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5 Reasons Improving Safety Culture Is a Business Skill

Dec 08, 2020
Smiling safety professional woman wearing white headphones and glasses and participating in a video call

The practice of culture change recognizes that everything is connected. From worker safety to your customers’ experience, your organization is an ecosystem full of variables that are difficult to measure and even more difficult to adjust.

Safety is a profession that has understood this for a while. With its emphasis on active listening, example-setting and collaboration, it teaches practitioners how to put people first. With its emphasis on design, technical specifications and systems, it teaches practitioners how to plan, do, check and act.

But others in your organization may not be as proactive about culture change or may not even see its value. That’s a problem, say researchers Mark Lundell, GSP, and Cheri Marcham, Ph.D., CSP, CIH, CHMM, FAIHA, because only leadership can drive and develop a culture in which looking out for each other is a shared priority.

“Leaders or managers who place profit and production over the safety of their employees, who are willing to overlook their faltering safety culture or bypass safeguards to get the job done, or who fail to support and follow regulatory requirements merely because they don’t have the time, can create an unsafe work environment.”

So how do you use your unique skill set to advocate for culture change and protect workers? It begins with the understanding that improving safety culture is a business skill requiring everyone’s participation — from your CEO to front-line workers. And as an initiative with personal, professional and financial implications for everyone in your organization, it is worthy of respect and attention.

If you’re struggling to stay committed to your path of safety culture improvement — or need some persuasive talking points to share with your boss — keep these five things in mind.

1. Business is about connections and relationships.

Your organization invests extensively in learning what customers need to be successful and communicating how it can help them solve problems. Getting that process right, then delivering on promises, leads to greater trust and stronger relationships.

Part of your role as a safety professional is to convince other leaders why it’s important to make the same type of investment in improving safety culture. According to Lundell and Marcham, the research is clear: Companies that create psychologically safe workplaces where workers are encouraged to raise concerns and propose solutions have stronger safety cultures and better outcomes.

“With a weak psychosocial safety climate, employees will use coping mechanisms that can lead to drug use, neglect of duties, exhaustion, post-traumatic stress and low morale.”

2. Safety management systems exist within cultures.

Occupational safety and health management system standards, such as ANSI/ASSP Z10 and ISO 45001, help establish accountability for safety and health performance throughout your organization. But while safety management systems help drive positive culture change, they also reflect cultural norms that may go back decades prior to implementation. That’s one reason keeping your leadership team aware of cultural complexities influencing safety is a critical and ongoing business function, according to Lundell and Marcham.

“The keys to safety culture within any organization are the creation of leadership and management systems that 1) specify safety objectives; 2) distribute responsibility for safety; and 3) plan, organize and control the organizational environment according to safety objectives and precautions.”  

3. Strong organizations are clear about their values.

Successfully translating organizational values into budgetary, operational, product and marketing decisions is good business — but it’s also easier said than done. Unfortunately, when cuts need to be made, safety programs are often one of the first things called into question. That’s where you come in.

“Support for identifying obvious hazards and risks within an organization, the concern for equipment safety, facility safety, fire safety, PPE and the standard hierarchy of controls is common, although concern for the individual worker may be overlooked,” say Lundell and Marcham.

By working with your team to clarify and use resources according to values that keep people at the center, you will be better able to go beyond quick fixes and manage many different types of risk. 

4. Safety affects your company’s financial outlook.

Improving safety culture directly affects your organization’s bottom line. By reducing costly worker injuries, illnesses and incidents, improving worker well-being, increasing operational efficiency, avoiding OSHA penalties and more, safety professionals have earned their seat at the table where financial decisions are made.

Need a refresher on how to estimate safety’s impact on profitability before an important meeting? OSHA has a free worksheet you can use as part of its $afety Pays Program.

“Safety professionals must be accepted as the experts they are and for the vast knowledge base that they offer,” say Lundell and Marcham. “They must be respected for their specialized input, analysis and evaluation of all facets of an organization’s operation.”

5. Safety culture helps attract and retain top talent. 

Would you rather work for an organization in which people take care of each other and leaders exercise sound moral judgment, or one in which short-sighted corporate goals lead to an unsafe culture? When skilled workers have a choice, they seek employers with a reputation for social responsibility. When workers end up at organizations that don’t support safety and health, they are more likely to seek greener pastures.

According to Lundell and Marcham, safety culture is directly related to a safe and healthful working environment that addresses the risks of absenteeism (when workers don’t show up), presenteeism (when workers show up but aren’t able to function properly) and high turnover.

“Leadership is the most critical element in keeping pace with the changing occupational environment and the promotion of positive safety culture.”

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Brent Charlton
What if we stop talking about safety culture and go to work on improving culture overall?  All companies have a culture and safety is a part of that.  If the overall culture is toxic you won't have the hearts and minds of the people and you'll never achieve the mystical "safety culture."  Nobody is talking about "HR culture," or improving "engineering culture."  Why?  Because these exist within the company culture.  Safety should too, rather than continually trying to be some outside force.  Teach leaders to lead, have conversations with the people, stop blame/shame/retrain, make sure people are competent, and make sure the process is capable of being run safely.  Those things will win hearts and minds.

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