ASSE Speaker: Focus on Safety Climate, Not Culture

June 30, 2000
Attendees at the ASSE conference were told that the popular term\r\n"safety culture" should be replaced by "safety climate."

Safety and health professionals have focused on the safety culture for too long, said David J. Sarkus, M.S., CSP, during a Wednesday session at the American Society of Safety Engineers'' Professional Development Conference and Exposition at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Fla.

What these professionals should concentrate on is the safety climate, said Sarkus, a consultant from Monongahela, Pa.

"Many safety professionals speak about safety culture and their desire to impact their workplace culture in a positive way," he said. "However, it can be argued that safety culture is not an accurate concept because it is too hard to analyze and measure."

Safety culture and safety climate should be viewed as separate entities, Sarkus said. Culture is more complex than climate and includes underlying assumptions, values, norms and expectations within an organization.

Climate, by contrast, can be seen as a reflection of culture and often is assessed by gathering information through questionnaires or surveys that provide a quick picture of an employee''s perceptions, attitudes and beliefs regarding safety. "It''s like holding up a mirror to your organization," he said.

Because culture has its roots in sociology and social anthropology, with an emphasis on symbols, myths, collective values, norms and group interaction, it can be hard to pinpoint. By measuring individual perceptions, the safety climate determines factors that relate to the degree of control an individual seems to have over his safety or externally oriented beliefs that relate to another person''s or organization''s control over accidents.

As a result, Sarkus said, workplace safety improvements can occur quicker if organizations focus on changing the climate instead of the culture.

by Todd Nighswonger

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