building a sustainable workplace safety culture

Building the Foundation for a Sustainable Safety Culture

There are four cornerstones on which an effective safety culture can be built: leading indicators, accountability, good relationships and discretionary effort.

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.  While it is likely that some of these elements vary from organization to organization, there are four distinct cornerstones that create a foundation on which a more effective safety culture can be built, despite complexity and variability among organizations.

Cornerstone 1:  Leading Indicators

Safety culture heavily is influenced by metrics. 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.  It infuses every interaction, every decision and every behavior.

Unfortunately, in many organizations, leaders only attend to safety during safety meetings, audits and reactively, when there is an incident. The reason lies in metrics. Managers attend to what they are measured on because those measures are associated with consequences (positive and negative).

Too many organizations still measure safety largely or exclusively via incident rate (or similar lagging metrics such as DART, lost-time case rate, severity rate, etc.). Such measures 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.

Because of the natural variation in these numbers, incident rates can get either better or worse with absolutely no change in safety conditions or behaviors. The result is that organizations, and departments within organizations, can go for long periods of time without accidents, despite having an unsafe work environment. This statistical fact works against keeping a focus on safety.

Managers and supervisors can do nothing around safety for a period of time and be reinforced with a good incident rate. Such is not the case for other business objectives like productivity, quality and reliability. Those objectives tend to have much more sensitive measures and thus are more immediate with certain consequences for management behavior. In the context of these other important business objectives (and their powerful consequences), it is easy for the well-intended manager or supervisor to put safety on the back burner. When the incident rate is low, one can assume all is well with safety and focus precious time on other priorities.

So, one important foundational step to building an effective safety culture is to change the way safety is measured. While incident rate is a necessary metric, it should be one of several. The majority of measures should focus on proactive behaviors on the part of all employees – measures that track what people are doing to prevent accidents. When there are measures of what leaders do on a daily and weekly basis to prevent accidents, immediate and certain consequences can be engineered in to ensure those activities occur. This ensures that safety is attended to all the time, not just when there are incidents. Daily and weekly accountabilities will raise safety to an equal playing field with other business objectives and help infuse safety into all parts of work.

 

Cornerstone 2: Forward-Looking Accountability

Accountability is essential in all aspects of business, but particularly for safety. Unfortunately, accountability too often is synonymous with blame and negative consequences.

In successful safety cultures, accountability has a different focus. Virginia Sharpe, in her studies of medical errors, has made an important discrimination between what she calls "forward-looking accountability" and "backward-looking accountability." 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, and blaming and punishment seldom results in a safer workplace.

According to Sharpe, 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, 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. Forward-looking accountability helps minimize the fear too often associated with the reporting of mistakes and ensures that organizations have the opportunity to learn from them.

Cornerstone 3: Good Relationships

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 most likely is found in the context of good working relationships.

Many leadership behaviors contribute to creating good relationships. Setting clear expectations, providing helpful feedback, acknowledging good work, seeking to understand problems/issues rather than blaming, active listening, following through on commitments, removing roadblocks and asking for feedback on your own effectiveness are some of the ways leaders can build and sustain 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.

Cornerstone 4: Discretionary Effort

Discretionary effort is that extra effort employees can give at work, but don't have to. Discretionary effort is going above the basic requirements. Many people think of safety as a compliance issue – getting people to comply with safety rules, regulations and procedures. However, if you want to go beyond compliance and create a high performance safety culture, discretionary effort is a requirement.

Truly exceptional safety requires that people don't just follow procedures, comply with OSHA standards and wear personal protective equipment (PPE). Exceptional safety happens when people look for and report hazards, give peers feedback on safe and at-risk behavior, volunteer for safety committees, make suggestions for improvement and, most difficult of all, admit when they have made mistakes so lessons can be learned.

Discretionary effort is created through the use of positive reinforcement. Research shows that when people are recognized for what they do well around safety and when reporting problems and concerns is met with reinforcing consequences (such as joint problem solving and problem resolution), employees will be more engaged in safety. In other words, they will give discretionary effort.

 

A Word about Incentives

Don't confuse positive reinforcement with incentives. Most safety incentive systems do not improve culture. In fact, sometimes the opposite is true. Employees can get the incentives in three possible ways:

  1. Employees work safely and thus earn the reward through desired safe behavior.
  2. Employees engage in some or many at-risk behaviors but are lucky in that none of the at-risk behaviors result in an accident for the duration of the incentive period.
  3. Employees engage in at-risk behaviors and some of those at-risk behaviors result in accidents, but the accidents are not reported in order to avoid losing the incentive.

Obviously, the best scenario is No. 1. But how can we know which of the three scenarios is playing out? The goal should be to motivate employees to engage in safe behaviors that will prevent injuries, illness and damage to equipment.

Rather than an incentive system, these goals can be met through precise use of positive reinforcement for the desired behaviors. This approach ensures accidents are reduced for the right reasons – because people are working safely – and helps capture the discretionary effort that is essential for an effective safety culture.

As you may surmise, these four cornerstones are largely the work of leaders. Leaders build the foundation for a good safety culture. Once the foundation has been built (and often before as workers see the changes in leadership), the frontline work force will increase its contribution. It is through this joint effort and discretionary effort from all areas that organizations can create and sustain a safety culture that works.

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Judy Agnew is senior vice president of Aubrey Daniels International.

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