Safety in the workplace is undergoing change: evolving from an optional extra to a compliance necessity, firms are now increasingly recognizing the many benefits of developing, and committing to, a strong safety culture. These range from increased staff morale and increased productivity, to reduced injury-related costs, competitive insurance premiums and improved turnover profits and reputation.
However, encouraging a culture of safety involves more than mere lip service. Safety-orientated values, long-term commitments to firm-wide safety, and consistent concrete actions will determine which organisations will reap the rewards of creating and maintaining an effective safety culture.
What is meant by a “Safety Culture”, and why is it important?
Safety in the workplace saves lives; it also saves money. According to the 2013 Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Index, US businesses lose more than a billion dollars a week in compensation costs arising from the 10 most common workplace injuries and illnesses – incidents which could be prevented with proper safety measures in place. These figures do not account for the associated productivity losses and administrative expenses, which are estimated to amount to a further $120 billion, annually.
Too often, safety in the workplace is regarded as an expensive option, and the cost of implementing an effective and comprehensive safety policy becomes the firm’s overriding concern. However, the costs to a company of not developing and nurturing a positive safety culture are high in many regards. A poor safety record will result in the following knock-on effects:
• Higher insurance premiums
• Lost productivity
• Higher injury and illness rates
• Expense of replacing injured / ill workers
• Expense of high staff turnover
• Compensation and legal costs
• Damaged employee morale
• Cost of replacing damaged property
Furthermore, not only will an organisation’s profits / turnover suffer, but also its reputation – the cost of which is largely unquantifiable.
So what is meant by a “Safety Culture”?
A culture of safety in an organisation is one where safety in the workplace is intrinsic in the values and standards of the firm. However, it is not enough for the organisation to hold specific values; these must manifest themselves in the words the organisation uses, as well as in the actions it takes.
The principles held need to be properly and consistently communicated to staff. The words used, as well as the tone, will impress upon all personnel how seriously management takes safety in the workplace. Staff members will always take their cue from the managerial communication they receive, overt or otherwise; if these are consistently positive and supportive, the foundations of a positive safety culture will be laid.
As with any situation, however, actions speak louder then words. Any actions, however small, which decision-makers or managers take to encourage, promote or support safety in the workplace will have a positive knock-on effect on all personnel. (As a corollary, positive verbal communication will have little impact if it is not backed up by similarly positive actions.) The most effective actions which senior staff members can take are those which overtly reward safety-oriented behaviour in others. This, more than anything, will send a message of the importance of safety to the organisation.
Altogether, a firm’s safety culture is a combination of its values, communications and, above all, its actions.
Developing your Firm’s Safety Culture
All firms have a safety culture – however, not all have a positive one. Before you can take steps to develop your firms, you need to determine what sort of safety culture is already in place.
Identify Your Own Culture
The first step is to communicate with the personnel tasked with the organisation’s safety – the appropriate manager or consultant. This will give feedback on what the firm would ideally wish its values to be. The reality, however, may be quite different, and can only be assessed from the ground up: by communicating with all staff members, and identifying their perceptions of the organisation’s safety culture.
One of the most efficient and comprehensive means of communicating with a staff about its safety culture is to develop and circulate questionnaires. To ensure honesty and candidness, any such questionnaire should be stated to be anonymous, free from negative consequences, and be aiming to act positively on the information gathered.
In addition, a questionnaire should address a broad range of safety culture indicators; as a guide, one of the leaders in Safety Culture, Dan Petersen, identified 20 safety management categories, including: Attitude Towards Safety, Inspections, Employee Training, Supervisor Training, Involvement of Employees, and Operating Procedures. Such categories are worth considering as a guide when developing or reviewing questionnaires.
Having determined how strong – or otherwise – your organisation’s safety culture is, you can then take stock and design a plan for moving ahead. If your firm has a weak culture, then the first steps to take are to liaise with senior management to identify the firm’s policy. As a safety officer, you may initially be met with resistance, usually in relation to the perceived cost of implementation. Some of the costs and effects of a failure to develop a strong safety culture have been set out above, and should be communicated as necessary.
Develop and Improve Your Firm’s Culture
Irrespective of your organisation’s existing position, there are numerous steps that can be taken to improve a firm’s culture. Obviously, all action taken should consider the organisation’s industry, size and structure, but here are some examples of actions which can apply irrespective of such confines:
• Involve Your Staff
The best way to develop a strong safety culture is to involve all personnel. Empowering staff sends the message that their role in the success of the firm is crucial, and plays an important role in encouraging staff morale and pride. Staff can be involved in a myriad of ways, from providing feedback on firm policies, having a safety liaison officer, creating a safety committee, or developing plans pertinent to specific departments.
• Operate from the Top Down
The best way to ensure safe behaviour in the work place is to have it mirrored from management. Any safety policy implemented needs to be demonstrated by senior management and decision makers.
• Introduce a Mentor Programme
A safety mentor programme is an effective way of introducing new staff members to the safety culture. As well as creating positive expectations from existing workers, it creates role models for incoming staff to follow.
• Implement Effective Training
Training itself is not sufficient: it must be effective. To this end it should be:
Comprehensive enough – too much information at one time is more likely to be forgotten;
Ongoing – one-off training is not enough. To demonstrate a real commitment to safety, training needs to be regular and periodic;
Flexible – effective training should be able to accommodate all levels of audience;
Relevant – tailor each training session according to the appropriate department; and
Organic – it should “grow” with the staff members.
• Diarise Safety Reviews
To be fully effective, a safety programme should also incorporate regular reviews. It is worth, therefore, considering periodic meetings to discuss and review safety, looking not only at internal issues and incidents, but also to discuss any relevant matters which have occurred within the industry which could have an impact on safety in your firm.
• Display Your Safety Message
Visibility is key in creating a culture. Publicising your values tells your staff that you are serious about, and committed to, your safety culture.
• Recognize and Encourage Positive Action
Ways of doing this include creating a periodic Safety Worker award, publicizing positive safety actions across the firm or even the industry, or implementing smaller, less formal means to highlight within the organisation steps taken by individuals.
• Communicate Effectively
Finally, it is not enough for an organisation’s management to communicate its values and ideas; effective communication needs to be a two-way event. To ensure a strong safety culture, an organisation must listen to its staff, and create the channels for effective two-way communication. Safety requires the input of all workers, and a safety culture must explicitly embrace and include all members of the organisation.
The Role of Safety Management Systems
Safety Management Systems are, deservedly, increasing in popularity, as organisations recognize that safety in the workplace is not only a compliance issue, but also a matter of effective risk management.
When married with positive safety-based values, effective communication and progressive actions, an SMS is an essential safety tool, fundamental for measuring safety, and assessing the organisation’s improvement. It enables staff members to quickly and easily communicate policies and actions, and to implement and achieve safety goals. Moreover, a broad system will highlight safety hazards and risks, facilitating preventative measures, and supporting risk management.