At the risk of sounding like one of those papers my kids write for high school or college sociology classes, workplace safety and health is in the midst of its cultural era.

Eras of course come and go. In the past four decades, we’ve had the compliance era; the post-Bhopal fall-out, emphasizing process safety and community outreach; asbestos fever that overcame politicians and reporters, resulting in shoddy legislation and rip and skip contractors; the ergonomics epidemic, at least in the view of advocates of an ergo standard; the behavior-based safety bandwagon had a roller coaster ride.

Laying the groundwork

The social critic Eric Hoffer said words to this effect: Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.

We’ve certainly witnessed that cycle in safety and health. OSHA began as an advocacy movement, a cause, became law and an institution, then got down to the business of compliance, with many compliance products and services sold using scare tactic schemes.

Example number two: behavior-based safety. BBS was proselytized, profitized, and then commodified. BBS laid the groundwork for today’s culture era by redirecting the focus from compliance to employee engagement. This helped move safety responsibilities out of the safety department and spread tasks to specially designated teams and non-professional “BBS champions.” It brought employee involvement, and often enthusiasm, in safety to a level never inspired by an OSHA rule.

Resonating with execs

But how do you sustain that level of involvement and enthusiasm for the long haul? Volunteers wear out. Committees lose leaders and focus. Involvement, such as observations and feedback sessions, can shift from mindful to empty exercises. You need a sturdy, committed organizational culture to bind and support management, supervisory and employee safety and health activities long-term. That realization is now pervasive in safety and health circles, in part because it resonates with senior executives who see the value of using their distinct organizational cultures as marketing tools. Think of companies such as Apple, Microsoft and 3M proudly promoting their cultures of innovation. Energy and paper products companies marketing their cultures of responsibility. UPS and other service businesses emphasizing their cultures built on human assets.

Confronting challenges

This culture era poses challenges for safety and health pros:

How do you know when you’ve got a sound, superior safety culture that will hold up over time?

What metrics do you use to measure it?

How do you weather the departure of a charismatic leader?

And since in this post-OSHA era the safety department is no longer the repository of all wisdom and rules deciphering, how do you get everyone at every level of the organization on board with their task-specific safety and health responsibilities?

How to anchor a culture

Superior Essex, a manufacturer of magnet wire, copper and aluminum enamel coated-wire for motors, starters and transformers, decided to anchor its culture in a self-made safety management system (SMS), according to Jeff LaBelle, manager, safety and risk assessment.

Jeff visited every site and did a gap analysis of local practices in proactive safety activities benchmarked against the best-researched foundations for safety practices as well as the work of behavioral management pioneers.

The SMS was conceived between November 2005-January 2006. The key selling point to management was that “we had no real ‘system’ for safety,” said Jeff.

“Previously we were all involved in a flurry of safety activities, but there was no anchor which tied them all together. The SMS was positioned to do just that, and be a set of specific and recordable activities that the leadership could achieve. The SMS answered management’s question, ‘I’d like to get more involved in safety, but I don’t know exactly what I should be doing that would have significant impact.’

“We created a package of specific high-impact activities (but not overwhelming) that we knew would help achieve lower risks of injuries. We also limited them to five to six activities that were ‘achievable’ each and every week/month. All managers/supervisors had to do was schedule some time and everyone could be successful — each and every time.”

“Our division-wide SMS enabled us to shift our operations culture to a ‘responsibility-based’ safety culture through positive encouragement of safe behaviors. These actions also allow our operations to proactively seek out risks and make safety improvements.

“Employee responsibilities are where we are focusing next. The current SMS is primarily a management/supervisor process. We had to get them on board first in order for this to be initially successful.

Next we can funnel it down to the hourly worker. The hourly worker plays an important role in providing suggestions and feedback in weekly meetings, audits, and helping to improve specific behaviors in our weekly behavioral observations.”

The cost? “Essentially $0,” said Jeff. “Only my travel costs, and the indirect costs of the in-house training sessions at each site.”

The result? A single Superior Essex plant in Fort Wayne, Ind., with 145 employees, logged a 0.0 lost-time injury/illness rate for 2007. The division as a whole, with 1,570 employees, recorded a 1.8 lost-time rate in 2007.

Plus, “our hourly folks are extremely committed to our SMS, which focuses on reinforcing the behavior we want as opposed to only retroactively correcting behaviors,” said Jeff.

The VPP boom

This “extreme commitment” reminds you of OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program. VPP has mushroomed as the culture era has evolved. Today, 1,970 worksites fly the VPP flag. In 1998, the number was 475. In 1988, 62 sites qualified for VPP.

VPP’s steep take-off has gotten a strong push from the Bush administration, but there’s another force at work. Most VPP sites have corporate parents. And these giants want to use employee-friendly cultures for branding purposes in the marketplace.

In many markets today, image, values and reputation are more important than the product. That’s because many products are now commodities. Gasoline. Sneakers. Prescription medicines. If you sell consumer goods, produce energy, cut down trees for paper, mine or farm — if your company has a public face or footprint — your brand name, reputation and credibility must be protected and enhanced. So you work on your culture.

Cultures without rules

OSHA will never regulate organizational cultures. How could the agency inspect a culture? Every one is unique. There are no rules to go by. Culture-speak can be soft and fuzzy, and worst-case, a marketing façade. Who audits cultural credibility? Consultants?

For possible answers to this challenge, look to healthcare and its slow but sure growing acceptance of the need for patient safety cultures within hospitals.

More patient safety researchers, hospital administrators, physicians and nurses realize reducing medical errors calls for a culture of safety, with a series of interlocking activities similar to Superior Essex’s management system. Everyone at every level must accept responsibility.

Hospitals, much more than industry, use employee perception surveys and pool responses for nationwide benchmarking. Hospitals also have numerous measurable outcomes: numbers of adverse events, hospital-infected patients, errors and close calls. Third-party organizations are grading hospitals on these outcomes and making the grades public.

The cultural era in safety and health offers the promise of elevating professionals to positions of higher stature and influence. But the profession needs to reach a consensus on how to define and measure culture — the same needs to happen with the social responsibility movement — to prevent the culture era from going from a cause and a movement to a business and a racket.