How To Build A Strong Safety Culture
When we’re contacted by companies wanting help with safety, the conversation often starts with some variation of the following idea:
- “Our company just doesn’t take safety seriously enough.”
- “Nobody wears safety glasses or PPE”
- “Our employees often do dangerous things.”
- “We just don’t understand the importance of safety”
The descriptions vary from person to person and company to company, but the common theme is the same, each is describing a lack of “safety culture” at their company.
These companies and people often have similar concerns about this underlying lack of safety culture problem, including fears of serious injuries, failed OSHA inspections, major fines, not to mention serious legal problems if things go wrong.
If any or all of this sounds familiar, then you’re definitely not alone, and keep reading because this blog post will take a deep dive into the subject of safety culture, how to build it at any company and the vital role it plays in the short and long term success of any safety program.
We’ll start with a basic definition, then offer clear signs that a company either does or doesn’t have a safety culture, and then we’ll end off by explaining the keys to building & establishing a strong culture of safety at your company and the many benefits of doing so.
Definition of Safety Culture:
Let’s start by defining what safety culture means: In summary, it can be defined by a company culture which literally puts “safety first.” In other words, from ownership and senior management all the way to front-line employees, everyone understands the importance of safety as the company’s number one priority.
These companies understand that nothing is more important than the health and safety of their employees, and operate their business in a way that fully supports this value.
Put another way, safety culture is literally the “glue” that holds the entire company safety program together.
Signs of a Lack of Safety Culture:
There are many indicators that safety culture is lacking, and here are some of the more common:
- Company leadership never talks about the importance of safety, or if so, only occasionally and often only after a “near miss.”
- Nobody at the company is tasked with managing safety, or maybe management has tapped an unqualified and over-worked staff member with the responsibility (but then gives them little, if any resources or support, yet expects them to “magically” make it happen.)
- Employees never wear PPE, such as safety glasses, hard hats, or protective shoes or boots.
- The facility is unkept, disorganized and generally dirty.
- Old, dangerous equipment such as forklifts remains in use.
- High injury rates
Signs of a Strong Safety Culture:
As you might have guessed, companies with a strong commitment to safety culture often show polar opposite signs than those described above:
- Company leadership consistently messages about the importance of workplace health and safety in company reports, memos, speeches and during group and 1 on 1 conversations.
- Safety metrics, such as TRIR, DART and EMR, are tracked and reported along side all other company KPIs.
- They employ a full time, experienced and qualified safety manager or hire a consultant to help build and manage company safety programs.
- Provides all necessary PPE to employees.
- Leadership leads by example by always wearing PPE in work areas.
- The facility is clean and orderly.
- Low injury rates
The 5 Steps To Building a Strong Safety Culture:
Now that we’ve covered the definition of safety culture and clear signs that a company either does or doesn’t support safety, let’s talk about the keys to building safety culture and the many benefits that come along with doing so.
Management Commitment: Without question, the biggest key to establishing a strong culture of safety at any company is what’s called “management commitment.
In other words, safety is a “top – down” thing. Company leadership must absolutely commit to safety, and then drive this commitment down throughout the entire organization and do so on a consistent and reliable basis.
It’s important to understand that safety can be costly and inconvenient, yet despite these challenges, the company must press on or it’s all doomed to failure. This cannot and will not happen unless company ownership and leadership fully commits to the process.
Written Health & Safety Policy: Although having a written policy stating the company’s commitment to safety might sound unimportant, it is absolutely critical to the process. The policy must be crafted and written with powerful language that clearly communicates the company’s absolute commitment to workplace safety. It’s always a good idea to discuss and draft the policy as a team so all stakeholders can contribute.
Once the policy is written, now it’s time to have company ownership and/or leadership actually sign the policy. It’s impossible to overstate the importance of a signature from senior leadership and the signal it sends.
It’s a good idea to do this in front of company staff, which will only serve to reinforce its importance. Once that’s done, now it’s time to hang it in a prominent place like the company lobby for all employees and visitors to see it on a daily basis.
Developing and managing an OSHA compliance program: Everything described so far is critical to building a strong safety culture, but it’s all meaningless if the company doesn’t have an underling OSHA compliance program which clearly define what’s included in the safety program, and how to manage it.
This will include several key aspects including a written health and safety program containing all OSHA standards that apply to the company, related company policies and procedures, a robust employee safety training program, conducting routine inspections, Lockout/Tagout, OSHA 300 logs, and much more.
This is a huge subject that can’t be covered here, but you can learn much more about the subject in this blog post about what’s included in an OSHA compliance program.
It’s also important to understand that many companies go far above and beyond OSHA compliance when it comes to managing their safety program, but for many companies, especially small ones, this is where you need to start.
Safety Committee: Another key component of safety culture is establishing and supporting a safety committee. The committee will be responsible for developing and managing the company’s safety program, will meet regularly and will include stakeholders from all levels of the company from senior leadership to management to supervisors and to front line employees.
Common agenda topics should include program updates, program reviews, scheduling of training, “near miss” and accident investigations, and more.
Accountability & Enforcement: A company can get everything described above right, but if there isn’t accountability, then it’s often all for nothing.
In other words, a safety program without accountability and a clearly defined and consistently managed internal enforcement program, is likely doomed to failure.
This must include clear rules about following company safety guidelines, including wearing PPE, not removing safeguards on equipment, and more.
When these rules are broken, there must be a clear and consistent system of graduated enforcement from verbal warnings, to written warnings, all the way up to unpaid time off and even employment termination.
Accountability & enforcement is much easier said than done, but is a vital component of a strong safety culture.
Benefits of a Strong Safety Culture
There are many deep benefits to establishing and managing a strong safety culture. Some of them are fairly obvious, yet important, and some probably not so obvious.
Here are some of the obvious benefits of establishing a strong safety culture.
Greatly reduced risk of the following:
- Serious employee injuries
- Employee fatalities
- Failed OSHA inspections
- Major OSHA fines and penalties
- Bad public relations and embarrassment for the company
Here are some of the not-so-obvious benefits of safety culture:
- Reduced employee turnover: Employees want to be safe and to work for companies who take safety seriously
- Improved quality performance: We don’t have time to dive into this subject here, but there are many studies and articles which demonstrate the 1 to 1 relationship between safety and quality performance. In other words, if you want to improve quality performance, then the best way to start is by improving safety performance (and safety culture is key to this)
- Growing your business: If you want to grow your company by working for bigger clients, be prepared because many of them will demand a strong safety program and safety culture. If you are lacking in safety, you won’t be able to work for many of these bigger companies.
- Reduced Insurance Costs: High injury rates mean higher insurance premiums. Strong safety culture will drive down injury rates and save you money.
- Move up the competitive food chain: If you want to get a leg up on your competitors, building a strong safety program and culture is a great way to start. Once you’ve established this, you can begin promoting and marketing safety which will put you ahead of your competition so you can win more contracts and grow.
- Be better prepared for an OSHA inspection
In summary, building and supporting a strong safety culture is a challenging process, but the benefits of doing so are significant and rewarding, making it well worth the effort!
It’s important to understand that a company’s safety culture is the “glue” that holds the entire safety program together. Without it, the safety program is likely doomed to failure.
Finally, never forget that there’s very good reason that all of the strongest US companies like Ford, General Electric and many others literally “put safety first.” They understand the vital importance of safety and therefore establish strong safety cultures to support their safety programs to help ensure the well being of their employees and the long term success of their company.