Safety culture” and “positive safety culture” are manifestly not the same. Every organization has a culture. Not every organization has a positive culture.

The term “culture” as used in such fields as anthropology, sociology, and industrial-organizational psychology intends to capture the “personality” of the entity under consideration. Western culture... American culture... hip-hop culture... pop culture... Google culture… culture of diversity…. While not always tightly defined, such terms are widely used, and for the most part commonly understood.

Cultures, like individual personalities, are complex and multi-faceted. Thus, discussions of the broad and complex concept of “American culture” might home in on our strong core value of individualism and the underlying assumption that individuals have inalienable rights and should be free to pursue happiness as they see fit.

Related norms of behavior include “think for yourself…  don’t just go along with the crowd.” Related visible artifacts include what has been called our “automobile culture,” with most of us being able to go when and where we choose. These cultural elements, from deep core attitudes and beliefs to surface “markers” are characteristic of our national “personality.” They are distinct from other parts of the world (the Far East, for example, where collectivist cultures predominate). The individualism theme is not the American culture in its entirety; it is but one especially prominent element, which can be separately analyzed, but which also interacts with others and contributes to the overall culture.

Accentuate the positive

The Total Quality Management movement of the 1970s and 1980s (and still visible today) aimed to take quality out of the functional silo in which it had existed (i.e., property of the QC Dept.), and to make product quality (as defined by the customer) everyone’s concern. This established a total commitment to quality as a strong and visible, positive element of the overall organizational culture. There always was a quality culture, just not always a strong and positive one. Now when we identify an organization as having a quality culture, we implicitly mean a positive quality culture.

The same is true, I believe, with the concept of the “safety culture.” Back in the day, safety was largely seen as the responsibility of the safety engineer, perhaps aided and abetted by the safety committee. Workers might be prone not to use PPE unless the “Safety Cop” came by. There was a safety culture, just not a system-wide, overtly positive one. In a true positive safety culture, safety is a core commitment and everyone’s active concern as they go about their daily work. Safety-focus is woven into what we do and how we do it. It is not a discrete, stand-alone, add-on function; it is a visible element of the overall organizational culture which it helps to shape and define.

Visible artifacts

What are the visible artifacts of a positive safety culture? In my research and in my consulting practice I have long identified three especially prominent markers:

1) Are our safety communications, including prominently the safety meeting, well-designed and effective in activating safety awareness and safe behavior? Based on recent research, I would emphasize the importance of how we prepare for safe work (pre-shift huddles, work plan discussions) and how we de-brief after work (after action reviews). I have seen increasingly in high reliability work environments an increased focus on both pre-work safety planning and post-work assessments as continuous improvement tools.

2) How do we deal with near misses? In a positive safety culture, near misses are discussed (without jeopardy) and learned from. Also, how do we define a near miss? Do we include property loss and liability incidents as near misses? My experience tells me that we should.

3) Most critically, to what extent do employees not only actively and mindfully watch out for themselves, but also show willingness to speak up and coach others as needed. This most definitely includes senior co-workers and bosses. Such interactions are not common in “traditional” safety cultures, but are a defining feature of positive ones.

A new marker

Based on my most recent work, I now add this marker:

4) Are safety hazards, once identified, quickly corrected, and is that corrective action promptly communicated to the workforce?

Organizations that consistently attend to all of the above may fairly be identified as having positive safety cultures. But this “positive” identity is not sustainable without unquestioned support from the top. In the absence of real leader-championship, “positive safety culture” can become empty words.

But it need not be so. I say again, the issue is not whether organizations have a safety culture; the issue is whether the safety culture is a
positive one, explicit and clearly visible in the organization.