Vegas. Vegas. Vegas.”

That was one safety pro’s simple explanation for the record 3,800 registrants at the American Society of Safety Engineers’ annual conference held in Las Vegas this past June, topping the previous high of 2,900 in Denver last year.

Sin City, a giant adult movie set with 70,000 hotel rooms, is a hot convention destination, no doubt. “We’re out-pulling all the other cities,” crowed a cabbie on his way to the mammoth meeting hall.

“Companies used to resist sending their people to Las Vegas,” said one attendee. “But now the flights and rooms are so cheap it makes the decision easier.”

Especially with the economy on the upswing. “That’s another factor,” said this attendee. “People finally believe that business is coming back and they’re traveling again.”

Location and economy aside, ASSE officials would like to think their conference program had something to do with the record turnout. ASSE’s meeting is getting the rep for focusing on how to manage and lead people. “Safety is primarily a social problem,” said Don Eckenfelder, a speaker at the ASSE meeting.

“Safety is about changing behaviors and cultures. This is where I learn about that,” said one safety director.

Indeed. Eckenfelder’s talk, as well as eight other educational sessions at the ASSE meeting, had the word “culture” in the title. What is it about organizational behavior that’s so popular with safety pros today?

Culture is king

A convergence of trends is promoting the “soft” side of safety:

1) Been there, done that. After education, engineering and enforcement, what do you focus on? “You have to learn how to talk to people, listen and persuade. Pushing numbers and formulas and regulations won’t motivate people,” said a safety manager at the ASSE meeting.

2) Outsourcing. Technical EHS work is more and more the province of consultants, leaving in-house pros to focus on organizational issues.

3) All quiet on the compliance front. (“Henshaw had absolutely nothing new to say,” said a reporter coming back from the OSHA chief’s ASSE speech.)

4) Beyond behavior. Consultants who led the cheers for behavior-based safety in the late 1990s have moved on. At the ASSE meeting, Behavior Science Technology focused on its new contract to reshape NASA’s safety culture. Dr. E. Scott Geller discussed personality traits and “your safety IQ.”

5) Other issues are stalled. Many pros resist the so-called business case for safety, arguing it sends the wrong message to employees.

New performance metrics for safety, measures more reliable and relevant than OSHA data, have been discussed for years without gaining traction.

A brainstorming session of about 50 pros at the ASSE meeting offered clues why: Every company measures something different — near misses, audit scores, observations, job safety analyses, safety contacts, corrective actions, complaint logs, etc. — and there’s no urge to agree on a consensus metric dashboard.

6) Make way for the bandwagon. “Management thinks culture change is the answer to everything,” said Dr. Steven Simon, introduced at his session in Las Vegas as the “father of safety culture.”

“Everyone is talking about this,” said Eckenfelder. “Louis Gerstner, former IBM chairman, said, ‘Culture is the game.’”

7) The fear factor. Who wants to miss a seat on the bus? “We’ve worked on all the other things and ignored culture,” said Eckenfelder. “Ignore this at your own professional peril. We need to take the lead with social sciences and not get left in the slipstream.”

Staying power?

“This is a whole new way to look at safety,” said Eckenfelder, referring to what he called a “safety culture enrichment program.”

Actually, it’s taken decades for organizational culture to become a hot safety issue. Long-time management consultant Dan Petersen wrote about safety cultures in his first two books, published in the early 1970s, and he admits he “borrowed” from the concepts of Rensis Likert, who researched organizational cultures in the 1960s.

Why has it taken so long for culture to catch on?

  • Not all managers share Gerstner’s enthusiasm. “People thought we dreamed this up in a hot tub eating alfalfa sprouts,” said Simon. “(Culture change strategy) was seen as real fringe stuff.” To some execs it has never left the hot tub.

  • It’s no quick fix. Many corporations — and their shareholders — are short on patience these days. “It’s a five to seven year journey to impact a culture,” said Simon. “Culture is not a magic pill.”

  • Culture can’t be canned. Behavior-based safety took off in part because the observation and feedback format was simple to present and easy to track. “Culture is not susceptible to programs because it is what happens in an organization when no one is watching,” said Simon. “It’s the assumptions and beliefs that influence decisions and feelings.”

  • New skills are needed. “Culture change is not an involvement game,” said Simon (in contrast to behavioral safety). It can involve 10-15 percent of all employees, he explained, but it must have leadership sponsors.

    Culture change strategies are not typically the stuff of safety committees, said Simon, pointing to the need for executive leadership, perception surveys, aligning with business objectives, and plans and projects to change organizational norms.

    Eckenfelder was more direct: “Safety cultures don’t rely on manuals, safety departments, new equipment, procedures, committees and statistics,” he said.

  • Denial runs deep. Culture change exposes the dark side of organizations, and many execs don’t want to go there. “It’s the dark stuff, the negatives” that must be confronted, said Simon. Issues such as double standards, mistrust, slow follow-up, blame-fixing, no accountability, no management visibility, emphasizing numbers over people, lack of commitment, lack of concern.

    These cultural cracks can’t be fixed by Monday. Canned programs won’t help. Nothing changes until execs are willing to open up to perception surveys and climate assessments.

    So will the current buzz over culture change for safety’s sake have staying power? Some formidable barriers stand in the way. But right now, culture is as hot as a Las Vegas parking lot.