What is a safety culture anyway? For most safety professionals, a safety culture is the value each employee has toward safety. I recall in DuPont safety culture being occasionally defined as “what employees do when no one is watching.” Too often we are caught defining an organization’s safety culture as being either good or bad based on the incidence of safety infractions coupled with total recordable injuries.

As safety professionals, we have promulgated for decades the notion of the so-called safety culture within organizations. I believe it is time to STOP fostering this charade. In my opinion, there has not been, nor has there ever been, a so-called safety culture. In fact, perpetuating this farce has shielded management to narcissistically hide in the fog of a perceived safety culture failure when safety takes a nosedive, especially when fatalities are involved.

Blaming the culture

Recall those past catastrophes when safety culture was blamed as one, if not the only, reason for the disaster and management declared it was going to change the safety culture.  Examples include the Anthrax release at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, GM’s ignition switch recall, NASA’s Apollo, Columbia, and Challenger, BP’s Texas City and Deepwater Horizon, Union Carbide’s Bhopal Plant, to name a few. 

A considerable amount of conflicting definitions exist for the terms safety culture and safety climate. Often the terms are used interchangeably. 

What influences employees

Employees are influenced by management’s belief, commitment and personal involvement in safety in one of several ways: 1) behaving according to the safety procedures because they believe in following the rules; 2) behaving based on one’s personal survival instinct and tolerance for risks, which can include following the safety rules; 3) behaving based on the conditions or hazards they face in the workplace, which may or may not include following the safety rules; and 4) behaving according to what one believes management will allow or expects one to get away with to achieve production goals. 

So where exactly is safety culture in this?

Defying definition

Too many of us believe that there is a universal definition of the term, which we euphemistically use in our own organizations to define our safety environment.  Lengthy surveys characterize the safety culture; having reviewed many of these surveys reveals questions that provide little depth or are merely safety audit questionnaires.

I have listened to people trying to define safety culture in terms slogans, procedures, practices, numbers of safety professionals, status of injury statistics, etc. There certainly is a feeling that “it” is there, they just have a difficult time articulating what “it” is.

Climate vs. culture

Safety Culture or Safety Climate – To quote a presidential candidate: “What difference does it make?”

It makes a BIG difference!

Since coining the phrase safety climate in his 1980 article1, Dov Zohar has contributed a substantial volume to the safety climate literature. Zohar noted in his original article “any given organization creates a number of different climates, and the term organizational climate has to be supplemented by an appropriate adjective indicating which type of climate it is.” Drawing upon Benjamin Schneider’s 1975 proposal2, Zohar sees organizational climate describing a field of research versus an organization measure. Based on this view, he developed the concept of safety climate.

Drawing upon organizational climate research, climate refers to the perceptions employees attach to the meaning of policies, procedures, practices they experience and the behaviors being expected and rewarded.3 Safety climate relates to the shared [among employees] perceptions regarding the priority of safety policies, procedures, and practices and the extent to which safety compliant or enhancing behavior is supported and rewarded in the workplace.4 Zohar notes, the more coherent and comprehensive safety policies, procedures, and practices are and the more frequently they are communicated and implemented during production processes, the greater is perceived management commitment to employee protection, which constitutes the core meaning of safety climate.5

Management commitment –an example

Zohar 6 notes employees’ safety perceptions are based on management’s alignment or misalignment between formal espousals and actual practices associated with employee safety at work. CEOs and managers preach how committed they are to their employees’ safety and then turn around and cut budgets, reduce workforce numbers, increase hours worked, cancel vacations, etc. Employees develop their safety perceptions from management’s actions, not their words.

In fairness to management, they live in a different world than employees. They are affected by ever-changing financial conditions of the corporation on at least a quarterly basis.  As management makes difficult financial decisions throughout the year, the perception of safety at the grassroots employee level in the organization will naturally change. 

Management commitment also surfaces when tradeoffs between protecting employees and production goals requires management’s attention. If management favors the latter versus the former, then safety perceptions (thus safety climate) will take a nosedive and the likelihood of frequent safety rule violations will increase.

A third aspect of misalignment: safety policies established by senior management are typically implemented by operational managers who may or may not align with senior management’s expectations regarding policy execution. All sorts of factors may interfere with operational managers’ ability to implement new safety policies -- from their belief in the policy, to the design of the jobs they oversee, to the reliability of the equipment they are responsible for, to the social-demographic characteristics of the work units they supervise.  As Zohar notes, those operational managers who underestimate the likelihood of injury are often more permissive of safety rule violations than those who overestimate.  This leads to group-level safety climates that fall short of organizational level safety climates.

Our attention needs to turn to learning more about our organization’s safety climate and to STOP allowing management at all levels to hide behind the myth of a broken safety culture when safety performance deteriorates. Understand your organization’s climate and how your employees’ perceptions of safety climate can be used to improve overall safety performance.

1  Zohar, D. 1980. Safety Climate in Industrial Organizations: Theoretical and Applied Implications. J. of Applied Psychology. 65:1, 96-102.

2  Schneider, B. 1975. Organizational Climates: An Essay. Personnel Psychology. 28, 447-479.

3  Quick, J.C. (Ed) and Tetrick, L.E. (Ed). 2003. Handbook of Occupational Health Psychology. D. Zohar. Chap. 6: Safety Climate: Conceptualization, Measurement, and Improvement, pp. 123-142. Washington, D.C. U.S. American Psychological Assoc.

4  Zohar, D. 2000. A group-level model of safety climate: testing the effect of group climate on micro-accidents in manufacturing jobs. J. of Applied Psychology, 85, 587-596.

5  Op cit. pp. 124.

6  Ibid. pp. 125-127.