EHS Management, Safety Culture

Leadership: How to Build an Ideal Safety Culture

Safety at work is about more than just avoiding lawsuits. The idea of fostering a “safety culture” at work has shifted to the forefront of the safety industry, and it is now a priority for many environmental, health, and safety (EHS) professionals. Steve Roberts, PhD, a senior partner at Safety Performance Solutions, recently discussed in a webinar the leadership principles he thinks are necessary for building the ideal safety culture in the workplace.

What does the ideal safety culture look like?

An ideal safety culture begins with actively caring, from an individual, leadership, and organizational perspective, according to Roberts. Actively caring, he said, means moving beyond simply caring about others, to acting on that caring or sense of responsibility.

At a leadership level, employers should be maintaining a focus on safety even when safety records are good, actively participating in safety activities, and including the safety activities of employees in their performance reviews. They should be conducting safety walkarounds, asking employees what they need to do their jobs safely, and collaborating with employees to find efficient solutions for safety hazards based on collected observation data.

On an organizational level, Roberts said the ideal safety culture should manifest in the following areas:

  • Leadership – Senior leaders perform behaviors that improve the culture and demonstrate safety as a value.
  • Management Systems – Organizational management systems support safe behavior and are consistent with organizational values.
  • Behavior – People consistently perform safe and actively caring behaviors.
  • Employee engagement – Employees are involved in making valuable contributions and in determining, analyzing, and supporting safe behavior.
  • Conditions – The physical environment, meaning the interaction of equipment, facilities, procedures, and people, supports safe behavior.
  • People – Employees have positive perceptions of themselves, their coworkers, and the organization, and they are willing to actively care for safety.

Leadership principles

Roberts spoke about five different leadership principles for making this ideal safety culture a reality.

Understand system influences

Many factors contribute to injuries. If there is a breakdown in the overarching safety culture, that could cause issues in equipment and facilities, then management systems, which could lead to at-risk behavior, and then employee injuries. Employers must identify the contributing factors to the at-risk behavior, and keep in mind that it is easier to redesign the workplace environment than the person.

Focus on behaviors and the process

Overemphasizing outcome measures can damage perceptions, meaning safety issues can get overlooked if a company only prioritizes meeting their goals. Roberts suggested implementing a behavioral observation and feedback process (BOFP), which could take shape in a formal or informal process. A formal BOFP would involve having employees turn in observation cards, data analyzation, and focus interventions where they are most needed, whereas an informal BOFP focuses on improving hazard recognition and interpersonal safety communication skills. Employers should also be using process data to drive safety improvement:

  • Employees observe critical behaviors, which are behaviors employees believe will prevent serious injuries if implemented.
  • Checklists are completed and collected, trends are identified, and the most critical behaviors are targeted for follow-up.
  • Target behaviors are analyzed to determine why they are occurring, and an ABC analysis (actions, behaviors, consequences) is completed.
  • Interventions are developed, which may include environmental or system changes, to increase safe and decrease at-risk behavior.
  • Safety improvements are communicated to the workforce providing motivation to continue collecting data.

Focus on behaviors and their consequences

Employers should keep in mind that there are tasks that have natural rewarding consequences and many that do not, and safety is just a continuous fight with human nature. At-risk behaviors are often more comfortable, convenient, and faster than safe ones, and they are often reinforced by the work culture. Most importantly, at-risk behaviors rarely result in negative consequences powerful enough to discourage their performance. The risky behavior can even yield positive outcomes that convince people it may be okay to engage in them again. Roberts also stressed knowing why a company safety record is the way it is. If an employer has a great record, they should know what behaviors support that, and if they have a bad record, they should figure out why and work to fix it.

Understand and search for hazards

We all take calculated risks, and what is acceptable varies across different situations and environments. People do not always use the correct information to make decisions. Roberts pointed out that risk perceptions and hazards are different because perceived risk is the combination of the hazard itself and emotion. While employees may feel as if they know what is more or less dangerous, statistical data may prove otherwise. He said that hazards and error-likely situations are predictable, manageable, and preventable, and that errors are more likely to occur during reassembly rather than disassembly. Employers should keep this in mind when deciding where to allocate safety resources.

Provide appropriate resources

Employers need to show up, they should visit site locations in person instead of relying on others’ reports, and understand that some may be motivated to keep some information hidden. They should get their hands dirty by getting out of the meeting rooms and into the workspaces to see the first-hand conditions, equipment, and procedures employees must use. Be prepared to pay for and provide needed tools, equipment, personnel, and other resources to encourage jobs to be performed safely.

Make sure to communicate. Incorporate employee input when determining and updating rules, procedures, and equipment. Respond effectively to employee concerns and suggestions, and build trusting relationships by increasing one-on-one communication throughout the organization. Lastly, do not blame people for system problems. The identification of at-risk behavior should be at the beginning of the analysis, not the end, Roberts said. Consider how employees might currently be inappropriately rewarded for risky behavior, and consider all the factors at play, such as training, production pressure, excessive overtime, formal and informal rules and procedures, and tools and equipment.

Our behaviors bring safety culture to life

Roberts suggested that employers ask themselves these questions:

  • How will I show that as a leader, I’m committed to safety?
  • How will I ensure organizational systems motivate safe behavior?
  • How will I set behavioral expectations and give feedback to promote safe behavior?
  • How will I keep employees engaged in safety improvement activities?
  • How will I foster a safe work environment for all employees?
  • How will I make sure employees have the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to promote safe performance and actively caring?

If employers can answer all of these questions well, or work to answer them, then they will be on their way to having the ideal safety culture in their workplace, according to Roberts. He stated that safety culture should be a priority in businesses and should not be considered separately from the rest of a company’s culture.

“There shouldn’t be a separate safety culture,” said Roberts. “Safety should be integrated into the overall corporate culture, but since it often is not, I think safety often needs to be highlighted.”

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