Year after year, we see consequences of inadequate workplace safety. Data shows that each year an average 3 million people in private industry face some kind of job-related injury. In many industries, injury costs can exceed profit in a given year. Safety incidents large and small can discredit a company, eroding consumer trust, compromising employee morale, productivity and retention, and jeopardizing its future.

To truly create lasting change and enhance safety, it’s not enough to fix a faulty piece of equipment or add another level of supervision in a warehouse. Companies must create an environment in which safety is more than just a box to be checked, but is, instead, a culture that makes up the very foundation and philosophy of the company.

Start from the top

A culture of safety can be defined as the collective values, beliefs, attitudes and norms that shape individual safety-related perceptions and behaviors in an organization. In a company with a strong culture of safety, everyone looks out for one another and encourages self-reporting of an injury without judgment or consequence.

Establishing a positive safety culture begins with a senior management team committed to improving safety, establishing a successful safety program, and empowering everyone within the organization to be part of a safety solution.

Define “safe”

Many safety programs are started in the aftermath of an incident. This can create a kind of tunnel vision, where safety is shaped by the recent incident rather than by a review of the company’s total risks, which can change and evolve over time. 

The first step in creating a sustainable culture of safety is defining what “safe” actually means within the organization. This will help provide clear safety goals for the company and guide evaluations of safety along the way.

A company’s risks must be critically evaluated. It is important to form a team that directs all workplace health and safety initiatives. This team may include the CEO and senior managers or be comprised of specific health and safety specialists. Management systems and roles may need to be revised. It also can be useful for companies to engage third-party workplace health and safety providers, who can bring an unbiased and comprehensive view of the challenges and opportunities an organization faces.

Vest employees in safety

Without buy-in and enthusiasm from employees, a culture of safety cannot exist. Several building blocks help encourage employee engagement in safety. One is investing in and ensuring a safe workplace. Creating systems to track and prevent safety concerns is another.

These systems can be technological, such as an incident management system, or infrastructural, such as simple mechanisms and pathways for employees to voice safety concerns and suggestions without fear of reprisal. Regardless of what form they take, these systems must engage employees in the safety of their environments and offer them ways to proactively be a part of improving it.

Giving employees the right safety training also is vital. Good training helps employees recognize potential hazards, accurately perceive risk, take appropriate precautions, and maintain compliance.

Employers may view training as necessary, but costly. However, the potential cost of injuries and lost work time and productivity resulting from employees who have not been properly trained typically far outweigh the cost of training. Fortunately, there are many effective training options available today. 

E-learning programs, for example, can offer highly efficient, comprehensive, engaging and interactive learning experiences that take about half the time and a fraction of the cost of classroom instruction. Studies have shown that there is a 70 percent retention rate for employees who take online courses versus an instructor-led course. Participants can learn from making mistakes without fear of reproach since they are not in a classroom setting among peers, and courses can be repeated as many times as necessary.

Instill a sense of accountability

A safety program’s success correlates with the level of accountability in an organization. Even the most advanced management and incident tracking systems are of little value if employees do not understand their role in using these tools to help make the workplace safer.

Holding individuals accountable for complying with procedures and standards — and holding managers and departments accountable for achieving organizational goals — is imperative. Accountability requires clear communication and the capacity to monitor behaviors and measure results.

Maintain a culture of safety

Once a culture of safety has been established, companies must constantly reinforce safety messages, stress the importance of it being a team effort, and regularly evaluate progress to ensure the overall strength of the culture.

Check in with employees and management to get their feedback and suggestions for what’s working and what’s not. This demonstrates a commitment to safety and generates conversations that can help gauge how well people fully understand their role in making the workplace safer.

Develop policies for recognition, rewards and incentives. This helps motivate everyone on an ongoing basis.

Host an annual company-wide meeting or workshop to give everyone an opportunity to share their thoughts on safety and introduce any new processes or procedures.

 It is also important to take the time to celebrate successes along the way to maintain enthusiasm. 

Understand the benefits

An OSHA guide states that developing a strong safety culture has the “single greatest impact on accident reduction of any process” and results in “low accident rates, low turnover, low absenteeism and high productivity.”

Establishing a culture of safety involves a fundamental shift in thinking and behavior and organization-wide commitment. It takes time to create and foster but is an investment well worth making.