I am often asked to help organizations improve their safety culture. I love being asked to help because it is something I’m very passionate about. I can tell you with certainty that this culture change requires a team approach and executive leadership needs to be all in.
Leadership sets the tone for culture and must lead by example for true culture transformation to take place. Energizing an organization, prioritizing safety, and bringing about a change in people’s thinking, beliefs and values takes collaboration at all levels - especially within an organization’s executive leadership.
What exactly is safety culture? It’s about people, and how they treat each other, and how they work together. This culture is characterized by people’s beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors around safety.
Ultimately, an organization’s leadership needs to demonstrate it cares by engaging in safety activities, providing opportunities to share ideas about safety improvements, and building a sense of teamwork among all levels of employees.
Culture is best when generated organically. It isn’t something you can buy online or follow in a step-by-step program – each organization has its own brand of culture that is unique to them. Culture needs to be genuine and part of a company’s everyday actions.
A consultant can help survey the workforce to better understand where culture strengths and weaknesses lie and help guide the way toward building the proactive, caring culture that many organizations desire. However, it takes engagement at all levels to create and energize a safety culture.
Many organizations use their recordable rate as a way to gauge safety performance. While this rate is useful in seeing performance over time and helping to predict future performance, it is not the best way to engage employees in creating a proactive safety culture.
Employees may not understand how the recordable rate is derived, what it means to them, or how they can impact it. People are not numbers, so goals should include an organization’s people and consider their needs.
Strategically, an organization should integrate safety within all its systems. Safety should be viewed as a critical part of all functions and thought of as a partnership rather than a hindrance. But, this seems to be easier said than done.
What could this look like? Consider the purchasing process. Can anyone in the company purchase chemicals, tools, or other items that they feel are necessary without going through a safety review?
A purchasing process with safety integrated would have a system in place that facilitates planning and the review of new purchases.
For example, if a new chemical needs to be purchased for a lab process, the lab manager would work with the purchasing department to identify a vendor, obtain the SDS from the vendor, conduct an initial chemical hazard assessment, and then share the assessment with the safety group for review, discussion, and approval.
By following this process, multiple departments are working together to ensure:
the best product is purchased at the best price
the chemical requested is the appropriate chemical for the process
the lab processes involving the chemical do not generate additional hazards
training on the new material is completed
anyone impacted by the new chemical is made aware
I love it when I can engage an employee in a conversation about a safety topic because it is clear they understand their roles, they received effective training, and they feel some level of accountability for safe performance.
Safety needs to be a topic of meaningful conversation between leaders who embrace safety, and who see their employees as people who have needs and expectations. Those leaders need to value their employees by including them in planning their safety goals, and they need to see safety as a way to improve overall performance - not slow things down.
Each organization approaches safety in its own way, so there is no “one size fits all” answer. I implore all leaders to truly evaluate their safety culture and to make sure roots exist that will allow that culture to grow over time.