How to Build a Proactive Safety Culture

Oct. 9, 2003
As the saying goes, "To a little boy with a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail." The same is true of the approaches to improving safety performance, says leading expert Don Eckenfelder, CSP, PE.

According to him, behaviorists believe that implementing a behavior-based safety program will improve safety performance. Regulators believe that passing new regulations can improve safety performance. CEOs look at systems and programs, while engineers want to improve equipment and system designs. "All are right to a degree," says Eckenfelder, "but if you do them and you have a corporate safety culture that is resistant, it won't work."

Eckenfelder, who served as corporate director of loss prevention for Chesebrough-Ponds for 13 years, believes he has the tools to help safety managers build a proactive safety culture. "Safety culture predicts safety performance," he notes. "If the safety culture is wrong, safety processes won't work" and safety performance won't improve.

Eckenfelder is offering a lecture and workshop to help develop, measure and manage a safety culture that reduces injuries, builds lasting support from employees and management and increases productivity.

"We've done a good job with [measuring and managing] everything but the safety culture. The way we've dealt with safety culture is unconscious; manage the business and the culture follows. This program allows safety professionals to manage the culture consciously and strategically. We must deal with the safety culture of the organization first, because it is the platform on which the rest of the business is built. This teaches how to measure and manage the safety culture and how it relates to safety and business performance."

Eckenfelder, who is the principle consultant for Profit Protection Consultants in Glen Falls, N.Y., and a past president of the American Society of Safety Engineers, bases his lecture and workshop on what he calls the four cornerstones of the process of creating a safety culture: the Performance Map, The Bridge Metaphor, The Safety Culture Barometer, Exercises for Improvement.

  • The Performance Map is a causation diagram. It explains the relationship between culture and performance. The Performance Map suggests that working on behaviors is too far downstream. According to Eckenfelder, employers should be improving attitude by working on beliefs and values that lead to an organization culture that predicts the attitudes that will exist within an organization. The desired behaviors will then occur naturally.
  • The Bridge Metaphor is derived from Larry Hansen's award-winning article, "The Architecture of Safety," published in the May 2000 issue of Professional Safety. If you fall off the bridge for any reason, says Eckenfelder, you are in the water and experiencing undesired losses and the associated costs. The bridge must be strong in all areas, including technology, compliance, systems, programs and culture. "Culture is most important," he adds, "and the best way to make the other areas strongest is to deal with culture directly and so change it consciously and strategically."
  • The Safety Culture Barometer is the measurement "tool." There is a generic version that can be used but the best result will be achieved when an organization customizes the measurement device to fit their specific needs. The Safety Culture Barometer could be described as a maturity grid. It takes the beliefs and values that are designed to encourage the development of the attributes of safety excellence and establishes organization levels of maturity by collecting data from all employees or a selected cross-section of employees. The data is collected anonymously and leads to the creation of an organization Safety Culture Profile that can be displayed by shifts, departments or levels of the organization or all the above and more. This illustrates where safety culture is weak and where it is strong.
  • Then steps to enrich the safety culture can be taken consciously and strategically. If we need to strengthen ourselves physically or intellectually, we do "exercises." The same thing must be done to enrich culture. There are generic exercises that can enrich each of the suggested values, says Eckenfelder. After some experience with the process he's created, organizations can customize the exercises to fit their circumstances.

Eckenfelder, in partnership with Occupational Hazards, will offer his lecture and workshop in four locations: Nov. 18 Chicago; Nov. 20 Southfield, Mich.; Dec. 9 Columbus, Ohio; and Dec. 11 Monroeville, Pa. For more information about the lecture and workshop, call Sharon Gluvna at (216) 931-9427 or contact her by e-mail at [email protected].

"I've had CEOs come up to me and say, 'You've changed my life,'" says Eckenfelder. And they've returned to their companies and changed the safety culture, for the better.

About the Author

Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the former content director of EHS Today, and is currently the EHSQ content & community lead at Intelex Technologies Inc. She has written about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990.

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