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Thinking Ahead–Letter from Chaille: The Dangers of Trying to Create a “Safety Culture”
Whatever your situation, you already have a safety culture, and it is important to identify what is working well, and what is not.
By Chaille M. Brindley
Date Posted: 7/1/2014
Is creating a safety culture the smart way to solve workplace concerns?
Workplace accidents affect productivity, damage morale, impact worker health and could end up costing you a bunch in fines or higher insurance rates. Nobody wants workplace injuries or even worse deaths. Yet running a safe operation does cost money and requires intentional behavior that seeks to limit hazards and properly train employees. A lot of the safety publications and educational material trumpets the advantages of creating a safety culture. On the surface this sounds like a great idea. But the problem is human nature and the way that most companies execute this strategy.
For starters, you already have a safety culture. This is true even if your company does very little to keep workers safe. Your culture allows people to do the bare minimum and focus on speed or production at all costs. Other operations have detailed practices and measure safety-related actions to identify hazards and fix them. Most pallet and lumber companies are somewhere in the middle. Maybe your workers do a good job of wearing personnel protective equipment. But they tend to remove saw guides or take shortcuts when it comes to storage of dangerous chemicals and flammables materials.
Whatever your situation, you already have a safety culture, and it is important to identify what is working well, and what is not. If you strive to build a safety culture, it is easy to overlook the innate attitudes that will be working against your efforts. The goal of building a safety culture typically fails because management responds with the latest popular program or a new approach every few months. Cultures are the ultimate sustainability mechanism. Safety programs and processes work in the long run due to or in spite of the culture.
Cultures are the results of the beliefs and value systems held by an organization. Many times these are unspoken and just things that people know to be true even if it goes against what is in the employee manual. You can shout culture shift all you want. But until attitudes really change, it is a futile exercise. So how do you really assess the state of a culture and find ways to improve upon it?
For starters, you have to look at what you are doing right and ask, “Why do we find this easy to do?” How did this become a habit for our workers? It may have something to do with repetition because the more you talk or reward a behavior, the more likely it will become second nature. You also have to identify problem spots and see why employees shy away from doing it especially if it is something they know they are supposed to do according to the rules. Line employees may simply not like a policy or think it slows them down.
One big reason why safety programs fail is the way they are structured, especially the related reward system. People tend to follow rules that are being monitored, and respond in ways to maximize rewards and limit penalties. If your company awards safety bonuses or perks based on no loss time incidents, this may discourage reporting of real incidents and lessen the focus on identifying problem behaviors. People may sweep things under the rug to get that extra reward. All the while a dangerous situation persists.
Safety experts instead suggest establishing a reward system that encourages specific behaviors that will lead to improved safety practices not rewarding desired outcomes. This might include rewarding employees who come up with ways to make processes safer or workers who pass a certain number of spot safety checks associated with specific actions, such as locking out a powered machine for repair.
Another common problem is the way safety records are measured. Companies may only track the basics, such as the number of days since a lost time incident or attendance at a safety meeting or training. But what about tracking reported issues and fixes, the areas with the most hazards, or follow up to suggestions made by employees?
The key to building a safety culture is not a quick fix or one big push on a program. It takes time and focus as management encourages workers to speak up and take action to identify hazards. Management can’t shoot the messenger either. It must support them and reward them for brining hazardous situations to their attention. Otherwise, employees will get the message that management would rather not be bothered with these concerns. You want to encourage forward-looking accountability that acknowledges hazards and seeks to find solutions as well as assign responsibility for completing the fix.
Coming up with great solutions is worthless unless people are assigned to remedy the situation, and are held accountable and monitored to ensure continued compliance. Any new safety focus should have some measurement attached to it for at least the first 3-4 months if not longer.
The goal is to create an environment where anybody can speak up and be recognized to identify hazards including politely telling other employees who are engaging in unsafe behaviors.
Safety expert, Aubrey Daniels, encourages that companies seek to find solutions not place the blame for problems. She wrote, “No one is blamed for near misses or incidents. Instead, systemic causes are pursued. Often when people engage in at-risk behaviors that lead to incidents, there are organizational systems and practices that inadvertently encourage those at-risk practices. It is important to uncover those and establish accountability for making the changes to the systems and practices to encourage safe behavior.”
Oh, and the best way to create a safe workplace is to reward desired behavior, identify and fix hazards and repeat this formula with company-wide sensitivity and focus on the issue. That doesn’t come slowly. It happens one day at a time. And everyone has to contribute.
While creating a safety culture is a good idea, poor execution tends to make it a hard reality for many companies to achieve. Start out with a good process of analyzing your current practices. See the list of important safety questions on page 30. This is a good place to start your self-analysis because you do have a safety culture of some sort, even if it is not the right kind of safety culture that management ultimately desires.