are uncertain how to do so or how to make the corporate culture fully supportive of safety.

He added that in many of the companies he has worked with, company leadership may drive the culture of safety in the right direction, but certain subcultures within the same organization are weak in communicating the message.

The Effect of Fragmented Departments

As an example, Bianco set up the following scenario: Company A, an organization of 1,000 people, has a standard leadership team comprised of a CEO and various departmental leaders. BST completes an assessment and determines that the corporate level is supportive of safety. But when examining each of the company's departments, the analysis finds that some leaders haven’t earned the trust of their workers, are controlling or don't appear to respect others' opinions.

“So you now have work group that is fragmented,” he said. “They aren't working together, they aren't bringing good or bad news to the boss, and are not reporting injuries because they are scared to.”

In the same company, but in a different department, organizational leaders are determined to be aware of all the department’s happenings and ensure that when decisions are made, everyone's input is taken into consideration. This leader also wants to know what it takes to make the job as safe as possible, Bianco said.

“It's not unusual to go into a company and within different departments see different needs,” he said. “But it's a really a factor of how different leaders lead.”

To fix the problem, Bianco explained it's important for the department with the fragmented work group to go through a rebuilding process. The department leader also must learn how to lead differently and understand that the “heavy command and control” negatively impacts his work group.

“Addressing leadership and culture is an important addition to training, audits and policies,” he said. “This does not substitute traditional programs, which are important for safety excellence, but alone are not sufficient to give organizations excellence and continuous improvement.”

For more information about the Senate Employment and Workplace Protections Subcommittee hearing, read Tougher Penalties, Worker Safety Laws Discussed at Senate Hearing.

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