In ISHN’sApril issuewe editorialized that the casual slinging around of the term “safety culture” as some magic potion or absolution from the previous absence of safety was robbing the term of its meaning and substance, to the point of being irrelevant. “The constant drumbeat today for safety culture… singles out safety as something separate from standard operating procedures. ... All of this diverts attention away from the fact that a company has but one culture...”.

We asked safety and health experts to give us their take on the notion of a safety culture. And boy, did they…

= Safety culture has been used too many ways and has been used by a lot of organizations as a marketing tool for its businesses. The employees are not uneducated any more. They can think and see things for themselves. And if they see that they are being “played” then they quickly lose faith and energy for the process. 

So my bottom line is we have, for the most part, beat this safety culture horse into a pulp. Just like what is being done with sustainability now. Safety culture has turned into a marketing ploy.  I was going to say joke but I don’t want to offend anyone who still believes.

Aaron Chen, CIH


= We don’t need an add-on safety culture. We must ensure an overall culture within the organization that embraces and manages safety the same way as the rest of the business. One of these days maybe we will learn to stop talking “safety” and learn to talk “business.”

“Skipper” Kendrick


= It could be stated that use of the term safety culture might be overused. Yet, isn’t this something we would have given our “eye-teeth” to hear leaders/companies talking about maybe 10 to 15 years ago?  I’d say so. We’ve come a ways from back then and I like that progress has been made. 

What does safety culture really mean? Because it appears (with no scientific data) that many misconstrue what a safety culture is and is not; how it differs from the old safety programs; where it comes from; and how one goes about EVOLVING an organization’s culture toward achieving a “safety culture.”

Safety culture could be defined as being a culture that values people and their safe performance, integrating safe behavior, planning and decisions into how the organization performs, just like it does for the organization’s core business.  This area represents a fertile area where safety professionals need to focus

Ted Ingalls


= I don’t think the term “safety culture” is overused.  Big Data today makes any idea appear mainstream and relevant. I just Googled Elvis Presley and got over 72 million web hits and over 25,000 news stories.  Safety culture is part of common language and pops up all over the place – and as in beauty it’s in the eye of the beholder.

How safety culture is applied where I have influence makes all the difference.  Safety culture to me is defined by the expectations of the top dog in an organization. We all bend to the boss’s will, for good or bad.

Dan Markiewicz, MS, CIH, CSP, CHMM


= Overuse and especially casual, unthinking overuse saps the concept of any real meaning.  The same thing has happened to “sustainability” … and for that matter “risk communication.”

Peter Sandman


= Safety culture has been a useful term for me and my colleagues. When we use this term, we are not talking about the entire organizational culture, and that is okay. Perhaps we should be using the term “safety sub-culture.” There is no doubt that individual expectancies, roles and contingencies vary in organizations as a function of the domain, e.g., safety vs. production.

E. Scott Geller, Ph.D., professor, Virginia Tech


= The term safety culture has become like the term “engagement” in popular management writings.  There is no common agreement on the term and we are left with individual (mis)interpretations, which lead to haphazard attempts at changing organizations toward improvement. 

Thus, the term has been begun to diffuse into meaninglessness like so many good-ideas-turned-fad before.  This is too bad because the real concept of safety culture is profound and can lead to significant improvements.

Safety Culture is how people talk to each other and how that impacts safety behaviors. 

If we consider a leader who tells subordinates to push the equipment upgrades off for yet another year to save costs — the culture influences risk.  When a leader asks his subordinates about the safety implications of budget decisions — the culture influences safety.

Why mess with a messy concept of safety culture. Instead, cut the fat and recognize safety culture for what it is... people influencing each other by talking. 

Tim Ludwig, Ph.D., professor, Appalachian State University


= What is culture at a worksite?  It is the collective norms and values demonstrated as the people of that worksite interact and build productive relationships among themselves.  An important characteristic is that culture is entirely site specific. 

Safety culture then is a dimension of the site culture—both influencing it and being influenced by it. The key to having a sustainable site safety culture is the presence of staff safety professionals or a significant collateral staff safety role from other professional person(s).  A safety culture will not occur sustainably without that level of day to day support. 

Tom Lawrence, CSP


= Frankly, I do not think there is or has ever been a so-called safety culture in any organization. Each organization has its own unique culture, which is the controlling factor of employees’ beliefs when it comes to safety.

I strongly believe the overall culture of a company is the driving factor for safety, not the other way around.  If you work in a company that has a bunch of cowboys in leadership roles, you tend to have a company that places priority on production over safety regardless of what comes out of the executives’ mouths.

Safety is a fragile commodity that can be lost or improved upon through the mere change in leadership.  Cultures for me are not that fragile and tend to persist regardless of leadership.  Look at the great cultures of the world.

I think we have spent too much time isolating safety from the inner workings of the organization as opposed to integrating safety into everything we do.  Too often safety procedures are separate from the operational procedures.  As long as we portray safety as something that is bolted onto the actual work we and our colleagues do, safety will remain separate and disconnected activity.

James Leemann, Ph.D.


= Every organization has its own spectrum of cultures, with a simplified definition of culture being “just the way it is around here.” A career of engagements with struggling organizations has shown me that numerous subcultures typically operate concurrently, influencing productivity, quality, customer service, safety, diversity, recruiting, etc.

This leads to a litany of politically correct descriptions of the various organizations’ subcultures, such as “safety is number one,” etc., ad nausea.  When we push through the PC fog and get to the front line of reality, each of these subcultures has its own dynamic of processes, accountabilities and priorities. 

In safety if we focus on/measure what we don’t want to occur – injuries – there are no lasting solutions.  This is just another culture built on a foundation of sand.  A culture of excellence must measure and reward the upstream activities that deliver downstream results; safety accountabilities that make a real, value added difference in performance by all an organization’s personnel from the boardroom to the front-line supervisor and hourly worker.

Mike Williamsen, Ph.D., CSP


= Most entities that talk about the need for a safety culture really need, as my dear departed father would say, “a good swift kick in the…”.  It’s a delightful addition to the jug-headed lexicon of corporate nonspeak, ranking right up there with “right sizing” “getting to done” and the cherished “orientated.”

All organizations have a safety culture or more correctly, subculture in that they have some value that the organization places on safety. Some value it to the point of compulsion while others value it so little that they actively work against it. The extent to which an organization values safety defines a larger culture.

Phil LaDuke


= The problem is that when people use the term safety culture they lump all kinds of notions, ideas and definitions under this umbrella. Many of which are definitely not culture.

There is really no such thing as safety culture if you have truly integrated safety (protecting the sanctity of human life) into your value system. Having a discreet “safety culture” by definition indicates a lack of safety being like the DNA of the organization. As an organization what you have is a safety “climate” that comes from and is preserved by a “culture” that deeply values the wellbeing of its people and anyone else that it could impact.

I believe that there is a deep realization today that culture trumps strategy in almost every endeavor and especially values-driven representations of what the company truly  values like safety, environment, sustainability, wellness and corporate citizenship in general.

That said, I also fear that the term is being used as a catchall for everything. It could become a fad or a substitute for doing much of the hard stuff. I believe that doing the really hard stuff like process safety is dependent on how deep the culture of value for people is. 

The trick is in being able to understand and measure the strength of the culture as well as its gaps by understanding what climate it is producing. The climate can be accurately measured. The culture is very difficult to measure because of the depth at which it resides (the assumptive level) in the members of the organization.

Jim Spigener


= I am absolutely convinced that the culture comes from the top (does not have to be the CEO). It starts with the EHS head with the guts to not negotiate safety (without being crazy or “on the bleeding edge”).  It helps when the head of production or supply chain backs that person up.  From there, the culture is built.

I recall from my Arthur D. Little days, “The unwritten rules of the game” which was a business management guide but has great application to EHS. There are the public and written rules and then there are the unwritten rules.  The unwritten rules are what are important to careers.

Zack Mansdorf, Ph.D., CIH, CSP, QEP

Consultant in EHS and Sustainability


= I had dinner with the owner of a lumber company one evening at a friend’s house (it was the friend’s employer). The owner was telling me how important safety was to him. He said that the following Thursday he was having a safety meeting where all the employees would receive a check for $500 because there had been no lost time injuries.

He went on to say he was going to recognize Bob as being the one responsible for all of them getting a check this year. I asked him if Bob was their safety champion or team leader. He said that Bob had an incident where he cut off a couple of fingers but because he came back to work the next day it didn’t count as a lost time injury. I was at a loss for words. I am sure this guy believes he has a great safety culture.

Oh well.

John Drebinger


= We are in the business of promoting behavioral/cultural approaches to safety. I am re-thinking how I talk about culture. I totally agree that a lot of discussions on safety culture leave out key parts of culture; limiting to regulations, rules, etc.

Overuse of terminology and buzz phrases are a problem that we must all address in our communication regarding our approaches to the safety “process”.

DJ Borbidge


= It seems like it’s the “in thing” to say or talk about in today’s business/industrial setting...our safety culture, etc.

Teaching workers to work safely with inherently dangerous equipment by promoting a culture of safety makes for a nice sound bite, but is otherwise meaningless.  When it comes to creating a safety culture, it boils down primarily to changing the behavior of management, not the employees.

Bill Borwegen, MPH


= Safety culture is like “common sense.” Both are overused and neither exists.

Culture is just “culture.” It’s the sum total of the rules and mores and traditions that guide a family, an organization, a tribe. It’s how you relate to one another and how you treat others. When I visit a company to do a safety assessment, I may take a look at the procedures they have in place and the practices they follow, but what I really want to know is how they relate to one another. Are they helpful, encouraging, caring?

If you ask people in an organization with a reputation for a high level of safety how they got there, they will describe activities and relationships that define a positive culture and that form the sum total of their approach to working together. I don’t hear people talk about their strong culture of quality, productivity, profits, training, service. That’s silly. So is hanging your hat on the safety culture.

Lawrence H. “Chip” Dawson