Too often, safety leaders mistakenly believe culture has little to do with their sphere of influence and leave it to the human resources department. This can be a costly mistake. Every leader is responsible for shaping the overall culture in their organization. Safety leaders should especially welcome the opportunity, given the critical role culture plays in creating and maintaining a safe workplace.
Research finds that a handful of factors have substantial impact on creating a safe work environment, and all of them relate to the overall culture of the company. More important, the number of safety incidents within an organization will likely relate to how employees feel about those factors, according to a Towers Watson-ISR study.
Culture boils down to employees’ opinions about the policies, procedures and practices that affect them in the workplace. These opinions reflect issues related to their individual job empowerment, as well as both personal and process safety.
Personal safety issues focus on preventing injuries such as slips, struck-by incidents, and strains. They place a heavy emphasis on the use of personal protective equipment. Process safety issues focus on the prevention of unintentional releases of potentially dangerous materials. They are defined by the design and engineering of facilities, maintenance of equipment, effective alarms, effective control points, procedures, and training.
These tools of the safety trade are well understood by both leaders and employees. But savvy safety leaders understand what research from the Towers Watson-ISR Safety Works Report has confirmed: There is a statistically strong relationship between employees’ opinions about workplace culture and actual safety outcomes – the number of accidents, days away from work, total recorded safety incidents, and workday interruptions.
The chart in Figure 1 reveals the cultural elements that can be indirect influencers of safety outcomes. Double to quadruple variances in safety results correspond to how employees scored these cultural elements. These findings demonstrate that companies can reduce safety incidents by focusing on specific aspects of organizational culture.
Towers Watson-ISR has identified eight cultural drivers of workplace safety that deliver the greatest return on safety investment. Let’s take a look at them in order of the differential of impact when employees perceived them to be valued and executed well within their company’s culture.
How employees perceive the quality and quantity of communication in the company is the clear winner as the most impactful driver in creating a culture of safety. In workplaces where employees gave high scores to the following six factors, safety incidents occurred four times less often than in workplaces where employees assigned low scores to these factors.
• The company keeps me informed about matters affecting me
• The information I need to do my job is readily available
• I have a clear idea of what’s expected of me at work
• I’m sufficiently informed about company values
• I receive adequate information about company plans
• I understand how my division’s objectives fit into corporate goals
2 Senior management
In workplaces where employees have confidence in the decisions made by management, and believe leaders provide a clear sense of direction, safety issues are reduced more than three and a half times the rate of organizations where senior leadership takes a more hands-off approach.
Where teamwork is encouraged and co-workers are willing to help each other, safety outcomes are more than three times better than in workplaces where cooperation isn’t scored highly by employees. Teamwork provides mutual monitoring to ensure safety protocols are followed, and supports employees when work demands exacerbate the likelihood of mistakes or accidents.
Safety leaders should regularly monitor capacity levels and employees’ opinions on the following factors: priorities don’t change so frequently that I have trouble getting my work done; there is usually sufficient staff to handle the workload and I’m satisfied with my workload; the demands of my job do not seriously interfere with my private life.
How supervisors approach specific safety factors contributes to the organization’s ability to keep safety incidents to a minimum as well. High employee opinion scores on the following five factors were found to significantly reduce reported incidents by a little less than a factor of three.
• Safety rules are carefully observed, even if it means work is slowed down
• I would be supported or positively recognized if I shut down an unsafe work condition
• Corrective action is taken when unsafe work conditions are reported
• My supervisor demonstrates concern for personal safety
• The company provides adequate safety training
To improve safety by two and a half times, safety leaders must keep an open line of communication by ensuring that employees feel they have a voice in the workplace. Opinions such as these matter:
• I am encouraged to come up with innovative solutions to work-related problems
• Leaders in my work group trust the judgment of people at my level
• Effort is made to get the opinions and thoughts of employees
• My supervisor involves me in planning the work of my group, decisions that affect our work, and gives me regular feedback on my performance
7 Individual Impact
Individual impact is about empowerment. Numerous research studies from Gallup have discovered that aligning employees to the broader corporate vision generates a number of benefits, including improving employee engagement levels and increasing opportunities for improvement and innovation, as well as reducing reported incidents by more than half.
Employees who have clearly defined roles and who are updated regarding matters affecting them, understand their place within their team and organization and are more likely to make well-informed decisions in the face of safety threats.
8 Respect & well-being
Management must communicate and demonstrate a set of principles that support and enhance the well-being of its workforce. Workplaces with high scores in this driver benefit from having half the number of safety issues than workplaces where leaders are less attentive to these employee concerns. These opinions matter:
• I’m treated with dignity, respect and fairness
• The company cares about the health and well-being of employees
• I feel management supports equal opportunity
• The benefits are as good/better than those of other organizations and fit my needs
Focused efforts on these eight cultural drivers can lead to improved safety performance. Research validates that workplaces that made improvements in these key areas of organizational culture had fewer safety incidents.