Image: Thinkstock
Ehstoday 2150 Bittenapple

The 7 Deadly Sins of a Safety Culture

June 23, 2015
Just as the original Seven Sins were meant to warn and inform people of their human inclinations and frailties, the Seven Deadly Sins of a Safety Culture should also be interpreted as warning signs.

Not long ago, I was playing a trivia game on my phone when one of the answers to a clue was “The Seven Deadly Sins.” I had a vague recollection of the sins and, at one time, could probably name all seven, but I was stumped, so I turned to Google to find out.

The origin of the seven deadly sins can be traced to the 4th century. They were intended to identify and inform people of the frailties and inclinations of human nature. They stood as warnings to individuals; if one was to persistently engage in these behaviors, it could result in the deterioration of one’s mental capacity and spiritual being and eventually one’s death.

The concept can also be applied to cultures that knowingly or unknowingly foster and encourage these sinful behaviors. If one or more of the behaviors becomes a cultural norm, it could result in the disruption and potential demise of the culture.

In the 21st century, we don’t pay attention to the seven deadly sins, although they still have modern-day implications. Our preference and appetite for giant portions of food and drink – gluttony – negatively affects our personal health and the health of our culture in the form of obesity, which is directly related to many disabling health conditions including diabetes. And someone who has difficulty with anger, for instance – or wrath – might have problems developing healthy relationships.

The Seven Deadly Sins and Safety

My short exploration sparked a moment of reflection. Could the idea of The Seven Deadly Sins have relevance in a safety culture? Were there specific behaviors – sins – that, if left to fester, could result in increased accidents and injuries in the workplace? Would they be impediments to a positive safety culture?

In the years that I’ve worked as a positive safety culture consultant, I’ve noticed a number of factors, characteristics and behaviors that show up time and again as contributing factors or causes of accidents and injuries and contribute to a negative and inconsistent safety culture.

Were these behaviors and attitudes The Seven Deadly Sins of a Safety Culture?

For a few months, I took note of the behaviors and attitudes identified by client organizations as contributing factors or causes of safety-related incidents and accidents in the workplace. Additionally, I reviewed news articles detailing local and national safety-related incidents.

This unscientific research led me to form a list of those behaviors most often identified as being a root cause of workplace accidents and near misses. I offer the following list of safety culture “sins” not as an end-all, but as warning signs that should let you know your safety culture is vulnerable and in need of attention.

They are not listed in any hierarchical order, because any one of the sins could be as deadly as any other depending on the situation and circumstances. Although one of the sins may be more prevalent in your culture, it is not uncommon for more than one to be active.

The 7 Safety Sins 

1. Complacency
Complacency can be defined in a number of ways, but the following excerpt from the investigative report that examined the BP Macondo Well blowout is the most descriptive: “It has been observed that BP’s system ‘forgot to be afraid.’”

When something is new, our brain works hard at converting the task into a habit. Once it does, it doesn’t pay as close attention any longer; it becomes complacent. If the nature of the work your employees perform is routine and redundant, complacency is always lurking.

2. Metric Gluttony
If the content of meetings, particularly safety meetings, is dominated by PowerPoint slides of graphs and numbers and discussions about why you did or didn’t meet your numbers, it’s a sign that metrics and numbers are the priority. 

Safety is about the wellbeing of employees. Structure meetings and presentations about people first. Don’t send the message that you care more about the numbers than you do about your employees’ safety and health. The best way to accomplish this is by incorporating safety storytelling into meetings and presentations. If there isn’t a human story behind the metrics, then something is askew.

3. Double Standard
You know, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Managers and supervisors must unconditionally follow and adhere to all safety polices, rules and programs. Nothing is more discouraging to employees and destructive to the integrity and credibility of a safety culture than leaders who don’t fully follow, engage, and participate in the safety culture. In my article, How To Close The We/They Divide, I discuss seven prevention and reconnection techniques to restore credibility.

4. Bullying
Managers, supervisors and/or a culture that uses and condones blame and shame as a way to motivate or coerce employees to conform to expectations creates fear, resentment and disengagement. At best, it forces defiant compliant behavior and does not create a positive safety culture.

Cultures that exclusively employ extrinsic motivation tools – e.g. paying for performance – also employ a subtle form of bullying. This makes the assumption that one can be bought.  A culture that incorporates regular recognition and appreciation of employees is more respectful and valued by employees.  

5. Tradition
“We’ve always done it this way and we’ve never had an accident.” Do you find yourself saying this?

Traditions are powerful habits, and if you’ve ever tried to break a habit you know how difficult it can be. A culture is a tapestry of habits that have been sanctioned directly or indirectly. Some traditions are helpful and important, and some are dangerous. The critical element is to not create a culture in which challenging traditions is taboo. Cultures that encourage curiosity and are open to change have a higher chance of avoiding danger.

6. Mental Sloth
I’ve noticed that when a behavior, such as carelessness or distraction, is identified as a factor in an accident or near-miss, the investigation seldom explores the reasons behind the carelessness or distraction.

I suspect one reason for this is there is subtle pressure to find a cause and complete the investigation. This happens most often in cultures that place a higher value on answers rather than on questions. But curiosity and the desire to explore below the surface are essential in developing a positive safety culture.

7. Alienation
Alienation is caused by dishonesty, a lack of concern and trust-breaking behaviors that emotionally and mentally isolate leaders from employees. It is not uncommon for some leaders to believe they are better than their employees and privileged because of their position. This belief, along with a lack of care, creates distance and alienation. Leaders who indulge in this thinking lose the most powerful asset they can possess: The capacity to lead through the power of their presence and authenticity.  A positive safety culture is built upon a foundation of healthy, caring, respectful, and trusting relationships among all coworkers.

A Warning Sign

Just as the original Seven Sins were meant to warn and inform people of their human inclinations and frailties, The Seven Deadly Sins of a Safety Culture should also be interpreted as warning signs: Leaders and employees who ignore or deny their existence will create the circumstances and increase the potential for an unfortunate and tragic event to take place.

For proof, look no further than the investigative reports on the BP Deep Water Well Explosion, the Upper Big Branch mines disaster and the GM ignition switch failures. In these instances, ignoring one or more of The Seven Deadly Sins of a Safety Culture created the circumstances for the deaths of 70 employee and customers.

Breaking bad habits is not easy. The first step is to be aware of the habits and create opportunities for open and honest dialogue throughout the organization. Every culture is susceptible to The Seven Sins. The question is: Are you willing to be proactive in ridding your culture of these dangerous behaviors and starting anew?

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of EHS Today, create an account today!