Safety Culture 101

There was a time when hearing  “highly productive company” and “safety is a number one priority” in the same sentence would be a laughable dichotomy, getting more eyes rolling than heads nodding.

Thankfully, this mindset is a fading thought. Implementing safety as a vital part of your companies core values is now seen as a necessity when looking to improve your overall efficiency. The transition however, is still a work in progress for some.

Understanding the value of inserting safety into an organizations daily routines and methodologies begins and ends with an established safety culture. Strong safety cultures have been proven time and time again to increase productivity, efficiency, improve employee performance, as well as improve the company image and moral. Cultural change is no easy task as it involves the complete adoption of new beliefs and assumptions within a group. The ones that have figured it out are a step ahead, but what about the rest who are still discovering and creating their safety culture?

The first step is to understand what a safety culture is. Let’s start by defining the two words separately.

Safety– the condition of being safe from undergoing or causing hurt, injury, or loss

Culture-the act of developing the intellectual and moral faculties especially by education


Separately, the two definitions are clear and concise. However, when combined can have different meanings for different people. In fact, the term safety culture didn’t even exist until the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, which affected over 500,000 workers. This catastrophic event made it evident that safety could no longer be reliant upon posters and employee handbooks. Safety was instead a culture that was to be embraced and embedded into all employees top to bottom equally.

So what does safety culture mean then?

Each companies definition of a safety culture will be slightly unique to that company, but the premise is still the same. It’s hard to find a universal definition, however a starting point for creating your own culture should look something like this:

[box_info]A safety culture is the reflection of all individuals and groups within an organization with the same attitudes, norms, and behaviors, giving priority of and commitment to safety as their number one objective.[/box_info]

This is a basic definition that gives you a base line to start working from. The challenge then becomes, turning these words into actions and ultimately creating an “the way we do things around here” effect on every individual within your organization.

Where to begin

Creating policies, procedures, signage, and other visual aids to promote your safety culture is helpful to a degree. But, when attempting to change the way individuals think and act, it’s imperative that understand the importance of ones beliefs and expectations. Change can be a difficult task for some to accept. This can lead to anxiety and even resistance within the organization if not implemented correctly.

The journey towards a sustainable and healthy safety culture begins with leaders. Your leaders influence the way others perceive reality through their communication and actions. They are your vocal and physical examples to a unified believe in the culture. The challenge becomes consistency and creating ways to demonstrate the direct benefits the safety culture offers them.

Leaders need to avoid the fallacy that forced compliance is the most effective method for cooperation. While this might work in some cases, showing instead of telling can be much more effective in creating long-term behavioral change and the culture you’re striving for.

The human element

Creating, managing, and maintaining the culture all require leaders who are competent and able. They must be able to demonstrate patience and show the ability to make necessary adjustments along the way. More importantly, be able to recognize their own flaws, apologize for their mistakes, and show they too are human. This creates a trust and respect level that allows a culture to thrive upon.

Trust is something one earns, it should not be expected or demanded of. Trust is built through communication and recognition. Successful communication requires ones ability to use correct language that gives a clear message. This is can be especially challenging considering the amount of diversity and language barriers within an organization, but this it’s what separates the good and bad leaders. When a mistake does occur though, it is up to the leader to recognize what went wrong and make the necessary adjustment to prevent further mistakes.

Moving forward

This brief overview a safety culture is only the beginning of a long, but rewarding process. It’s a collaborative effort that brings a new meaning to workplace safety. This nearly was a skimming of the surface, but as your group designs its own safety culture, remember these basics to build your foundation on. Last but not least remember that nothing should ever be set in stone. A successful culture is one that is adaptable and always ready to improve. Being complacent can trap you into a routine, lacking the drive for improvement.

Additional Resources