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Safety culture becomes a cliché

Over-exposure leads to the loss of meaning

April 2, 2013
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They say First Lady Michelle Obama is getting too much publicity and she’s over-exposed, kind of like Lady Gaga.

I say “safety culture” is over-exposed and in danger of losing its substantial, powerful meaning.

It struck me when I recently read about a 54-year-old CEO of a $30-billion business with 32 operating locations who declared in a speech that his organization needed a safety culture.

One CEO’s tale

Nothing odd about a CEO calling for a safety culture. Especially when your business, like this CEO’s, involves violent collisions, serious lost-time injuries, and constant at-risk behavior. An associate said this CEO is “terrified” and “haunted” by the specter of an on-the-job fatality. After a workday, the CEO doesn’t go to bed until knowing every worker has gone home uninjured, or if one has been hurt, he is receiving the best medical care.

Sounds familiar.

Says one former worker who talks regularly with the CEO: A fatality “wouldn’t just be a tragedy, it would be awfully bad for business.”

Now there’s some political incorrectness for you. One doesn’t offend the workforce by declaring a job fatality would be bad for business.

But we’re talking about a business that is not used to addressing the subject of safety. This is yet another case study of an organization whose concern for safety is reactionary. It comes after a series of high-profile injury cases, some leading to suicide. The CEO’s business has taken a big hit, a major black eye. It doesn’t help that his outfit is in the entertainment business and depends on favorable media coverage and an adoring public.

These serious, life-altering injuries hang over the business like a dark cloud. So the CEO, like many CEOs in his unenviable position, is heralding new safety rules. Tough enforcement and fines. Disciplinary action including suspensions. Better personal protective equipment. Better recordkeeping of injury types.

“We need a culture of safety for every sport so that all of us that love sports can say with confidence about the future — the best is yet to come,” said the CEO, Roger Goodell, who is the commissioner of the National Football League.

Zero is not the goal

Something weird hit me about the NFL saying it needs a safety culture. The two just don’t go together. Sounds to me Goodell is talking safety culture to play to the press and critics. OK, the NFL will have a safety culture, but players (workers) will continue to be carted off the field on stretchers. Coaches (supervisors) will continue to encourage at-risk behavior, demote or fire employees who won’t work while hurt. Other workers will hide injuries. And the business’s customers, the paying public, will still want to see employees bloodied and knocking co-workers out of action.

The NFL’s version of a safety culture is not one where the goal is zero injuries, zero harm.

And Goodell’s call for all sports to have a culture of safety seems over the top, until you’ll realize he doesn’t want the NFL singled out and branded as particularly unsafe. But really. A culture of safety for golf? Bowling? Tennis? Frisbee football?

Distorted by over-use

This distorted meaning of safety culture is compounded by the fact when you Google “safety culture” in a search for news stories, about 163,000 results pop up. The Korean nuclear fleet wants a unified safety culture. Firefighters are said to need a new safety culture. A fishing boat tragedy in New Zealand resulted from a poor safety culture. The Japanese government regulation of safety culture is falling into a gray zone, whatever that means. A Canadian construction company has institutionalized a safety culture.

Transguard Group has redefined its safety culture. Gun control advocates want a culture of safety. Opponents of marijuana legalization cite the need for a culture of safety. Forbes magazine writes that safety means creating a culture “where we can take risks and stretch and grow.” Naperville, Illinois, police want to promote a culture of safety for Saint Patrick’s Day. A press release from Tervita Corporation states: “Safety is our highest priority: it influences our actions, guides our decisions and shapes our culture.”

It’s not all good

You can argue there’s nothing wrong with this tower of Babel about safety culture. That it’s all good. Schools, police, nuclear fleets, corporations around the globe, sports leagues, firefighters, hospital operating rooms, communities are all recognizing the need for safety cultures.

But I see danger in loose talk about safety cultures. It leaves the impression that safety cultures are primarily programmatic. They involve rules and enforcement, discipline, oversight, structure. If you have a safety management system — plan, do, check, act — is that a safety culture? Is OSHA’s I2P2 a safety culture? What about personal values, belief systems, feelings, perceptions? These foundations of a safety culture are hard to change, and take time to take root. That’s not often mentioned. A safety culture is not made up of priorities. It is more sustainable than redefining priorities. That needs to be cleared up.

Mile wide, inch deep

Use of safety culture is a mile wide, but lacks depth of understanding. It leaves gaps, questions and confusion. What of leadership and engagement? They’re not part of the safety culture envisioned by gun control advocates or those opposed to legalizing pot. I don’t know what plans the Korean nuclear fleet has to engage employees or hold leaders accountable. And in Naperville, is a safety culture a one-day affair for Saint Patty’s and then it’s back to business as usual? Forbes’ au contraire idea of a safety culture is one that encourages taking risks (albeit mostly financial).

Fight safety segregation

The constant drumbeat today for safety culture does one further serious disservice: it singles out safety as something separate from standard operating procedures. It’s corporate apartheid. There is a danger in saying, “Look at our safety culture. We’re fine-tuning our safety culture. We’re reinventing our safety culture.” It sounds like we’re back to talking about a safety program. Some references to safety culture sound like an upgrade from a program or a priority. All of this directs attention away from the fact that a company has but one culture, whether it is structured or not. Safety is a sub-culture of that. Too much talk about safety culture and I’m afraid you create a separate organizational silo for it. “And over here we have our safety culture…”

“Safety First” is an empty cliché that workers know in 99 percent of the cases is BS. “Safety is job one, priority one, whatever,” is similarly disingenuous. Let’s be mindful of how we use the term “safety culture” so it doesn’t mislead, over-promise, lead to segregation or isolation, or make employees roll their eyes. 

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