Imagine for a moment that you are a safety professional employed by a construction or manufacturing firm. In response to rising injury rates, management decides to initiate one of two new safety programs. Here are the alternatives:
  • Workers receive a single type of personal protective equipment, or PPE, and perfunctory training in its use. And that’s it — from that point forward, management’s only real involvement with the safety program is to occasionally mete out punishment to negligent employees caught shirking their safety duties, usually only after an injury has occurred.
  • Management performs a safety audit of the work environment, examining individual workplace hazards and interviewing the workers who know them best to devise a safety goal. Workers receive appropriate PPE, training in its proper use and feedback on their success in pursuing the safety objective. The company rewards the proper use of PPE and celebrates workers’ success in preventing injury.
Which do you think would be most successful in creating a safer workplace? The second alternative is clearly preferable. And yet the conditions described in the first alternative are shockingly common.

While it may sound more costly and time-consuming than the first alternative, studies have shown that this type of program can be cost effective as well as humanitarian. In a recent survey, over 90 percent of safety officers strongly agreed with the statement: “Companies with strong safety cultures stand a much better chance of reducing workplace incidents than those who don’t.” By building a culture of safety in your business, you can minimize expensive injuries and maintain a safer, happier workforce.

A whole new philosophy
In a culture of safety, safe behavior is not something the boss makes you do — it is a vital part of your job. An unsafe worker is an incompetent worker, while a safety-conscious employee is good at what he does. When safety standards are internalized, employees can police their own safety much more effectively and thoroughly than an authority figure. As one safety professional put it, having a culture of safety means “having people work safely when nobody is looking.”

The key to creating a culture of safety is enhanced communication between workers and management. This is the foundation for your new safety culture. Employees need to see that things have changed. Management should keep an open ear for employee suggestions and observations. Information on safety goals, progress updates and appropriate feedback should be on-going. Through improved communication, you can empower your employees and give them a feeling of ownership in the safety process.

A zero-incident objective
In a traditional safety program, a typical firm might set “no accidents” as a goal, and a “days since last injury” sign may be the only feedback to employees. This system is ineffective for a couple of reasons: it focuses on the negative, attracting attention only when “someone screws up” and the count is rolled back to 0; and it robs employees of the feeling that they are doing something to keep themselves and their co-workers safe.

To be effective, a safety program should set a specific, measurable goal that employees can work toward. If workers receive praise for their contribution rather than punishment for their slip-ups, they will be more likely to play an active role in maintaining a safe work environment.

To set a successful safety goal, identify a trouble spot in your work process and focus on ways to correct the situation. Your goal could be to maintain a cleaner workspace or to reduce eye injuries through proper usage of safety eyewear. While looking for a behavior to target, gather data from a variety of sources, such as safety records, walkthroughs to identify potential hazards and interviews with employees.

The right tools for the job
Once a goal has been identified and announced, the training and education phase can begin. Managers should explain what changes are expected from employees, and how these changes will lead to a safer workplace.

For example, consider a goal to reduce eye injuries among one group of workers. Suppose research reveals that these employees have protective eyewear but are not wearing it. In this case, a solution could be as simple as providing employees with proper PPE. By partnering with an industry leader with the expertise to solve problems like this one, you can ensure your employees have the right PPE for the hazards they face.

Feedback, feedback, feedback
Studies of culture of safety initiatives have shown detailed, timely feedback to be the single most important aspect of increasing long-term participation. Depending on the type of program, feedback could come in the form of posted results, group announcements or direct verbal evaluation.

In many workplaces, the most common form of safety feedback is punishment. While punishment (reprimands, fines or other penalties) can be very effective at decreasing unwanted behavior, it often has negative consequences. It can breed resentment and anger, threatening the communication vital to safety culture. If an employee is given only negative feedback, he may not have an alternative behavior available to replace his unsafe habit, and improvement will be impossible. Punishment should be applied rapidly, consistently and sparingly.

More important is reinforcement of positive, safe behaviors. Small tokens of appreciation have been shown to be more effective than larger rewards in increasing compliance. When positive feedback is moderate and personal, employees know they are being safe because they want to be safe — not to earn extra cash.


1 “Role of occupational eye protection in building a culture of safety.” Uvex® Industry research. Survey of 300 safety directors in the US and Canada. (c) 2009