Managing Safety: Eight Ways to Create a Broken Safety Culture

Feb. 1, 2010
Sometimes, the best way to know what action will lead to the desired state is to first understand what not to do.

Intuitively, many leaders know that culture is important to safety functioning. Yet despite a significant increase in programs designed to build “safety culture,” many organizations continue to struggle with low engagement, poor reporting, turf wars and other cultural roadblocks to safety excellence.

Culture comes down to the unwritten rules of the workplace, the things we know are expected and supported, even though they remain unspoken. The shared values, assumptions and beliefs that make up these rules drive how everything is done in an organization, and they influence safety, even though they often are not specific to safety.

Given the complexity of organizational life, you clearly don't need to set out to create a broken culture in order to get one. Many well-intentioned leaders inadvertently undermine the cultures they are trying to create. Framed as rules for creating a broken safety culture, these missteps can help leaders better understand the things they may be doing to create exactly the culture they wish to change.

  1. Ignore exposures and focus on injuries — Rather than emphasize the process of finding and eliminating exposure to hazards, use injuries as the focus of attention, measure of success and trigger for change. As much as possible, ignore exposure to hazards that you know exist in your workplace. Above all, allow periods of low or no injuries to lull you into a false sense of security.

  2. Encourage leaders to say things they know are either contradictory or impossible to achieve — Manage safety through platitudes that don't match organizational reality. Frequent reference to zero injuries while ignoring obvious safety issues is perfect for this. Don't notice if your actions fail to be consistent with your words.

  3. Make all bonus compensation contingent on recordable incident rates — Injuries and exposure are related, but not on a 1:1 basis. So injury frequency, especially in small employee groups, is not necessarily a good indication of actual safety performance. One of the best ways to dishearten employees at all levels is to design award systems such that employees feel a disconnect. Incorrectly designed incentives will assure that some people get rewarded for poor real safety performance, and some get punished for real good safety performance.

  4. Ask for input, then don't respond — A broken safety culture depends on creating as much distance as possible between the organization and its employees. Make it clear that people's input doesn't matter and that while you want them to provide information, they shouldn't expect you to act on it. Surveys are highly recommended for this.

  5. Block upward communication about safety issues, especially when the news is bad — As the saying goes, no news is good news. Dysfunctional cultures thrive on secrets and incomplete information. As much as possible, discourage information sharing that might give the organization any real sense of safety performance, especially if it might make you look bad.

  6. Ignore safety issues until a serious injury happens, then discipline those involved — Addressing safety issues in a timely way might give people the impression that safety is a priority. It also misses a valuable opportunity to erode trust through blaming lower level leaders for systems issues they can't control when things do go wrong.

  7. Use creative classification strategies as an intervention method — Dysfunctional safety functioning thrives on moving targets. Reworking facts that don't match the desired state is an imperative. Ideally, you would manage the numbers, then brag about how long it has been since an injury.

  8. Put safety on the agenda as a number one item, but limit discussion to trivialities — Effectively broken cultures give safety a place of honor while minimizing its importance in the process. As a general rule, the longer you can spend on trivialized safety issues, the better.


Clearly, no one would deliberately follow this advice. Yet, in many organizations, safety continues to suffer from simplistic treatment. Knowing what not to do can help you avoid today's culture change effort from becoming tomorrow's damage control imperative.

The good news is that you don't need to be perfect to get safety right. You just need to be aware of how culture actually works and how your actions as a leader influence the environment on which safety and other business outcomes depend.

Psychologist Thomas Krause, Ph.D., is chairman of the board of BST, a global safety performance consulting firm.

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