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7 Keys for Creating a Safety Culture

7 Keys for Creating a Safety Culture

In my consulting work and in presenting to large groups, the topic of creating or supporting a safety culture comes up without fail.  What I find most often is a varied understanding of what is needed by leaders and employees to ingrain a safety culture into the fabric of their organization. It’s important to begin with a common definition of a safety culture: a set of core values and behaviors that emphasize safety as an overriding priority. 

While values are the foundation, safety culture is ultimately expressed through what is said and done—through behavior.  Each organization has or should have its own description of an ideal safety culture (based in values) however there are some elements that should be common to all.  Following are seven keys to an effective safety culture:

  1. The entire workforce relentlessly pursues the identification and remediation of hazards. Correcting hazards as quickly as possible and maintaining good communications around hazards will not only create a safer workplace, it will improve your employees’ engagement. Frontline employees who believe management takes care of hazards are more willing to participate fully in safety initiatives.
  2. Employees at all levels are equally comfortable stopping each other when at-risk behavior is observed and recognizing each other when safe behavior is observed. While good constructive feedback is important for improvement, positive reinforcement for safe behavior is essential for building safe habits.  The more actively involved all levels of the organization are in delivering positive reinforcement for behaviors consistent with the desired culture, the stronger the culture will be.
  3. 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.
  4. The fear of discipline which drives under-reporting and stifles involvement has been driven out of the culture. Discipline has a place, but most safety issues can be effectively dealt with without discipline, which has side effects that work against building a culture of safety.  When discipline is used disproportionately in relation to positive consequences it leads to lower morale, reduced trust, lower productivity, less teamwork and lack of engagement.  Equally disturbing is that it suppresses reporting incidents which cripples the organizations ability to learn from mistakes and become more proactive.
  5. The workforce is characterized by good relationships at all levels. Trust is an essential component for an effective safety culture.  As noted above, mistakes and errors, while unfortunate, provide invaluable learning.  Employees who have good working relationships with management are more likely to speak openly and honestly about what is working, what is not and what still needs to change.  They are also more engaged in other aspects of safety.
  6. Safety is integrated into day-to-day work. It is not treated as something separate to be discussed during a weekly safety meeting or only at shift change.  Safety should be part of every conversation and considered in every decision.
  7.  Successes are celebrated along the way. Pride shouldn’t be focused solely on a company’s safety record, but also in what is being done every day, all day to achieve that record.

 Once you have defined the ideal safety culture for your organization, the science of behavior analysis can be used to develop behaviors consistent with that culture.  Targeted positive reinforcement of desired behaviors leads to rapid change and the effects multiply quickly as all employees begin to not only display desired cultural behaviors, but to reinforce those behaviors in others.

Read about Judy Agnew's newest book "A Supervisor's Guide to Safety Leadership: Preventing Injury in the Workplace."


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Posted by Judy Agnew, Ph.D.

As senior vice president of safety solutions, Judy spends her time helping clients create sustainable safety cultures. She also helps clients with strategy execution beyond safety, and general management and leadership improvement across cultural and generational differences. In her free time, Judy can be found on a pool deck, soccer pitch or volleyball court cheering for her two kids.



Great reminders that cover all of the bases. In your opinion, does your point #4 conflict with having Safety Rules?

Joe, It absolutely does not conflict with safety rules. Every organization needs safety rules and consequences are a critical part of ensuring rules are followed. My point is that if you use positive reinforcement for rule compliance you will need much less discipline for rule violations. Most organizations take an “exception management” approach to rule following: if you follow the rules nothing good happens, but if you don’t follow the rules you get discipline (or other forms of negative consequences). This leads to overuse of negative consequences which leads to the side effects I described. As noted, discipline has a place in safety and in the enforcement of safety rules, but if it is the primary approach, then it creates a fear-based culture.

I agree with you communication is the key for creating a safety work culture. It is the duty of everyone in the workplace to take proper recommended precautions. If they find any doubt in their safety then they should address the issue to management, so that they can take appropriate action in ensuring safety of workers.

I agree that employees at all levels (including lower levels of management) do have a reluctance to report incidents. I disagree that it is truely due to fear of consequences. In my many real investigations, I have found that the main reason for not reporting (especially near misses), is to avoid having to participate in the reporting and investigative processes that follow a report. In my experience, if there is to exist a culture of "fear", then it should be about failing to report and failing to participate in investigations. In my mind fear is an emotive word used by scoundrels to escape taking responsibility. We have a duty to report and prevent. On to many occasions, I have seen critical incident investigations hampered by well meaning individuals pampering to obstructionalist participants such as unions, into legitimate investigations.

Every company is different. Some have inadvertently created true fear of reporting (e.g., fear of losing one's job, fear of time off without pay). Other companies have designed an investigation process that is so time-consuming, difficult, or otherwise unpleasant that people want to avoid it, as you suggest. The point is that organizations need to look at all the consequences around reporting incidents and make sure they are not inadvertently discouraging it.

Good stuff right on point

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