Safety Culture

We?re a cultured folk! Immersed in culture everyday, I say. But the culture I want to talk about this week is ?Safety Culture?. Every organization, every group of people working together is part of safety culture, it is inescapable. Every business has a safety culture whether you realize it or not, whether you embrace it or ignore it, whether it is an asset to your organization or a detriment, no matter what business you are in, from the smallest company to the largest one you have a safety culture.

At worst, your safety culture is an anchor around the neck of your business. It dogs you! It never goes away. It works away at your businesses? image, bottom line, productivity, quality and safety, even while you and your employees are not on the job.

At best, your safety culture helps you not only to keep your workers safe, but also helps attract and keep the best workers, and keep your best contracts and clients. A healthy, positive safety culture also affects very clearly, the company bottom line. It adds to your image, reputation and the motivation and loyalty of your workers.

?Safety culture? is corporate culture concerning the health and wellness or workers. Sometimes called safety climate, it is about the way workers and employers view, feel about, and react to health and safety in the workplace. It is the spoken and unspoken attitudes, reactions, innuendoes, gossip and interaction of workers and managers.

There are several stages of development for ?safety cultures? I wonder where yours falls? Many things influence which stage your company falls into, the leadership style of your senior management/owner, the business factors they emphasize, their emphasis on productivity. These are all things that influence the safety culture of your company. In an ideal world we want an organization that focuses on safety, quality, and productivity. This is an organization that realizes the best outcome for them is a collaborative effort between management and workers. It can be cultivated by positively reinforcing behaviors and results that make progress a great safety culture that permeates all activities.If your company is still in the early stages of Safety Culture development then there are usually signs. Things like opposing perspectives regarding responsibility for safety; the workers and management may either believe that safety is the responsibility of the worker, or of the company. There is little common ground, collaboration or sharing of responsibility. This perspective is common among employees in organizations that either do little to improve work conditions and processes, or fail to follow through on verbal commitments to safety. Workers who experience these conditions develop the attitude that the organization does not care for their well being and express bitterness when the organization attempts to put a behavioral process in place that emphasizes worker behavior as the key to safety.

On the other side of the spectrum we have the notion that safety is the responsibility of the individual. According to this perspective, no matter what work conditions and processes are improved, unless individuals act safely, they will be injured. Therefore, the focus should be on encouraging people to act safely under any circumstances, because we can never be in hazard free environment. The onus is on the worker, not the organization.

The reality is that all fall somewhere on this spectrum from the ?have to do safety? end to the ?want to do safety? end of the spectrum and that is what makes each of companies unique. The farther up the spectrum we are towards the ?want to? end, the better for each of us.

Most companies safety programs start off with a big stick and start banging away at everybody. Safety is compliance driven and based on rules and regulations. Safety at this stage is seen mainly as a technical issue, whereby compliance with externally imposed rules and regulations is considered adequate for safety. Information, policies, procedures, safe job practices flows one way, from management to staff.

Eventually though managers get tired of banging away with that stick, either that or they accidently hit the light switch while doing it and they realize when that light bulb goes off that there is another way, another path to a safety culture. Management begins to realize that safety is important to corporate health, and good safety performance becomes an organizational goal. They will develop a safety related mission statement with clarity about its values and goals and will have established clear processes and procedures for achieving goals. Work is better planned, with prior consideration for safety hazards and rules and procedures systematically documented. Awareness is usually raised, however, the participation, commitment or buy in is still an ?imposed? process managed by designated individuals.

Eventually you may reach nirvana (or maybe you are already there). This is the ideal safety culture, the place all want to be and strive for. This is a safety culture that is a continuously improving process. A safety culture with a vision and values that are fully shared by management and workers. Many of the employees need to be sufficiently committed that they are personally and actively involved in enhancing safety. Contractors and subcontractors are also engaged not only in compliance but in enhancing safety. Everyone has an understanding of both requirements and aspiration and show a commitment to achieving and sustaining safety in all they do. Safety is built in, value driven, part of the culture and integrated into everyone?s jobs all the time. At this stage poor conditions are viewed by all as unacceptable and are openly challenged. Incidents are not seen as part of normal working life but as exceptional and unacceptable occurrences that can be avoided. It is at this point that the company has achieved a self-sustaining safety culture.

On a final note, these three stages of safety culture development are not distinct, and any organization may display some aspects of each stage, but the first two must be firmly in place before the third stage of safety nirvana can be reached.

Stay safe and I will talk to you again next week.


Rob Mandeville is a Safety Advisor and Auditor at Action Health & Safety Services. He has his OH&S certificate from the UofA, and is currently studying for his CRSP ( Board of Canadian Registered Safety Professional) exams. If you have a question about health and safety or an idea for an article you can reach him at