How Great is Your Safety Culture?
By Kevin McManus, Chief Excellence Officer, Great Systems
Over my career, I have had the chance to interact with many different safety cultures, some great and some not so great. Each site I have gone to, and in many cases, each department, had its own safety culture. There is much more cultural consistency between groups than there are differences in the great companies that I have been a part of, visited, or interacted with in a TapRooT® root cause analysis class.
These companies don’t leave their culture creation to chance. They have defined processes for promoting the desired safety culture. Cultural consistency is measured regularly, and the processes that promote the desired culture are improved over time. What is the case in your organization? How many different safety cultures do you have? How many great safety cultures do you have in place?
The Closer You Look, the More Safety Culture Variation You See
Believe it or not, some companies have better safety records on paper than they have in real life. In other words, not that many incidents show up on the posted OSHA Form 300, but if you asked the people if their company is a safe employer or not, you might get a wide variety of answers. How can this be? Is it possible to have good safety numbers and not actually have a safe work environment?
Well, unfortunately it is. You may not be able to have superior safety numbers or sustain great safety results over time with an unsafe work environment, but you can be better than average. All you need to do is install a culture of fear. Make people afraid to report an incident, unsafe condition, or unsafe work practice. Now, I don’t think that very many organizations would do this intentionally, but there are companies out there who unintentionally suppress safety concerns.
What Does Your Safety Culture Look, Sound, and Feel Like?
What is your safety culture like? Do your people seek out and report unsafe conditions, or do they complain about them only to be told to focus on what they have been told to do? Do your people take action to address the unsafe act of a co-worker on the spot, or do your supervisors ignore unsafe acts if their people are not the ones committing them?
Are individuals and teams recognized for their safety accomplishments, or is punishment the norm when it comes to emphasizing safety rules? Is the phrase “Own the hazard” one that people take pride of in your company, or is it one that people make jokes about in the lunchroom?
Do You Have Risk-Based or a Rule-Based Safety Culture?
This is always an interesting question to discuss in class. The question is closely related to the ‘When is it okay to break the rules?” inquiry. In a great safety culture, people work from a rule-based perspective. If the rule exists, they follow it. Most companies, however, allow certain rules to be broken some of the time, as long as people are careful.
For example, when is it okay to text, talk on a cell phone, or not wear your seatbelt while driving a company vehicle? When is it okay to work at heights without proper fall protection? When you ask this question, do you get a quick ‘Never’ response from multiple people, or do some folks try to justify their ‘Sometimes’ reply?
Does Your Safety Culture Look Forward or Backwards?
One quick way to answer this question is to look at your incident tracking and investigation practices versus your at-risk behavior tracking and analysis efforts. Great safety cultures include both sets of practices, but spend more time and focus on the precursors of injuries. The main goal is to minimize the at-risk behaviors that occur every day on the job.
At-risk behaviors on the job are easier to hide than incidents. Many organizations rely on quotas and gifts to get people to report at-risk behaviors consistently. How often do incidents get reported when they occur in your organization? How successful have you been in tracking at-risk behaviors across work groups?
How Do You Assess Risk in Your Safety Culture?
Organizations with great safety cultures both assess job risks regularly and have strategies in place for reducing risk over time. Many companies have not even taught their leaders what a risk matrix looks like. Others may know how risk is assessed, but don’t really measure risk likelihood and severity – they just guess.
I have worked for multiple companies that failed to teach their leaders how to effectively assess the risk associated with job practices. As a TapRooT® root cause analysis course facilitator, I now am seeing more and more companies that are at least trying to identify hazards and measure risk in some manner.
The first step involves learning to spot potential hazards. For some, this is more difficult than it might sound. Simply studying the risk assessment practices used by organizations in Australia can teach you a lot. Doing a web search on ‘Australian risk management practices’ will be well worth your time.
How Do You Measure Safety Culture Effectiveness?
As an Examiner for the Baldrige National Performance Excellence Award, I have learned that there are three main ways to tell if a company is practicing what they preach or not. First, you ask people questions and listen closely to both the spoken and unspoken responses they give you. Second, you watch them work and observe the work area that they work in. Finally, you review their performance results, both over time and against best in class benchmarks.
If the results you obtain from these three means of workplace assessment agree, it is likely that the company’s work culture is consistent with what the marketing brochures say it is. What are your formal and informal safety audits telling you? What do your annual culture survey results say about the quality of your safety culture?
Most organizations would say that they would like to have a safety-focused culture. Too few of them are willing to make the choices necessary to make such a culture a reality however. In fact, if you get to the point where you have a great safety culture in place, you will probably have one of the best safety records in your industry. How do you know if you have a great safety culture in place or not? Asking the above questions to a cross section of your people is a great place to start.