One of my favorite definitions of culture (and there are many) is the one by the UK Health and Safety Commission. They define culture as “the product of individual and group values, attitudes, perceptions, competencies, and patterns of behaviour that determine the commitment to, and the style and proficiency of, an organization’s health and safety management” (HSC, 1993, p. 23).

This definition makes it clear that both management and employees are what makes a culture. Understanding the interaction between the two is key to creating a safety culture that works.

This definition includes both attitudes and competencies. Attitude is important, but if employees don’t know how to be safe, they can’t be.

I’ve listed a few practices that have been shown to influence safety culture in Table 1 (below).

When the going gets tough
A hotel management company I visited had a policy that no employee should lift more weight than he/she felt comfortable lifting. Instead, they should ask a co-worker for help. This policy was explained in the safety training all employees received when they signed on with the company and was easy to understand in principle. Unfortunately it was also easily negated by the culture.

Because of very low profit margins, staffing in this hotel chain was always kept to an absolute minimum. Overtime was not feasible because rooms had to be cleaned before the guests needed them, so there was intense pressure on each employee to get his or her work done on time. If a housekeeper needed to accomplish a heavy lift, there was really no one convenient to ask for help, and if there was, that person had his own job to do.

When employees ignored the rule, the company could choose to blame the failure on:
  • The employee. She simply did not follow the rules. Case closed — blame the worker.
  • The staffing team. Because of the tight schedule, there was no one convenient to ask. Case closed — blame human resources.
  • The safety culture. Even with tight staffing, if the culture actually supported safety, the employee would have found someone. And that someone would have been willing to delay his own work long enough to help.
I once observed a construction foreman reprimanding a worker for violating a hard hat rule. At first, I was impressed. But then I heard the justification. He said something to the effect of, “If anyone sees you, I could get in trouble.” This may work temporarily, but the CYA approach does not result in lasting change or an effective safety culture.

What the foreman should have said is that management cares about safety and wants to make sure that at the end of the day, each worker can go home and play with his or her kids. And he could have pointed to the other workers who were wearing their hard hats correctly and praised them.

While this may sound all touchyfeely, it actually works.

ReferenceHSC (HEALTH AND SAFETY COMMISSION), 1993. Third report: organizing for safety. ACSNI Study Group on Human Factors. HMSO, London.


Management Behaviors
  • Safety is a top company priority — not just in name but in action.
  • Safe behaviors are clearly communicated through company policies and training.
  • Company-wide safety programs are explicit and meaningful.
  • Accidents and near misses are investigated thoroughly and are used to fix problems, not assign blame.
  • Managers above the direct supervisory level regularly visit the shop floor and discuss safety issues.
  • Supervisors engage in behavioral coaching and feedback for safe behaviors.
Employee Behavior
  • Employees understand and independently communicate about safety.
  • Employees commend each other for safe behavior.
  • Employees reprimand each other for violating safe behaviors.