Core Practices: Culture Or Behavior: Which Comes First?

April 9, 2003
A leading safety authority describes the process for establishing a company culture where behavior-based safety finds fertile ground.

There is a real and distinct difference between changing behavior to attain safety goals and establishing a safety culture first, then using the behavior approach as one of the management tools to achieve the goal of safe operations.

The long-term plan should be to establish a culture of employee-driven safety expectations and programs. However, our efforts must be management-led and management-supported. If we concentrate only on the behavior-based equation (bottom-up safety), we sacrifice the ability to lead the efforts, as well as direct appropriate resources to the proper pressure points.

Nor can our approach be totally management-driven (top-down), at the exclusion of employee involvement or participation. We've tried it that way for years, and know the top-down approach only gets us so far in our safety efforts.

We have always stated (and rightly so) that:

  • Safety is a management function;
  • Safety must be an integral part of the way we manage and conduct our business;
  • The accident record is a reflection of the management skill of an organization;
  • Safety must be accomplished through improvement of the management system, and
  • Management is responsible and accountable for the safety of the workers.

This will not change.

Our challenge is to do it in ways that involve the employee, and motivate the employee to stay involved. Our challenge is also to train, motivate and hold accountable every level of management within the organization in ways that clearly demonstrate the company's core safety values.

Assessing the Culture

Each time we introduce the employee involvement concept, we must be fully aware of our responsibilities to establish the "culture" that fosters this kind of approach before we attempt to change behavior. Without the proper culture, our efforts will be in vain.

We must assess the current culture at each work location, then determine what needs to be done to attain a culture that fosters trust, peer care and involvement. We must build that culture based on a true foundation of confidence that the right things are being done for the right reasons. We must establish a belief system where management and employees trust each other, and the trust is centered on a system of communication that allows both top-down delivery systems as well as bottom-up feedback mechanisms.

Behavior-based approaches do not work when there is: distrust between management and the work force; a history of top-down superior-subordinate relationships (i.e. classical management systems); adversarial employee-management relationships; the perception by employees that the behavior-based approach is a way to make the employee accountable; and management abdication of its responsibilities for safety.

There are many questions that must be honestly answered prior to initiating a behavior-based process.

Here are a few:

  • Have we in management really demonstrated that safety is a core value?
  • Have we implanted a system that ensures management/supervisory daily activities in safety?
  • Have we built into our system a way to measure every level of management involvement in the safety process?
  • Have we built the safety sub-systems that ensure everyone knows exactly what to do when things go wrong?
  • Have we really been willing to share information with the work force?
  • Are we willing to share decision-making relative to safety with the work force?

If we can't answer these questions to our satisfaction, we must assess each level of management and begin changing the safety culture a level at a time. All management personnel, from the president to the senior vice presidents, vice presidents, general managers, and directors, managers, foremen and supervisors, need to share the same core values about where safety fits within the organization, and how they are expected to lead, manage and administer the culture change process at the employee level.

For workers to believe in the behavior-based method, they must first believe that management shares and supports the process. Without that shared trust, the behavior approach, over the long haul, becomes just another program, and the management team goes back to head scratching, finger pointing, and ultimately, the top-down approach to managing safety where it started from.

Perception is Reality

Once management shares the same core safety values, attention can turn to changing the culture on the shop floor. This must be done before trying to implement a behavior-based approach.

The challenge is to train, motivate and hold accountable every level of the management team within the company for the safety performance of that level. The task before us is to instill a set of core values they act upon in their day-to-day decision-making relative to where safety fits within the organization and where it fits with them as individuals.

The first thing to do is change the perception that safety is a priority. As long as safety is viewed as a priority, guess what gets shifted when work gets in the way, or there is a budget crunch, or a shortage of properly trained personnel, or a new boss shows up with a different view of safety?

Training must start with the highest level of management within the company. It must convince, through real-world, real-time examples, why the shift from priority to safety as a core value has value to the entire organization. It is usually not difficult to show examples of accidents costing the company money, or credibility within the community or with government agencies. By using a root cause methodology when investigating the incidents that occur, you are certain to find flaws within the management system and areas for improving its administration. With enough of these kinds of examples, it doesn't take long for senior executives to start asking why. Once this occurs, the senior people begin to reflect back on their value system. Once that begins, the paradigm begins to shift from safety as a priority to safety as a value.

As the facilitator of the training, the safety manager's responsibility is to determine when the shift has occurred and start motivating top management to want to change the paradigm within the other levels of the management team. One way to do this is to begin bench-marking against other companies that have had outstanding safety records for long periods of time. The bench-marking should be focused on similar companies in terms of size, product, market, safety record and hours worked per year. Once these companies have been identified, specific, targeted information about how they operate will identify at least one common thread. That common thread is employee-driven and management-led organizations where employee involvement is the cornerstone of their management style and systems.

Now you've got your senior people excited, on board, and not only wanting, but expecting changes in how safety as a function is integrated into the organization.

Dan Peterson put it very well when he said, "What gets measured, gets done." However, in safety unfortunately, measurement is a failure rate. A total case incident rate (TCIR), or a lost workday case incident rate (LWCIR) are ways to measure failure. Failure to prevent an injury to someone, failure to protect the assets of the company, failure to be perceived as a good corporate citizen. The only thing we have measured is how many times we failed.

We need instead to measure successes in safety. Companies will still have to measure their TCIRs and LWCIRs, and communicate them to OSHA. But OSHA knows you cannot effectively manage safety based on the number of injuries reported. It can lead to under-reporting, hiding of hazards, and a general disregard for what caused the incidents. The more appropriate measurement consists of upstream management processes such as a comprehensive, written, safety plan where all objectives, supporting activities and responsibilities are detailed, administered and measured. We can also begin to measure other performance factors such as how much employee involvement there is relative to safety activities, or how many inspections were conducted where minimum findings or violations were discovered. The list of positive ways to measure our safety efforts is endless.

Failure in any form is not something any manager wants to be associated with for very long. Clearly, if he is held accountable for that failure, he won't be around very long, because as he now knows, failure is a reflection of the management system, and consequently, a reflection on those managing the system. So now the senior people have realized that accidents are really not accidents, but rather flaws in the system, and they are responsible for installing and operating the system.

The fundamental truth that begins to come through is safety can, and should, be managed like any other discipline. Accidents just don't happen. In fact, neither accident or incident is the word that should be used. A failure in safety is an "error" because we didn't plan it, expect it or prepare for it, so it had to be an error.

We have now moved away from safety as a priority, which can shift depending on other priorities such as production, cost or quality, to a value, which has no equal and is not subjected to priorities. We moved away from using the word accident to describe an unplanned event, or release of energy, to error, which once investigated leads us to an error in the management system (hiring practices, inconsistent enforcement of rules, inconsistent administrative practices, etc.).

Behavior-based Safety

Once all levels of the management team begins thinking in those terms, it is not hard to begin the transition from "fix the blame fast" to "how can we strengthen the management system?"

The thought process, the new paradigm, is now shifted downward into each level of management. As this is taking place, we also realize another fundamental truth: safety only goes so far when managed from the top, down.

Now that every level of the management team shares the same core values in safety; understands that the operative word in safety is not accident, but error; and the error is in the management system, not the employee, employees perceive the culture of the management team as one of support and encouragement. The employees' perception now becomes one of "they are doing the right things for the right reasons."

Now the organization is ready to introduce the behavior-based concept at the employee level. However, before we begin that process, we must instill a set of core safety values in the employee first. This is accomplished by training, motivating, coaching, championing and acting as a resource in safety.

The training is conducted a group at a time, a facility at a time, until every employee has gone through it. This is important, because now everyone has been given the same information, the same way, by the same trainer. The elements of the training are:

  • Transference of ownership of safety issues or concerns of the individual back to the individual raising the issue or concern;
  • Each group's safety commitments the I, we, and supervisor commitment;
  • Each group's core safety values us as a team, a unit, a driving force;
  • The design and agreement of the safe-behavior inventory form using a template and fine-tuning it;
  • The follow-up mechanism for resolution of safety issues raised who does what and when.

Each training group designs and implements their training tools. The management team provides the motivation through positive reinforcement, incentives that encourage involvement by each employee, and championing the employee and acting as a resource to help him resolve his safety issues or concerns.

Accountability comes when an incentive program is developed that encourages active participation in safety activities that have been designed and agreed to by the majority of the employees. If an employee participates 100 percent, he receives his incentive. If not, he receives nothing. This kind of accountability system treats people as adults and expects an adult response. We are not talking about the kind of accountability that addresses violations of safety rules, etc.

This moves us away from the negative type of incentive programs where employees are rewarded for good safety records and punished for bad ones. The management team, including the safety staff, should be held accountable for the safety record, not the employee. It is the management team's responsibility to administer the management system, and it is the safety department's responsibility to recommend and administer the safety programs that are part of the management system. If errors occur, and people get hurt, assets are destroyed or the corporate image is compromised, the safety staff should be held accountable if the safety systems do not strengthen and reinforce the new paradigm.

At-risk Behaviors

The question we must ask and answer is: Does changing people's behavior make them safer?

In my experience, at-risk behavior stems from three common causes. They are:

  • Habits
  • Shortcuts
  • Miscommunication

At least one, or in most instances, all three of these factors are involved when an accident "error" takes place. In the workplace, people form habits from the training they received, either formal or on-the-job. People learn, or are taught, shortcuts as a way to save time and energy when performing a task. Miscommunication occurs because either no written instruction was issued, or verbal commands were not properly received or analyzed by the recipient.

All three of these factors create a set of at-risk behaviors the employee does not even recognize as at-risk in most instances. Once the employee is able to recognize at-risk behavior by another employee and by pointing it out to him in the proper way, the employee who is at-risk changes his behavior over time. Even in those instances where the employee exhibiting the behavior doesn't believe it is at-risk behavior, he changes, not because he sees the need, but because in his training one of his and his group's safety commitments is to "respect others' input into my safety," and that commitment became a core value. He changes his behavior because of his core value.

When it comes down to it, the employee knows that the company is doing the right things for the right reasons.

The behavior concept works when the culture is right. Our job is to install a management system that protects the employee, encourages active involvement and creates an atmosphere of trust and mutual cooperation.

The culture now makes it possible for the behavior approach to be used as one of the tools that, through employee involvement, can make the workplace safer and more productive.

You will notice I said "one of the tools" we use. Management cannot absolve itself of its responsibility for providing a safe place to work. Nor can it abdicate its moral, ethical and legal responsibility to provide the management systems that incorporate various elements such as management leadership and employee involvement, work site analysis, hazard prevention and control, and safety and health training.

Management systems are the key to making safety work. A part of that system might be the behavior-based approach, but only if a culture is in place that allows the employee-driven process to develop, grow and mature. The only way this can occur is when there is an element of trust and a sense of true partnership between the employee and management team. Without that trust, without that type of culture, the behavior-based approach becomes another program of the month.

The behavior approach is a tool a good tool if properly used among all the other tools that must be applied in achieving an error-free work environment.

About the author: James J. Thatcher, Ph.D., is the president of the National Safety Management Society. He is president & a partner in Safety Management Systems, LLP. He has 35 years of experience in the safety, human resources, training and security fields. He can be contacted at (985) 856-6734 or (409) 751-5261.

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