The Soft Science of Safety Culture

Factory worker in training

In my prior life as corporate safety director, a maintenance crew was sent to set up machinery overseas. A report came back, the crew arrived to perform the work and, upon learning no safety equipment was available, they stopped work until they were issued proper safety equipment. When the appropriate gear had been provided, they completed the work without incident, and returned safely home. I was never so proud.

As safety people, we are focused on implementing safety rules, regulations, and procedures, which constitutes “hard science.” Yet accidents, injuries, and occupational illnesses continue. Clearly there is another aspect we need to consider.

Certainly, we know that policies and procedures are important but the overall “safety culture” of your organization may be just as important. Merriam-Webster defines culture as “athe customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group. bthe set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization.” Safety culture is simply the way your organization values and practices safety.

Promoting a positive culture of safety is a more proactive approach to reducing workplace incidents where all employees can identify and respond to hazards in the workplace. Mindsets and attitudes can be shaped by setting goals, encouraging individual responsibility, and prioritizing safety. This is the “soft science” of safety.

Changes in culture do not happen overnight and require long-term commitment. The benefits, however, include improved productivity, greater employee participation and commitment, higher quality, improved financial standings, and reduced incident rates. OSHA provides additional information and research links outlining the return on investments made to improve safety culture.

How can one positively influence or encourage the development of an effective safety culture in your organization? Here are a few suggestions to get started:

1. Develop Standards and Performance Expectations
Communicate clear and concise policies, plans, and measurable goals at all levels of the organization. Providing the exact details of a safety plan and reviewing it regularly allows employees to actively participate in achieving safety goals. Communicate expectations and employ the “Pygmalion Effect” of self-fulfilling prophecy by anticipating the best in workers. Employees will generally rise to the occasion and strive to deliver.


2. Build Top Down
Safety culture must start with top management. Management plays a critical role in encouraging safety programs, particularly with regards to time and resources. Leading by example is paramount in establishing a positive culture.


3. Be Accountable
Workers must be held accountable for failures, but leaders must also provide recognition for successes. Reinforcing positive behavior has long been recognized as being more effective than negative reinforcement. Celebrate success in open meaningful ways. Fairness and consistency lend credibility to the culture, as well as the individual.

4. Authority to Stop Work
Authorize workers to “stop work” if they recognize or perceive an unsafe condition or unsafe behavior. By enabling workers to act, you convey trust, and ultimately encourage growth of safety culture. Convey to the employees that their well-being is of the greatest possible concern. Workers are more likely to put forth greater effort for those they feel are concerned about their wellbeing.


5. Celebrate Success

In the book “Encouraging the Heart,” Kouzes and Posner maintain that celebrations reinforce values. “Celebrations-public statements by their very nature - give expression to and reinforce commitment to key values.” Celebrating success through a heart-felt “Thank you” goes a long way in providing feedback. Use group meetings, newsletters, and direct contact to give praise and recognition for a job well done.


6. Build trust
Building a successful safety culture must include trust. Often, people have the misconception that enforcing safety means spying on colleagues and co-workers. However, Kouzes and Posner suggest that “becoming personally involved is a genuine expression of caring…it helps foster trust and partnership.”


7. Safety Training

Constant attention and positive reinforcement go far toward making safety second nature. Make sure your employees know what they need to know and understand “why we do the things we need to do.”


Safety culture is a key aspect in improving your organization’s safety performance. Policies and procedures can be mandated and implemented quickly, but improving people’s attitudes, values, and beliefs take longer. The invested effort is well worth it to keep workers healthy and safe so they can contribute to the success of your organization's quality, production, and financial goals.

MEMIC policy holders can find further information and resources in the Safety Director or contact your safety consultant for assistance in establishing a path toward better safety and cultural awareness.

Resources to Consider:

MEMIC Blog: What's Your Safety Culture? and Is Your Safety Program Discouraging?

“Encouraging The Heart,” Kouzes and Posner, Jossey-Bass San Francisco, 1999