Safety 2009: Activating Higher-Level Safety Culture and Performance

During an ASSE Safety 2009 session, Robert Pater, founder of SSA/MoveSmart, outlined four levels of company safety culture and offered tips to jumpstart effective, positive culture change.

Pater described an organization’s safety culture as a “surround system” and a “collision of actions and words.” A company’s true safety culture is, for better or worse, what workers default to when they are fatigued, stressed or distracted, he said.

“It’s what people actually do, even when unobserved,” he noted. “It’s what no one talks about but everyone knows.”

Culture Levels

Pater described four safety culture levels he has witnessed in companies:

Level 1: Forced. In a forced safety culture, safety is done to people. Safety is viewed as a necessary evil and is forced down workers’ throats, Pater said. Safety professionals are considered “safety police” and safety itself is viewed as an obstacle making money. Performance tends to be poor in this workplace culture, and workers may push back against any safety efforts. “These are the places OSHA tends to target,” Pater said.

Level 2: Protective. Safety is done for people in a protective culture, where performance usually is average. Pater describes this culture as parental, benevolent, interested and concerned. Safety professionals are considered technical experts who, through engineering fixes, must idiot-proof the workplace to protect workers. There is a focus on personal responsibility, and management may become frustrated why workers don’t comply with safety procedures since “safety is for their own good.” A “Safety is No. 1” rhetoric may be common in this culture, which has good intentions but nonetheless is limited. “There is a tendency to have a lot of policies and procedures, and the default is when people don’t follow them, [they] get a new policy or procedure,” Pater said.

Level 3: Involved. In an involved culture, safety is done with workers. Performance tends to be above average in this culture, but has a tendency to plateau. The danger of this culture, Pater said, is that the organization has demonstrated success, which can be an impediment to growth. This culture also may lead to distracting self-congratulation and complacency.

Level 4: Leadership. “The highest level of culture I’ve seen in leadership culture,” Pater said. Here, safety is done by people, for themselves, and employees really believe all accidents are preventable. Members of management are active safety champions, the culture is proactive and morale is enthusiastic. There is a real emphasis on engagement and getting everyone as involved as possible.

While some organizations are able to move up a level, others are slipping. “Those moving up talk about the work they have to do [and] acknowledge it,” Pater said. “Organizations slipping tend to be proud, self-absorbed, self-congratulatory. If you’re not improving, you’re in danger of atrophy.”

He also stressed it is too much of a leap to go from Level 2 to Level 4 when companies try to improve their safety culture. Instead, management and safety professionals should work to improve the culture in increments. “Step change is key,” he said.

Making Change

“You can’t make people change or make cultures change, but you can invite them by changing yourself,” Pater explained.

He outlined several ingredients for changing behavior – of both individuals and the culture at large – in the workplace:

  • You have to want it. This includes company leadership. In other words, do leaders want to change as well, or do they just want others to change?
  • Believe change is possible. Do workers believe that the organization’s culture really can improve, and do they think their leaders believe this? Leaders can help demonstrate that change is possible by changing themselves, their actions and their interactions with others.
  • People have to know how to do it, and what to do. Design tangible plans and actions that are executable rather than establishing a vague “Safety is good” mentality. And settle on no more than two strategies to work on, Pater added. If a company chooses five,10 or more strategies, it’s likely none will get done.
  • Practice, practice, practice. “This is critical,” Pater said. “You can’t just do it once. The danger is when people think they have it at one exposure or one training.” Encourage workers to practice and give them the time to do so.
  • Reinforce new actions. When the culture does begin changing positively, be sure to reinforce that change.

“When trying to change the culture in your level, look at next level of culture and see what it exhibits,” Pater advised. “Then, do even just one small thing to get that in place.”

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