Don't just jump on the culture bandwagon

August 3, 2008
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Don’t just follow the safety culture parade.

It’s critical that corporate and facility leadership strive to continually evaluate and improve their safety culture and not make a hollow attempt to jump on the culture bandwagon.

“Safety Culture” and how to develop, maintain and improve it has become a top workplace priority in recent years. In a fact sheet, OSHA states, “It has been observed at the OSHA VPP sites and confirmed by independent research that developing strong safety cultures has the single greatest impact on accident reduction of any process.”

To truly strengthen your safety culture, you need to first determine its current status. “Culture” captures the thoughts, behaviors, customs, attitudes, values, policies, procedures, priorities, etc. that characterize your organization. Are they all contributing positively to safety excellence? Making improvements involves integrating the technical with the human side of safety, identifying and measuring safe behaviors, effecting change at all levels and continually reviewing the processes that are most important to success in improving safety on a continuous basis.

Crucial steps
There is no single roadmap to shape a strong safety culture, nor are there “cookie-cutter” solutions or pre-packaged safety programs that will effect change in a positive direction. There are, however, critical steps that address safety culture issues. Here are ten to consider:
  1. Learn and understand the existing culture. Sampling a large portion of the workforce population (at all levels, in each facility) can reveal what perceptions, practices and conditions currently exist. A cultural survey can reveal what is working and what is not and can highlight differences in perceptions.
  2. Accept that cultural change can be both embraced and resisted. With this acceptance comes the realization that change will not happen overnight.
  3. Involve management and supervision. Employees must be able to believe that management and supervision are truly on-board. They must see them “walking the talk.” Supervisors are often a weak link, in part, due to lack of training and misconceptions about the true organizational direction, so building trust between hourly employees and management/supervision needs to be a primary goal.
  4. Involve the entire workforce. Unless those closest to the actual work being performed are allowed input into determining safety practices and then are listened to and their recommendations acted upon, little positive change can occur.
  5. Establish solid communication parameters and systems. The opportunity for open communications between all levels of employees must exist. All employees must be continually informed about actions being taken as well as reasons for inaction.
  6. Develop a plan and methods of execution. This involves determining training methods and schedules, process measurement, means of communication, and defining and assigning roles and responsibilities as well as accountability. Lead teams and subsequent sub-teams need to be formed in each facility.
  7. Train, train, train. Changing behaviors is a key element in changing the culture. Once behaviors/practices have been pinpointed, everyone, including management and supervision, must be trained in the accepted, desired practices. Training must be ongoing to adapt to physical and personnel changes.
  8. Measure. A behavioral-based measurement process that involves daily observations and analysis must be carried out and results communicated. What gets measured gets done.
  9. Reinforce. Positive reinforcement is an element often missing in many safety cultures. While disciplinary systems are essential for blatant non-compliance, positive reinforcement fosters more desired behaviors and discretionary efforts.
  10. Review and re-evaluate established processes on an on-going basis. Any plan of action and subsequent results must be continually reviewed. Mistakes will be made; this is how learning occurs. Employees must not fear reporting mistakes. This is critical in achieving successful change.
Safety culture is part of your business culture
In a global corporation with multiple divisions and facilities in widely diverse geographical regions, addressing the safety culture issue can be complicated. Often managements adopt a plan and a vision of safety without taking into consideration all the many sub-cultures that exist in the corporation’s facilities.

Avoid these pitfalls: To base a plan or vision on “Safety is Number One” is naïve. After all, the culture of safety is part of a larger culture of business where top management is accountable for the company’s primary objective of profitability. But to achieve true profitability, three major factors must be in line — productivity, quality and safety. Management and employees must understand that once the level of any one of these is diminished, so ultimately is profitability.

Also, realize within most companies are individuals from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds. To ignore these differences when addressing your company safety culture is a roadblock to achieving change. For example, people coming from certain cultures hold those in authority in the highest respect and will often do what they are told, even if it is unsafe. Such diversity issues must be identified and addressed. Because of differences at individual company locations, communication across the organization must guarantee that all employees are involved in the process of improving the safety culture.

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