How to Improve Safety Culture in the Workplace

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How to Improve Safety Culture in the Workplace

You've just accepted a job as an OHS professional in a new industry. With a goal to improve accident prevention and safety measures, you arrive on the first day excited by the challenge. Within a week, however, you start to see the signs: shortcuts, poor safety equipment, a production-at-all-costs attitude. If you've come from a company where employee safety was a top priority, it might feel like you've landed in a foreign country where no one speaks "Safety". Luckily, researchers have studied and written extensively about ways to improve safety culture. Here's some of their advice to help you improve safety culture in the workplace.

What is Safety Culture?

What are we talking about when we say 'safety culture'? Although it includes an organization's workplace safety rules, procedures and safety equipment, it encompasses much more. As the word 'culture' implies, safety culture has to do with an organization-wide approach and attitude towards workplace safety. A strong safety culture is an approach that is shared throughout the company, from the CEO to the production floor. Even without asking, it's easy to learn about an organization's safety culture by observing how, when and if workers report accidents or whether they use their personal protective equipment.

The implications of a strong safety culture go well beyond keeping employees safe at work. This alone is a laudable goal, but a healthy safety culture has been shown to positively affect everything from improved manufacturing processes to a stronger bottom line. That's right. Improving safety culture will actually raise your company's profits.

The truth is that every organization has a safety culture. The question is: how much does that culture actually value safety? A poor safety culture, for example, talks a good talk about employee safety, but when push comes to shove, it typically prioritizes cost cutting, production speed or anything else above safety in the workplace. When you're faced with a mediocre or downright poor safety culture, don't give up. Look instead to well-accepted ideas to improve safety culture in the workplace.

Improving Safety Culture: Measure for Measure

You can't change what you don't understand. And the key to understanding your organization's safety status is to track the right data. If you record how many days you've gone without an accident, for example, there could be many reasons for an initially impressive result. Maybe you're in a part of the production cycle that's inherently less dangerous. Maybe there's been a slowdown, and you have fewer workers at the moment with a correspondingly smaller chance of injuries. Maybe — and this is what you really don't want — supervisors are not reporting incidents because they are rewarded for accident-free time. So this metric, while impressive on the surface, doesn't give you an accurate read of your workplace safety culture.

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A better measure for safety culture health is to record what employees in various roles do on a regular basis to prevent accidents. As a February 2013 article in EHS Today states, "Managers attend to what they are measured on because those measures are associated with consequences (positive and negative)." A healthy safety culture includes prevention metrics, thereby putting the managerial focus on accident prevention. This attitude should be worked into the fabric of everyday interactions and existing procedures, as well as safety metrics.

Accountability That Matters

Through her studies of medical errors, Virginia Sharpe has defined two types of accountability. Backward-looking accountability focuses on mistakes after the fact in an attempt to assign blame. While understanding the circumstances that led to an accident is important, Sharpe recommends a stronger focus on what she calls "forward-looking accountability". This takes into account the circumstances and mistakes that caused an accident but includes a stronger focus on future prevention. This is inevitably an effective way to improve safety culture at work.

In other words, if your accountability is backward looking, you're preoccupied with punishment. If it's forward looking, you're focused on preventing the same accident from ever occurring again. Accidents will happen, but a strong safety culture looks at every incident as a chance to learn from past mistakes in order to avoid future mistakes. And a good safety manager looks at every accident as a way to improve safety culture in the future.

How to Improve Workplace Safety: Talk To Me

Effective safety cultures require open lines of communication. This means that any worker in any position is encouraged to come forward with suggestions for accident prevention or reports of dangerous behavior. Everyone must know who to contact, and how. And no one should fear recrimination for any attempt to increase employee safety. When everyone views workplace injuries as a genuine opportunity to learn, employees will trust their managers to listen and react appropriately to any safety suggestion and everyone will benefit.

This foundation must start with the organization's leaders. When upper management is strongly committed to safety, the expectations and procedures for every organizational level below will pivot towards workplace safety. Cultural change doesn't happen overnight, but with perseverance and a thorough understanding of metrics, accountability and communication, any company can improve safety culture in the workplace.

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Topics: Safety Tips, safety training