PETERSEN'S PAGE: Concepts critical to safety:

October 1, 2005
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As I’ve stated before, culture is built first of all through a management system that holds people accountable for their daily proactive performance.

This kind of accountability builds culture, which begets behaviors resulting in excellence. This is the formula for cultural excellence. It’s how you bridge the gap between where your organization is today and where it wishes to be.


At a company that has achieved safety excellence, ask a worker what his or her boss does for safety, and she or he can likely list five actions that the supervisor has taken this week. At another company, ask the supervisor what the firm expects of him or her with respect to safety, and that supervisor will be hard-pressed to provide an answer.

One company is competent in safety, the other is not. Competency stems from clearly defined expectations — coupled with the absolute knowledge that these are real expectations that will be measured and rewarded. Building competencies often requires education and training, particularly in people skills.


Now how do we go about doing this? Most people recognize that behaviors are formed by the consequences of past behaviors. As a result, most people have learned to behave in a manner that will result in pleasure and avoid pain. This is what learning is all about — discovering how to feel pleasure and avoid pain.

To use behavioral concepts to build safety competency, a firm must build environments where safe behavior is followed (immediately) as often as possible with pleasurable consequences. Such consequences help ensure the safe behavior will be repeated (and repeated again as long as it is rewarded). Providing positive consequences also reinforces an overall positive environment. It helps build a positive culture — one that recognizes and rewards safe behavior.

Positive consequences build desired behaviors quickly — and, thus, build competence. Clearly, a close interrelationship exists between consequences, competency and culture. The three grow together and feed off each other.

Continuous improvement

The concept of continuous improvement has been widely discussed since Deming espoused it many years ago. He talked about constancy of purpose, using upstream measures and continuously involving all personnel to improve — to make things better. These concepts are critical to safety. Safety excellence requires that all people within the organization work together in a systematic manner in order to improve the system. That is how excellence is achieved, how the record is improved.

Striving for continuous improvement enables workers to be a part of the solution; they are able to feel achievement, assume responsibility and be recognized for their accomplishments. These are powerful motivators — and tremendous culture builders.

Although culture might be the key to safety excellence, maintaining a positive safety culture requires the other three Cs:

  • Competency is essential at each level of the organization and in each job. Competency builds behaviors, which build culture.

  • When positive consequences follow behaviors, new behaviors are built, which ensures competency and produces a positive safety culture.

  • Continuous improvement via worker involvement builds competency, allows positive reinforcement for jobs well done and builds a culture that improves each day.

    Don’t forget accountability

    Behind the four Cs is the concept of accountability. Competency cannot be built without clear definition of roles, training and performance measures. Positive consequences cannot be provided without a system that forces managers to observe subordinates and reinforce their behaviors. Continuous process improvement cannot be achieved without clear definition of roles and tasks. Accountability begets the three Cs — competency, consequences and continuous improvement — which beget the culture required for safety excellence.


    Petersen, D., Safety Management, A Human Approach, 3rd Ed., ASSE, 2001.
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