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4 Characteristics to Help Create a Best-In-Class Safety Culture

March 8, 2017

safety-culture.pngI was talking with a VP from a U.S. power and utility provider yesterday and he raised an interesting question during our call. He said “Our goal is to be the safest energy provider in the country. But, what I’m wrestling with is, what exactly does that look like?” If you worked with this company and spent time with their leaders for just a few hours, you’d understand that this goal is probably not unrealistic at all. They have several sites that have not had a recordable injury in over a year. Their total recordable incident rate (TRIR) is below 1.0, which is less than half the industry average of 2.2 (based on 2015 BLS data), and they have a very comprehensive safety management system in place with all the things you would expect to see – well defined safety policies and procedures, JHAs, near miss reporting, and solid training. They recently joined the VPPPA program as well.

Sounds like they have it all together, right? Many companies would love to have that type of safety performance and robust safety systems such as these. But that was not enough for the VP I spoke with. He knew that lagging indicators don’t tell the true story. A lack of injuries does not necessarily equate to being “safe.” As most safety professionals understand, a reduction of injuries is certainly a goal and one of the outcomes of being safe. However, this company is doing so many other things to focus on leading indicators and proactive hazard mitigation. Near miss/hit events are taken very seriously and analyzed, and the company is now systematically looking at Serious Injury and Fatality (SIF) prevention. Furthermore, you could sense the strong safety culture on the phone and during our training sessions. All meetings began with a personal safety moment, people regularly bring up non-work safety topics, and I heard frequent positive reinforcement statements for safe choices for things like designated driving.

Despite all these indicators of a strong, healthy safety culture, and great metrics, this VP still knows that they have not reached their ultimate goal. If their goal is indeed to be the safest energy company in the U.S., what else can they do? How would you know if they were the safest? And as he stated…what would that actually look like?

Unfortunately, there is not an easy answer to this question. There is not one, standard way to define “safest” or even the often used “world-class safety” label. But there are certainly some examples and frameworks we can use to further define what it should look like. For example, the National Safety Council uses the following 5 Best Practices to identify winners of the Robert Campbell Award. These are organizations that demonstrate excellence in terms of integrating EHS management into their daily operations. 

These best practices, according to NSC, are as follows:

  1. Leadership – empowering all within the organization to lead on EHS

  2. Integration – incorporating EHS into all facets of the business

  3. Data Management – gathering and using key performance indicators to monitor EHS systems

  4. Alignment – linking EHS goals to other organizational objectives

  5. Corporate Citizenship – promoting off-the-job safety and environmental initiatives

I think these are a great place to start in terms of the whole organization, and there are other industry experts who have proposed insightful lists of characteristics and models of what makes a company safe. There are also characteristics that exist not only at the organizational level, but at the individual level as well. Such characteristics define successful safety leaders, and can also be seen in a company’s collective culture. Taking this perspective, here are some key characteristics that can be demonstrated by both employees, and the organization as a whole, to help achieve best-in-class safety.

  1. Integrity – When we do what we say, and when our actions and decisions are fully aligned with our words, we show integrity. One of the biggest challenges for companies trying to improve their safety culture is when leaders talk a good game but ultimately do not back it up with their actions. When we put safety above other priorities even though it could hurt productivity, it demonstrates our integrity as safety leaders. Integrity is always a cornerstone in an organization that truly values safety.

  2. Learning Agility – This is the speed with which a person can learn and be open to new ways of thinking. This includes how comfortable a person is in terms of quickly studying, analyzing and understanding new situations, and how well they learn from mistakes and experiences. High performing companies with a continuous improvement culture tend to have employees with high learning agility who are willing to try new things and learn from them. This is why some companies are a lot more innovative than others. There are important connections here to safety. We often talk about how “safety is a journey” and how we need to continuously get better in safety. Unless we improve at our learning agility, however, this will always be an uphill climb.

  3. Empathy – Ultimately, safety is about people. A company can have the greatest safety management systems and the latest high-tech PPE, but if it doesn’t all come from a place of caring for people, then these efforts will have a limited impact on safety culture. Empathy means we understand, and can relate to, people’s feelings and needs. If we cannot empathize with employees, we are unlikely to care deeply about their personal safety, or listen to their safety concerns, or ask questions to understand why they bypassed a safety policy. By empathizing, we can show people we care about them on a personal level, and we can also gain valuable information on hazards, unsafe situations, and other leading indicator information that can help us further improve safety.

  4. Urgency – Call it proactive, call it vigilance, call it whatever you want. I call it urgency, and world-class safety companies all display a high level of urgency when there are hazardous conditions or risks that could lead to harm. You can tell which companies display urgency around risk by how they react to near hits and whether they truly value incident report data. The leader I described earlier expressed great concern about an incident that occurred a few weeks ago where, for a split second, an employee’s arm was potentially exposed to injury from a piece of equipment he was working with. While nothing occurred, that potential incident was all he could think about for days. As a result, they held various conversations and are implementing some new processes to eliminate that specific risk. Do we share that same level of urgency about potential risks out there on the floor? While we never want to panic and overreact to incidents with decisions that don’t make sense, it is always important to have urgency about removing known risks and uncovering those we cannot yet see.

In summary, we need to look past the numbers. Just because we have not injured someone in a long time, it does not mean we are necessarily safe. As we know, safety is ultimately a journey, not a destination, and so there are many things we can do to keep improving and striving towards the safest possible environment. We, as employees, as leaders, and as safety professionals, can all display each of the four characteristics described here. When we consistently demonstrate those as a collective, our organization will then reflect those same characteristics and help us to get one step closer to “being the safest” place to work.

safety commitment

Esteban Tristan, Ph.D. Esteban Tristan, Ph.D. is the Director of Safety Solutions at PSI. He manages the development and implementation of all safety solutions and services, which address some of the critical challenges faced by organizations today in workplace safety.