EHS Management, Safety Culture

Yes, You Can (Sort of) Measure Safety Culture!

While you can take steps to measure your company’s safety culture, you have to strategize your approach in a different way than you would while analyzing your other workplace safety metrics. To find out how, read the transcript of our recent EHS on Tap podcast episode with Chuck Pettinger, Ph.D., Process Improvement Leader at Predictive Solutions.

Safety data, safety statistics

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This episode was originally released on July 17, 2019, and you can listen to the full audio here.

Justin Scace: Hello everyone, and welcome to EHS on Tap. I’m your host, Justin Scace, senior editor of the EHS Daily Advisor and Safety Decisions magazine.

There are many initiatives demanding the attention of EHS managers these days, but two things are near the top of every safety professional’s priority list in today’s work environment. One, improving organizational safety culture; and two, leveraging appropriate metrics and data to improve safety performance. What some of these professionals may not fully realize, however, is that the two can overlap—and while you can take steps to measure your company’s safety culture, you have to strategize your approach in a different way than you would while analyzing your other workplace safety metrics. You may feel like you don’t know exactly where to begin, but we have an expert here today with some fantastic ideas to help get you started.

Joining us for today’s episode is Chuck Pettinger, PhD, Process Improvement Leader at Predictive Solutions, a fully owned subsidiary of Industrial Scientific Corporation. Chuck has over 30 years of experience influencing safety cultures around the world with his extensive work in predictive analytics and cultural change methodologies, and he has twice been named one of the Top 50 Thought Leaders for Today and Tomorrow by ISHN Magazine. By using big data to predict where future incidents will occur, Chuck continues uncovering leading indicators with the goal of helping safety professionals eliminate death on the job in this century. Chuck will also be a speaker at the EHS Daily Advisor’s upcoming Safety Culture 2019 Event, taking place September 18th through 20th in Denver, Colorado, where he will be presenting his educational session, “Measuring Safety Culture: Identifying and Leveraging Leading Indicators to Track and Improve Performance.” Chuck, thanks so much for being with us today on EHS on Tap!

Chuck Pettinger: Great. Thanks a lot for having me, I really appreciate it. Looking forward to it.

Justin Scace: Great. So my first question for you is, you’ve been around the world helping safety cultures evolve at so many organizations. What are some of the big challenges that you’re seeing and what’s helping safety cultural efforts succeed?

Chuck Pettinger: Oh yeah. Yeah, that’s a good question. There are a lot of challenges that are universal. I’ve been to a lot of different countries working on improving culture in Asia and Africa, Australia. But what’s really interesting is that they all have similar challenges. So some of the big challenges that I often see is that one, they’re not measured often enough, meaning an organization typically gives a safety culture assessment once a year, once every other year. And that’s just really not enough of a sampling to get an ongoing feeling of how your culture is proceeding.

Now, what are some people doing to really make sure that those succeed? Well, one of the biggest things that I’ve seen is that there’s little follow-up. Sometimes people put out these safety culture assessments and nobody ever tells the employees how they’re doing or they have no follow-up to address any of the concerns or gaps that have been identified during the safety culture assessment. So they really miss a huge opportunity and a window. So, again, what’s helping them succeed is really acting on the results of the survey. And at the very minimum, making sure that you communicate the results to the people that you are serving. That makes sense, but for a lot of people it doesn’t happen.

Justin Scace: Right. So, safety culture (and organizational culture in general, really), is considered by many to be a subjective concept, something you can’t really objectively measure, a “we can’t define it but we know it when we see it” kind of thing. Can you explain this perception, and how do you go about changing this mindset and demonstrating to safety professionals and managers that they can use metrics to effectively measure safety culture?

Chuck Pettinger: Oh, that is another great question. It’s kind of an academic question, so I may go on a little academic tangent. But really the reason why people say it’s a subjective concept is because culture in general is really a schema and it’s not something that you can poke a finger in and measure. And what people will say is that what organizations are really referring to when they think safety culture is really safety climate. So if you were to survey some of the academic journals for safety climate, you’d find a lot more hits. The Safety Climate Index has been researched and studied, so there’s a lot of scientific research on safety climate. Culture, on the other hand, is more of a marketing term, because everyone understands organization culture and it sounds good, we want to save your culture or change your culture. But climate, it gets confusing when you talk about climate in an organization because they think, “Well, it’s 85 degrees outside and that’s pretty high climate.” That’s kind of not what we’re talking about, right?

Justin Scace: Right.

Chuck Pettinger: So, when people talk about safety climate, really, it’s measuring how the organization is feeling at that particular time. Culture refers to a more broad-spectrum type of feeling of the organization. So for example, you might be able to impact the climate, for instance, if our managers gave us all $5,000 bonuses. That would impact the climate of the organization. I’ll feel happy, that’s great. But it may not really impact the culture of the organization. Now, if we got $5,000 raises all the time, maybe it would impact the culture, but that is not how it works. So culture is more long-term, broad scope, climate is more what’s going on today.

However, when people talk about safety culture, that’s kind of how people refer to it. So that’s where the subjective concept comes in. And really what it is is measuring people’s perceptions of the climate. So, if there are perceptions, then it is somewhat reality. So really it has to do with culture in general being a construct, and constructs are very difficult to measure. Those are kind of the academic thing. But really, how do you go about changing this mindset? Because people will say, “Well, you’re not really measuring culture, you’re measuring climate.” Just because it’s people’s perceptions doesn’t minimize how it impacts the organization. So even though you may be taking a safety culture perception survey, it still is measuring their perceptions, and to employees, those perceptions are their reality. So nonetheless, it is very important that we measure these and get a feeling of what parts of the organization are struggling so that we can address it before the culture becomes worse over time.

Justin Scace: So we were talking about surveys there for a minute. It seems like employee surveys are a key tool in evaluating organizational safety culture. So what are the advantages, and also maybe some of the limitations, of these surveys, and how can safety managers implement and analyze them properly?

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Chuck Pettinger: Sure. I think employee surveys probably are the number one way that people go about trying to get at organizational culture. But there are a lot of limitations. One, like I mentioned earlier, they get measured once a year, once every other year, so it’s really not a good representation of the organization across the whole year. Another limitation is some people may not be very good at responding to surveys. Either they can’t read, [lack the] attention span, or they just are disengaged and they really don’t want to respond, or they have an agenda and really want to get back at their supervisor.

Justin Scace: Right.

Chuck Pettinger: So there are all sorts of sampling problems. If you under-sample a department for example, it may disproportionately say, “Well these guys are really grumpy over here, and these guys were l happy,” but when in reality you’ve only surveyed the grumpy and happy people and you don’t survey everybody.

Justin Scace: Right, right.

Chuck Pettinger: So, if you are going to survey employees, you want to make sure that you get a good representative sample. And, again, if there’s small parts of the organization, maybe like the QA department, or the maintenance department that have a dozen or so people, you want to make sure that you get a good representation from those.

Now, again, the advantages? Well, it’s easy. You can create your own survey and there’s a lot of survey tools on the internet and for free that gives you some analytics. So they’re very reasonable. On the other hand, there’s not a lot of takeaways. There’s not a lot of comparative data. So if you choose a consultant that has an in-house survey, they probably have years and years of respondents that they can say, “Well, here’s how you compare to the norm. Here’s how you compare to other industries. Here’s some of the gaps that we see.” But even those stock surveys can be an issue because if they’re not really related to what your organization is doing, it may not tap into your culture. So, in other words, the lack of customization is really kind of a limitation to a lot of these stock perception surveys. And again, like I mentioned earlier, there’s not a lot of research out there on the stock surveys from consultants. There are some good ones out there in the academic realm, but sometimes these stock surveys are more of a tool to market their other services. They may identify, “Yeah, that’s it. All right. What you need is you really need me to come in and spend a few million dollars to make your company better.”

Justin Scace: Right.

Chuck Pettinger: So that’s not necessarily terrible, because there’s a lot of good consultants out there. However, if you are a small company, you may not be able to afford one of these large perception surveys. But I fully believe that even the smallest companies can create their own free online survey tool and get a pretty good measure.

Now, as opposed to just doing surveys, what I like to do is always follow up surveys with interviews. So if I do survey an organization, I want to go in and make sure that I interview the different departments, the level of the organizations, the leadership team, the mid managers, the employees, and follow up on some of those survey results. Because that’s where I can truly kind of dig into what the culture is all about. Because if the survey says something like “Well, my supervisor really doesn’t pay any attention to me,” when I’m talking to the employees, I can throw out kind of general questions and get some responses. And again, if you get employees just talking, you tend to get a response than just “I strongly agree that my supervisor is awesome.”

Justin Scace: Right.

Chuck Pettinger: So, if you and I were just talking and I said “Hey, you know what? You mentioned your supervisor. How well do you guys get along? Does he support you? What are some examples?” And, see, just through that conversation, I can write down some of those, and when I talk to the organization, I’ll have some concrete back up to the results of the survey.

Justin Scace: So, one of the things that you just touched upon a little bit a little while ago was surveys are often a measure of employee perceptions, which, as you mentioned, they sometimes line up with reality and sometimes they don’t. So what tends to be behind these perception gaps and what can safety managers do to address them? Like one thing that you just said was have conversations to follow up with the surveys, but anything else?

Chuck Pettinger: Yeah, it’s really fun when I go out and I do these surveys and I get the results back and I’ll say, for example, “If you get injured, do you feel like you’re being blamed by the organization?” When they look at the survey results from the employees, “I strongly agree or agree.” The majority of people say that, and then when I ask the leadership team the same question they say “Oh no, no, I disagree. I strongly disagree. We don’t blame them.”

Justin Scace: Right.

Chuck Pettinger: But that’s the big gap in perception and reality. So when I see those, I love to highlight those and especially dig those out through the interviews and having conversations with those. Because the employees will be right up front about that. I’ll say “Hey, you guys, I’ve heard from the survey that people kind of feel blamed when they get hurt. What do you think of that?” And they’d be like “Oh yeah, I remember 20 years ago that some guy got written up and sent home for getting hurt.” And then I’ll say “Well, does that happen anymore?” “Well, not really, but it used to happen a lot.”

Justin Scace: Right.

Chuck Pettinger: So there is this gap. Now what does that say? Well, the leadership, the organization in general, there’s a communication gap there. So people, if they don’t have the information, they’re going to go with what their experience is, because their experiences are more relevant if they don’t have any information to go off of. So often times, they need that conversation with the leadership team to say, “Look, hey, we want to find out why somebody got hurt. We’re not trying to blame people. We want to do some fact-finding.” And sometimes, that can lead to that perception gap. But these surveys often are a good place to identify those gaps in perception and reality. And like I said earlier, even though it is the perception of the employees, it is their reality. So we have to pay attention to those.

Justin Scace: Yeah, definitely. So I imagine that, in order for these surveys to succeed, employee engagement has to be a big part of it. So what are some key signs or metrics that indicate high levels of engagement and what actions can safety pros take if they sort of feel that employee engagement is dipping?

Chuck Pettinger: Yeah, that is excellent, because without employee engagement … that’s one of the key indicators, not only for safety but for organizational health itself. The HR field measures employee engagement probably more than safety does, but really an engaged employee is a long-term employee. And churn is a measure that HR professionals use (“What is your churn rate?”), meaning how often do employees start and then quit after a short period of time, because then that means that they didn’t do their job in pre-selecting the right types of employees. So that’s a metric that they use. But I think it’s the same thing with safety. If you have a person that is disengaged from the safety perspective, I think that has a bigger impact potentially on the organization than just leaving. Because if they are not paying attention, if they’re doing something that is risky, if they’re not following procedures because of this disengagement, it could be detrimental to their health or life.

One of the key signs that I see is participation. If you’re going to send out a paper survey or have people to fill out a survey, how many people participate? So in general, to get a good sampling of an organization, we want 60 to 65% of the organization participating in the employee survey. If you don’t get that amount, the results may be a little bit suspect. And I would especially look at which departments are not participating or you can also see which departments are “Christmas treeing” it. If you remember that phrase, they just put fives for everything, or high marks for everything. And that’s actually a measure of a disengagement. So there are certain things that they can look at. And really what’s going to make them feel more engaged is, well, if we communicate the value of the survey.

Justin Scace: Right.

Safety supervisor, leader

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Chuck Pettinger: So, again, if people take this information and they feed it back to the people who want to be heard and they see that their voice is actually getting out there, especially to the senior level leaders, then they’re going to be a lot more open and honest. If they feel like “this could come back and haunt me,” if there’s three people in my department and one of them is my supervisor, I’m not going to say that I think he sucks. I’m going to get, I’m going to get all the terrible jobs, right?

Justin Scace: Right.

Chuck Pettinger: So sometimes that that can be an issue. But definitely, employee engagement I think is a key indicator of a strong safety culture. And again, you can also measure other things besides through a survey. There’s a lot of activities. How often do people participate in parties, or do they participate in charity events? There’s a lot of different things that you can measure outside of safety that would indicate an employee’s engagement level. Again, I really think employee engagement is one of those key things.

Justin Scace: Definitely. So, now when I introduced you at the beginning of the program, I mentioned that you are continually uncovering leading indicators. What’s that process like for you? What sorts of data are you looking at and how do you identify new leading metrics when you’re helping clients?

Chuck Pettinger: So my interpretation of safety culture is a lot more than just survey data. And like I mentioned, I also incorporate interviews. But also I look for what I call cultural proxies. Since you can’t measure culture directly, you can measure proxies or substitutes for culture. So employee engagement I think is a cultural proxy. How often people go through training. And then also there’s a lot of safety types of systems that measure cultural proxies. Like there’s a lot of audits and safety investigations and safety inspections or behavioral observations that have comments on them. So you can actually take a look at your safety audit and what types of comments people are doing. You can look at your near-misses, good catches, safety suggestions, and really kind of take a look at how detailed these are. So for instance, if you get comments on these safety audits that say “Doing a great job,” “Not wearing PPE,” that’s not very engaged.

However, if someone says “Hey, you know what would be really good is if we could get these gloves that we had like a year ago that better grip, because when I’m using this tool, it slips a lot. I’m afraid that it’s going to impact someone’s health.” So again, there’s a lot of different things in the organization that we can start measuring not only the quantity, but the quality of these metrics can help get at these cultural proxies. And really that’s part of, when I talk about leading indicators, it’s not just the tangible stuff that we do like “How many observations have your employees done? How many risky things have we identified and fixed?” Those are kind of nuts and bolts. But again, really looking at the quality of those processes to give you great insight into how engaged, for example, your department is. And if it’s not, what is at the basis of this? How can we go about changing it?

So really, cultural proxies are combining all of these different data streams into one big data link, so to speak. And what we do at our organization is take all of those metrics and we have a data scientist on staff that helps pinpoint where those risks may be. Now risks may be at risk for injury, risk for property damage, or risk in culture. So again, all these things are interrelated and in today’s internet of things, where a lot of PPE now is connected to the internet, we’re going to be able to almost get a real-time measure of safety culture, which is where I see things moving.

Justin Scace: Interesting. So we’re talking a lot about leading indicators here and your presentation at Safety Culture 2019 will involve leading indicators as well. So with this focus on leading indicators, is there a place for lagging indicators in measuring safety culture as well? Or are they becoming a bit obsolete in this regard?

Chuck Pettinger: Well, that’s a great question. I really think that the majority of organizations out there still focus too much on the lagging indicators, for example injury rate, or lost time, or dart rate. All those things are what hit the wallets of the organization. So I mean, I don’t think they will be obsolete, but what I do think is that companies are getting better and better and pretty soon they’re going to be so few of those lagging indicators that they’re no longer going to be descriptive. So if you have a few hundred injuries a year, that’s one thing for an organization. But if you only have one or two, and if you had two last year and one this year, does that mean you improved? I don’t know, because that’s only measuring three things. That’s a lot to base your whole safety culture assessment on. Right?

Justin Scace: Right.

Chuck Pettinger: So again, I’m not saying that they’ll even become obsolete. What I think they may do is we may start shifting them. So for example, I know a lot of my clients are no longer focusing so much on lagging indicators, but they are focusing on a near misses, first aids, close calls, and those types of things can be seen as lagging depending on when they happen, whether it’s upstream or downstream, and then qualifying those. So if somebody has a close call, they’re working at an elevated position and they slip through a loose board and they almost fall through the ceiling. Right? And they catch themselves, they record that as a near miss. Well, it may be a little bit more than the near miss. So a lot of companies now are focusing on what they call critical risks or SIF potential, which is serious injury and fatality potential.

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So they take a look at all of their near misses, close calls, first aids, and they give it a rating. And so it’s kind of adding a little bit more depth to those lagging indicators. So again, I don’t think they will become obsolete. I think what we’re trying to do is focus more on the leading to be more proactive to get rid of the lagging indicators. But again, a lot of the stuff that we predict is organizational upset, organizational breakdown, injuries and cultural abnormalities. So again, it’s how we look at it. I really think though that the focusing on leading indicators is going to get an organization to where they need to be.

Justin Scace: Absolutely. So before we sign off, is there anything else you’d like to share with our audience about measuring safety culture? Perhaps a little taste of what they might see at your presentation at Safety Culture 2019?

Chuck Pettinger: Now, I’m really looking forward to this conference. It was really excellent last year. I’m so excited. There was so much information that I learned. So I’m really excited to hear more and I’m excited to share some of the research that we’ve been doing. Some of the things that I really am excited about is finding a better way of gathering more cultural data more frequently. Like I mentioned earlier, I think just touching the cultural assessment once a year or once every other year, that is so infrequent, you’re not going to really get any good information. Especially since a lot of these surveys are given out at the end of the year, which is right by Thanksgiving and the holidays and we’re all happy and eating turkey, everything is great.

So what we really need is what I’m terming a “cultural pulse.” And for example, I don’t know if you’ve ever searched Google and you look up a restaurant and then right below it’ll ask you a little question like, “Oh, you were just at this restaurant. Is it wheelchair accessible?” And depending on how you feel like, [you’ll respond] “Yeah, it is.” And then it might ask you another question, or that’s it. So the same thing with the cultural pulse. We have an app that measures safety audits and inspections, but what I’m planning on doing is having a little cultural pulse question pop up. “Has your supervisor mentioned safety today? Yes or no?” Right?

Now, what we would do instead of sampling everybody once, we would sample a handful of people a week and then over the month we would sample everybody, but not everybody would be doing it all the time. And through the analytics in the background, we can actually identify some areas that kind of are starting to stick out, what I would call “cultural hotspots.” So if we start seeing a response over in this particular area, we might ask another person a similar question. And if we start seeing that response, we might alert the supervisor saying, “Hey, you’ve got a cultural issue here. You might want to pay attention to it.” So we get a real-time view of culture. Or, if you’re an academic listening to this, a real-time climate pulse, how about that?

Justin Scace: Okay. So you’re getting more data, but without really burdening the employees as much. You’re getting a few employees a little bit at a time rather than everybody all at once.

Chuck Pettinger: Exactly. I mean, how many people love to sit down and answer a hundred questions?

Justin Scace: Not many, I don’t think.

Chuck Pettinger: People [would be] like “Oh, I’m really tired of this.” So what they do is they try to make them shorter, but you really sacrifice the fidelity of the survey by not asking different dimensions. So with this cultural pulse idea, we’re going to better be able to pinpoint the hot spots, like I said. So at the Safety Culture conference, I’m going to set up a little booth and I’m going to have some questions on what people would like to see out of it, and what are some cultural ideas that they have when it comes to trying to identify the different constructs of safety culture. What really is important? Like, is employee engagement important? Leadership engagement? Participation? So I’m going to be trying to answer some of my own questions and doing a little research at the culture conference. So again, I’m kind of excited to get there and share what I have and have conversations with everybody. Great group of people.

Justin Scace: Absolutely. Yeah, that sounds great. And we’re all really excited and really looking forward to learning more about your research at Safety Culture 2019. Thank you again, Chuck, for joining us today on EHS on Tap!

Chuck Pettinger: Hey, no problem. I look forward to seeing everybody.

Justin Scace: Yes, absolutely. And thank you to our listeners for tuning in. If you want to gain more insight from Chuck and other top safety culture experts, register for Safety Culture 2019 taking place September 18th through 20th in Denver, Colorado. Be sure to save your seat as soon as possible! For details on the event, visit or you can click on the links and banners for Safety Culture 2019 that appear on this episode’s EHS Daily Advisor webpage. As always, please be sure to keep an eye out for new episodes of EHS on Tap and keep reading the EHS Daily Advisor to stay on top of your safety and environmental compliance obligations, get the latest in best practices, and keep your finger on the pulse of all things related to the EHS industry.

Until next time, this is Justin Scace for EHS on Tap.

Chuck PettingerChuck Pettinger, Ph.D., is Process Improvement Leader at Predictive Solutions, a fully owned subsidiary of Industrial Scientific Corporation. Chuck has over 30 years of experience influencing safety cultures around the world with his extensive work in predictive analytics and cultural change methodologies, and he has twice been named one of the Top 50 Thought Leaders for Today and Tomorrow by ISHN Magazine. By using big data to predict where future incidents will occur, Chuck continues uncovering leading indicators with the goal of helping safety professionals eliminate death on the job in this century.

Chuck will also be a speaker at the EHS Daily Advisor’s upcoming Safety Culture 2019 event, taking place September 18-20 in Denver, Colorado, where he will be presenting his educational session, “Measuring Safety Culture: Identifying and Leveraging Leading Indicators to Track and Improve Performance.” Register for the conference now!


EHS on Tap is an environmental, health, and safety podcast by BLR’s EHS Daily Advisor. On each episode of EHS on Tap, our host will discuss emerging legal, regulatory, and policy issues with industry experts and the impacts to everyday safety and environmental professionals. EHS on Tap topics run the gamut of contemporary issues facing EHS managers and professionals today.

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