In many industries, safety is a crucial aspect of process design. While designing the workflow, choosing the equipment, and building the work environment, safety is a major aspect in industries like manufacturing, assembly, construction, automobile, and many others.
Many of these industries present serious safety risks to the workers; in 2019 alone, there were more than 800k workplace injuries in the manufacturing industry. In 2018, the automobile industry reported 6.6 nonfatal injuries and illnesses per 100 workers.
These numbers highlight the importance of a safety culture in the workplace. Besides following industry regulations for safety and following all the safety practices, developing a safety culture can significantly reduce the risk of injury or worse in an organization.
In this article, we explore safety culture and the steps to build it in an organization.
Safety culture is part of an organization’s culture and is the overall sum of beliefs, values, and attitudes of employees, the management, and the stakeholders towards safety. The safety culture in an organization is a reflection of what the safety risks are, how they are perceived by members, the importance they give to safe practices, the adherence to safety policies and practices, risk management, incident management policies, and other factors.
Safety culture is a product of robust safety policies, the importance the management places on safety, the awareness of the risks involved in a workplace among the employees, and how the organization as a whole views safety.
The concept of a safety culture evolved over the course of a couple of decades with the name first coming up in the reviews after the Chernobyl disaster. The disaster review showcased how different safety protocols were overlooked in course of events that led to the disaster. In the following decades, the concept grew into prominence in other industries and was once described as “how we do things around here.”
Whether developed intentionally or over time, a safety culture exists in all organizations, for the better or the worse. If the organization doesn’t place enough emphasis on safety, or regularly overlooks safety issues to avoid delays or prevent loss of productivity, the organization has a poor safety culture. When employees realize the priorities of the management, they’ll continue to act accordingly and the culture spreads.
For example, if a manager is reprimanded for halting work due to a lack of enough protective gear, the rest of the team would try to avoid halting work even when there may be serious safety issues.
In an organization with a good safety culture, the employees are empowered to make decisions prioritizing safety and are provided with the tools to be safe at the workplace. They’re aware of the risks in every activity as well as the steps they can take to mitigate them. A good safety culture also has mechanisms to ensure clear communication between every employee and safety concerns and the possible risks are conveyed with minimal ambiguity from the workers to the management.
In numerous investigations after major disasters of human origin, a general theme that can be observed is that these disasters were not often the result of one flawed decision-making. Investigations had revealed cultures or trends in organizations that over time led to many decisions that prioritized cost, delivery dates, or other factors over safety.
For example, in the case of the above-mentioned Chernobyl disaster, the employees were motivated to finish the tests as soon as possible even if that meant overriding safety protocols.
In another example, when the Challenger space shuttle was being built, concerns regarding the O-ring design - a critical component - were raised by the engineers at NASA, but it didn’t receive enough attention. On the day of the launch, there were further concerns raised due to the day’s temperature but were once again overruled. And on launch, the O-rings failed.
The incidents showcased the importance of a safety culture. While accidents in most workplaces may not be as costly as the ones we discussed here, like these, they’re rarely the result of one single person or a single flawed decision. And a good safety culture can prevent these situations.
Even when an organization has its own safety policies or even if there are regulatory requirements that dictate the safety steps required, a good safety culture can dictate how they’re actually implemented. Maybe they’re following the requirements to the dot, but if there’s any ambiguity, the decision may not always err on the side of caution. A safety culture augments the rules and regulations; it works to cover the areas otherwise ignored. For example, at a construction site, employees operating tools like power drills or cutters may follow the steps to use them carefully. But a safety culture ensures that a random employee who is not authorized to use it won’t handle it at all.
Here are some of the important steps to build a robust safety culture in your organization
The first step to building a safety culture in your organization is to get buy-in from the stakeholders and the management. Management buy-in improves the success of safety initiatives in an organization significantly. Building a safety culture requires significant resources; you need to conduct safety audits, provide employee training, test and upgrade equipment, and a lot more. And without support from the management, it’s difficult to see this through to success.
Management support also emphasizes the importance of the program; when the rest of the employees see executives actively taking part in the safety initiatives and taking the lead, the rest of the organization gets the message. It may also be a good idea to get an executive champion, someone from the top management who can actively support the initiative and talk to their team members about the importance of safety and the initiatives.
Before making any changes, it is important to analyze the state of safety in the organization. Check the safety policies, standard operating procedures, rules, and regulations, and check if they’re enough to cover the safety needs of the organization. Verify if they’re compliant with the industry regulations. Conduct a safety audit and evaluate the safety risks the workers are facing.
It’s also important to assess the state of safety culture in your organization. Assess how decisions are made, if employees are aware of the risks, if they’re adhering to the safety standards, if the employees have the right equipment for the tasks they’re performing and if they’re using it.
Based on these assessments, you can get a fair idea of the resources you’ll need, where the organization is at and where it has to be in terms of safety, and develop a comprehensive plan with the steps to develop a safety culture.
When trying to build a safety culture, it’s important to set goals and metrics to measure the change you’ve made and what you need to do. Having a significant ROI is important to get continuous stakeholder support and sustain the program.
The safety assessment should give you a fair idea of the baseline scenario in your organization in terms of safety. You’ll need to have clear goals and metrics aligned with what you’re trying to achieve. You can use metrics like the number of accidents in a month, the number of injuries in a month, frequency of unplanned downtime, frequency of equipment failure, or even number of employees found working without appropriate gear.
Building a safety culture is very much an employee-involved activity and for it to be a success, you need your employees to work with you. With a safety culture, you’re not writing down some rules and expecting everyone to just follow them. You want your employees to actively participate, ask questions, and take initiative.
Since precautions often take more time and effort and can interrupt their workflow, some employees may push back a bit, and to prevent that you need to convince your workforce of the importance of the safety culture. You need to showcase the benefits and how they will keep them safe. It may be a good idea to get champions from different departments, who can communicate the program to their team and prioritize safety in their department’s activities.
Start with a small department, work out the issues there, and showcase the results. Once you’re able to succeed, once the rest of the departments and the management see the results, they’ll be more motivated to change. You’ll also get the chance to figure out the process, how to conduct the training, how to raise awareness, and how you can make a difference when you start with a small department at first.
This is an important aspect of a safety culture. You have to ensure that there is clear communication among team members, particularly when performing a risky job. If your team has people who speak different languages, make sure they understand each other clearly when communicating the risks. It’s also important to assign different responsibilities to individuals - be it when taking decisions or during safety drills.
One of the common causes of accidents is when employees are afraid to speak up or clearly convey the safety issues they notice or face. There’s also the chance of the responsible people not being aware of the issues that employees have noticed. This is an important change you need to bring while building a better safety culture. The training should empower employees to make their voices heard and make decisions by prioritising safety.
Rules, policies, and regulations are important at the top level - they’re useful for dictating where the organization needs to go. They’re also important in conveying what the goals are. But safety culture is not just about rules, but rather about how much the organization and its employees value and prioritize safety. For this you need to raise awareness about the risks, the benefits of safe practices, and improve communication within the organization; the entire workforce must start viewing safety as a standard to aspire to.
Without proper management buy-in and support, your program is likely to fizzle out. The initiative may, in the beginning, create a slower workforce and lost productivity, and cost in terms of equipment and training. And this requires serious backing from the management. It will also be a while before a safety culture starts showing returns so you need someone who understands its importance and is ready to see it through.
Without clear goals or metrics, it’s tough to measure progress. While you cannot measure culture, you can set metrics for safety. Clear goals are important for the success of the program and to showcase its success.