Developing a healthy safety culture requires viewing your organization as a community. A community is typically defined as a group larger than a household that is organized around common values, goals, shared cohesion and geographic location. Just as you can’t lick your own elbow (go ahead and try it...can’t be done), you must rely on others in your community for support, revenue and progress. A culture, therefore, is “the way we do things with and for each other in this community.”

Five cultures in one
Since the late 1980s when I began consulting with companies like GE, NEC and Tesoro Petroleum, I’ve had to give various definitions and takes on the term, “safety culture.” Dr. James Reason’s explanations fill out the definition in multiple dimensions: a safety culture is really five cultures in one. In the context of operating a safety culture management system, Reasons identifies these dimensions:
  • A just culture in which the employees work in an atmosphere of trust and are encouraged and rewarded for doing the right thing;
  • A reporting culture where people are prepared to report their errors and near-misses;
  • A flexible culture that can shift from hierarchal modes to flatter, yet empowered, organizational modes when required;
  • An informed culture demonstrated by those who manage the system with current knowledge of human, technical, organizational and environmental factors;
  • A learning culture with the willingness and competence to draw the right conclusions from the system outputs and the determination to implement the reforms.
Don’t repeat others’ mistakes
In recent years, the poster child for a corporate culture devoid of these dimensions has been BP’s Texas City refinery. Former Secretary of State James Baker and the investigating panel charged with getting to the core of the horrific explosions and deaths at the refinery in 2005 interviewed more than 700 BP employees, from hourly refinery workers right up to CEO Lord Browne.

Their 350-page analysis, “The Report of the BP U.S. Refineries Safety Panel Review,” detailed safety failings at the company’s five U.S. refineries.

It described a culture fixated on numerical targets (a traditional motivational goal) rather than on a holistic approach to improvement of all safety processes (a broader goal to engage employees). Most importantly, it stated that, “executives failed to instill a culture where safety was paramount” (a values-based goal).

Three steps to a solid safety culture
How can your company develop a healthy climate and a sustainable culture that meets the goals for a safe workplace, proper procedures and compliance, effective equipment maintenance and use every single day? According to research performed recently by Towers Perrin-ISR, these three goals or objectives serve as the primary drivers to a solid safety culture:
  1. Focus on improving employer-supervisor relations.
  2. Empower all employees with enough authority to excel.
  3. Recognize teamwork and cooperation at all levels.
Develop an effective management system
In addition, Towers Perrin’s research identifies other touch points that mirror our experience:
  1. Encourage meaningful dialogue at all levels, rather than relying on slogans, canned speeches and stale dictates.
  2. Support meaningful dialogue with hard data that can be gathered and shared.
  3. Derive the metrics from such data based on a set of leading indicators drawn from employee proactive involvement and engagement in the safety process, rather than using lagging indicators such as past recordable injury rates.
  4. Share the leading indicators with all employees to further involve and empower them in the total process.
  5. Recognize and reward employees for their engagement.
An effective management system should be able to recognize, record, report and reward all levels of employee involvement in order to achieve a sustainable safety culture. The best systems will track involvement at the employee level, as well as at the crew and department levels. Costs for implementing and administrating a program need not be expensive and can actually serve as a means to strict budgetary control.

Involve employees
Together with a professionally conducted survey, a safety culture management system provides a tailored, high-impact platform any company can use to attain greater levels of employee engagement. To the extent that employees are fully engaged in the process of safety, health and environment, companies can expect enhanced performance, quality and profits.

Fully engaged workers practice systems-thinking, act as proprietors and “perform in the storm” when required. To develop a world-class safety culture, a company must implement a management system that is bottom-up, with top-down controls, encouraging communication, ideas and initiative at every level of the organization.