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The Key Aspects of a Strong Safety Culture

August 7, 2013

Employee safety is a top concern of any responsible organization. Not only can safety incidents result in injuries or loss of life, but they also negatively affect the organization’s bottom line (e.g., lost time, raised insurance rates, lawsuits), and ultimately damage its public relations image with stakeholders, the community and potential job candidates. But what can organizations do to minimize risk exposure? The answer is to build a strong safety culture. This goes well beyond regulatory compliance; companies with the best safety records have a conviction that accidents and injuries are unacceptable, and develop their own best practices to enhance safety performance.  Further, they believe in the business benefits of valuing safety, both directly (reduced costs) and indirectly (improved morale and productivity).

108696481For decades, safety culture has been heavily studied in the safety, management and Industrial/Organizational Psychology literatures. Safety culture has been defined in a number of ways, but generally refers to a shared set of beliefs, norms, attitudes, and social and technical practices within an organization that are concerned with minimizing the exposure of employees, managers, customers and members of the public to unsafe conditions. OSHA identifies a number of factors that create an organization’s safety culture, including:

  • Management and employee norms, assumptions and beliefs

  • Management and employee attitudes

  • Values, myths and stories about the organization and past employees

  • Policies and procedures

  • Supervisor priorities, responsibilities and accountability

  • Production and bottom line pressure vs. quality issues

  • Employee training and motivation

  • Employee involvement or ‘buy-in’

Establishing policies aimed at reducing accident rates is important, but a strong safety culture truly emerges when high SafetyDNA is exhibited by individual employees who also share the organization’s vision for reducing exposure to risk. Safety culture thus serves to bind employees together and provide cues for appropriate safety behavior in both normal and hazardous situations. Employee attitudes toward safety are typically directed at four main categories:

  • Hardware: job equipment (e.g., tools, machines), safety hardware and physical hazards

  • Software: rules and procedures, legislation, safety management and policy

  • People/liveware: employees at all levels, including workers, supervisors, management, safety committees, specialists and unions

  • Risks: risky behavior and inherent risks in the working environment

Therefore, building a strong safety culture starts with top management, who must first understand the nature of their employees’ attitudes toward these categories, and then show employees that safety is a priority and motivate them to share their vision. Assessing current employees’ SafetyDNA to identify opportunities for improvement, and distinguishing job candidates with the propensity to exhibit safe behavior via selection testing, is also critical. Once goals are set forth by senior management a number of factors will influence the effectiveness of a safety culture program, which include:

  • Clearly defining the safety responsibilities of employees at all levels of the organization

  • Selecting and developing individuals across the organization who will be strong safety leaders

  • Building trust with employees to align shared safety goals by emphasizing that the organizational safety program is not just there to protect the company, but also there to ensure the personal safety of every employee

  • Enforcing an accountability system that will hold managers responsible to lead subordinates toward safety goals, as well as incentivize and discipline subordinates for their safety behaviors as necessary

  • Providing multiple paths for employee input and concerns, coupled with developing a system to track and correct reported hazards in a timely manner

  • Ensuring the reporting of near misses and injuries, coupled with developing a system to investigate incidents in a thoroughly and effectively

Organizations that judiciously implement these strategies will almost certainly experience a reduction in at-risk behavior and the consequences that follow.  An example of this is the manufacturing division of Kroger grocery stores.  At its worst, Kroger Manufacturing reached an average of 18 OSHA reportables per 200,000 hours worked for its 10,000 employees at 34 job sites.  This led management to invest in a safety culture program that, over the span of 10 years, reduced their recordable injury rate by 83%. 

They now boast a lost-time injury rate less than one-third the industry average.It is important to note that building a strong safety culture takes time, particularly when poor safety habits are deeply rooted throughout the organization.  However, it is clear that a company committed to improving its safety performance will reap the benefits of following these guidelines, and more importantly, provide its employees with the safest working environment possible.hiring safe employees

Our Guest Blogger this week is Craig White, a doctoral student in the industrial/organizational psychology program at Texas A&M University. His research domains include selection test development, training, and team processes and performance.  He has six years of research experience at Tier-One universities (Texas A&M University, University of Houston, Rice University), and has been closely involved in applied safety and health research projects at the Michael E. DeBakey VAMC Health Services Research and Development CoE in Houston, TX.  He is also a contract safety services consultant for PSI.

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