In my experience, high-echelon safety organizations do most of the following:

1) Avoid the compliance trap.

The best companies expect compliance as a matter of course. They know focusing on compliance tends to keep a company stuck in a quagmire of mediocrity. A punitive approach never leads to world-class performance. “Fear never creates peak performance, only minimal performance,” wrote Intel Chairman Andrew Grove in his book, “High Output Management.”

To develop world-class behavior, workers have to want to do what’s safe for them, whether they believe anyone is watching or not. Beyond a low level of compliance based on fear, people engage in safety because they personally want to, or because they’ve developed safe defaults.

2) Leverage safety.

World-class companies know that safety is not their ultimate aim. Safety is a means to an end for maintaining an effective, productive, responsive workforce.

They also look for ways to spread safety everywhere with as much involvement as possible. Safety is part of everyone’s job. Hourly workers may be safety coaches. Supervisors are trained in safety. Managers have safety performance metrics as part of their performance appraisals.

Safety gains are leveraged as well, publicized to everyone. Rather than wait for safety successes to be revealed, highest echelon companies aggressively seek out anecdotal and statistical safety wins, and let all (managers, workers, clients, etc.) know about them.

3) Have a supportive structure for safety.

Because these organizations value the potential impact of safety, they strongly select and support those in the safety chain of leadership. Emphasis is on choosing and developing high-performers.

And these companies create an infrastructure that supports smooth efforts — sufficient staff, budget, logistical support — as well as having access to senior executives with pull.

4) Develop trust.

Effective organizational leaders have realistic expectations of their workers (such as not expecting them to learn totally new procedures without sufficient training, or on the fly while still expecting a heavy and high-paced workload). They understand that changing habits requires some effort and may not instantly occur with the snap of a document or the immediate purchase of new equipment.

They also show support and concern for individuals in their company who are motivated but not performing as expected. Highest performing safety organizations generally watch for those who have repeat accidents and apply interventions that are geared to changing attitudes and skills. They don’t have a punish-first orientation.

5) Focus on self-correction.

The best never rest. Emphasis is on continued improvement and self-correction, rather than being self-satisfied with the lofty position they have attained.

They don’t operate in a reactive maintenance mode. You won’t find the best safety companies possessing an attitude of “if it ain’t broken don’t fix it.”

No, the best companies focus on helping individual employees become self-motivated and self-monitored. Outside observation is used appropriately, but they go beyond the external reinforcement quagmire and don’t get caught up with safety “rewards” that have to continuously rise in value to get employees’ attention.

6) Have a visibility strategy.

Managers show up for safety — whether it’s for a short time during safety meetings or at safety conferences, asking about safety performance of others, or writing about safety in company newsletters.

7) Focus at work and at home.

World-class safety organizations realize that people are creatures of habit. So they switch around their messages to keep their people mentally fresh, all the while helping build safe default behaviors that can be used at work as well as at home. High-performance companies employ a strong at-home focus in their safety training and programming.

In the early 1990s, Exxon developed a Home Safety Leader system. Each employee was asked to designate a family member as their “Home Safety Leader.” This leader could be a son or daughter, spouse, just not the employee. These Home Safety Leaders were brought in periodically to be trained and to take part in employee recognition ceremonies.

8) Go beyond technical safety.

Housekeeping, PPE, policies and procedures are outward manifestations of culture and leadership and are important. But world-class companies don’t stop there — they also highly develop their workers’ skill sets:

  • physically to accomplish tasks with minimum wear-down and tension; and
  • mentally to develop skills in judgment/decision-making, attention control, and how to take personal control for their own safety at work and at home.

9) Develop personal — and safety — leadership on all levels.

World-class safety companies understand on some level that each person is the safety director of their own lives. Some are very poor at this, others good safety directors, still others mediocre. Organizational leadership knows their job is not to force automaton-like compliance but to get people thinking, helping them become more effective safety leaders everywhere in their own lives.

The best companies develop personal leadership skills in supervisors, line employees — everyone. Workers are trained to become instructors, formal or informal coaches and reinforcement agents of safety.

Safety committees are active, rather than pro-forma. They are trained, often have a budget and given responsibility to make positive change occur.

10) Emphasize excitement.

Highest level safety organizations have sharpened their antennae; they monitor the safety climate.

They know that safety has to be alive and exciting. They retire older interventions that no longer elicit response and periodically inject “Aha” experiences (energetic excitement) along with tangible safety strategies.