Building A Culture Of Safety

Imagine for a moment that you are a safety professional employed by a construction or manufacturing firm. In response to rising injury rates, the management decides to initiate one of two new safety programs. Here are the alternatives:

1. 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.
2. 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 their PPE and celebrates workers’ success in preventing injury.
Which program would you prefer? Which do you think would be most successful in creating a safer workplace? Presented like this, the second alternative is clearly preferable. And yet, the conditions described in the first alternative are shockingly common in modern workplaces.
The second program above describes the first steps to creating a culture of safety, and 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% 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
The culture of safety is not just a new set of rules; it is a new philosophy of preventing injury in the workplace. A safety expert, E. Scott Geller, writes, while Engineering and Education are still “appropriate and critically important…we need to replace the third ‘E’ word of traditional safety—Enforcement—with another—Empowerment.” 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.”
Communication Is The Key
The key throughout the entire process of creating a culture of safety is enhanced communication between workers and management. Often, this means opening up new lines for the exchange of information and making sure everyone feels comfortable sharing ideas and concerns about safety. This is the foundation for your new safety culture. If you want them to participate, employees need to see that things have changed. Safety is no longer something defined and enforced by the management; rather, safety is the right and responsibility of every employee. Management should keep an open ear for employee suggestions and observations, and clearly communicate information on safety goals, progress updates, and appropriate feedback. Through improved communication, you can empower your employees and give them a feeling of ownership in the safety process.
Let’s examine the process of instituting a program designed to cut injury rates and foster a culture of safety:
Setting 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 self-efficacy, 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 towards. 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, you should gather data from a variety of sources; safety records, walkthroughs to identify potential hazards, and interviews with employees can all be valuable resources.
The Right Tools For The Job
Once goal has been identified and announced, the training and education phase can begin. Managers should explain both what changes expected are from the 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.
If an employee experiences broad shifts in temperature or humidity, he should select eyewear with an anti-fog coating, so his goggles stay clear and on his face. If the work environment is brightly lit, eyewear should be treated to block UV radiation and tinted to cut glare. Finally, employees are more likely to wear eye protection that feels good and looks good, so eyewear should be as comfortable and stylish as possible. Modern eyewear offers a solution, with wraparound designs in a wide variety of colors and styles.
Feedback, Feedback, Feedback
Now comes the final step: 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—in the form of reprimands, fines, or other penalties—can be very effective at decreasing unwanted behavior, it often has other, negative consequences as well. It can breed resentment and anger, threatening the clear communication that is so 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 still has its place, but it should be applied rapidly, consistently, and sparingly.
More important is reinforcement of positive, safe behaviors. Interestingly, 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 that they are not being safe to earn extra cash—they are being safe because they want to be safe.
Your Own Culture Of Safety
Clearly, the type of program outlined here will require an investment of time and resources—surveys must be conducted, new equipment must be purchased, and employees must be trained and given feedback within the new system. But the most important change brought about by the program isn’t a shift in equipment or procedure. It is something more subtle, something small you can start today: a new attitude with regards to workplace safety. As E. Scott Geller puts it, in a culture of safety, “Safety is not an extra or separate aspect of a job. It is essential and integrated into every component of the operation.” When every employee in your firm can agree with that statement, a culture of safety has been established, and you are on your way to safer employees and higher profits.
[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

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