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Changing the Hidden Safety Culture

Nov 14, 2018
Workers Talking

An organization’s safety culture consists of many elements that can either help or hinder overall performance. Many of these are readily identifiable and measurable, such as the number of incidents, workers’ compensation claims or engineering controls. But what about those factors that may not be as visible on a daily basis? How can leaders unearth, and more importantly address, the hidden safety culture within their organizations?

What leaders don’t see and the things they aren’t aware of is not only a problem from an organizational perspective, it also presents safety hazards. No leader wants to be blindsided by cultural issues that affect performance and safety.

These issues may remain hidden for several reasons. Employees may not report them, may be afraid of the consequences if they do report them, may not being trained how to communicate what they see, or may accept as normal the risky conditions that exist in the workplace.

Whatever the cause, these barriers mask the underlying safety culture, and hinder efforts to improve safety performance.

With that in mind, what steps can leaders take to address those issues that may not be visible to the naked eye? A “Leading Thoughts” article by Robert Pater, M.A., examines the hidden aspects of safety culture and their effect on an organization. He also outlines 10 steps leaders can take to identify and address these underlying issues.

1. Start fresh with self honesty. 

The first step of changing the hidden safety culture is for leaders to acknowledge that it exists. Acknowledging shortcomings in your safety culture demonstrates leadership strength and is a key to discovering how the culture is affecting business and safety performance.

2. Develop a discomfort strategy. 

Although discovering the hidden aspects of your safety culture may not be pleasant, it is important. Taking this step will help leaders identify what’s no longer working so they can move forward in a positive manner.

3. Perceive those things that cannot be seen.

To continually improve, you must be curious and watchful for what is going on around the workplace. What happened last year is not what is going on today and leaders need to be on the lookout for factors such as unresolved conflicts, resistance to change and hidden agendas that can impede progress.

4. Heed renowned quality expert Edwards Deming. 

Although examining statistics is important to assessing an organization’s overall health, Deming warned managers not to rely too much on them. Instead, staying in touch with all elements of the culture keeps you more in tune with the day-to-day operation, enables you to seize opportunities as they appear and maintain momentum.

5. Surface hidden mixed messages and reduce them. 

Many organizations may be guilty of saying one thing and doing another in terms of safety culture. This can lead to mixed messages for employees. Leadership should delve further into the internal cultural forces that contribute to unsafe actions so that they can develop consist messaging on how employees should be operating to perform their tasks safely.

6. Look for grassroots fixes. 

Just like hidden elements of the safety culture can be found if leaders look close enough, so can solutions. Leaders should note when workers make personal adjustments to perform their tasks with more comfort and safety. For instance, if several employees are padding sharp workstation surfaces, a perceptive leader will see that there is an issue with current equipment, as well as potential low-cost solutions.

7. Practice pattern recognition. 

When looking closely at workplace safety culture, themes start to emerge. Leaders should ask others what common threads exist in the culture and look for intertwining themes in incident investigations. Furthermore, they should look for themes in how others reaction to the mention of things like schedule changes to gauge employee attitudes about such topics.

8. Leverage leadership. 

A strong leader knows that small changes can make a big difference. Finding the hidden leaders within your organization can help make things happen within their sphere of influence by winning the regard and trust of others. When organizations identify, train and support these “diamonds in the rough,” they can be effective catalysts for improving safety performance and culture.

9. Bring in outside perspectives. 

In some cases, those within the organization are unable to “see the forest for the trees.” Outsiders can bring a fresh perspective to issues that have gone unnoticed or unaddressed by those well-entrenched in the organization. They are less invested in maintaining the status quo that may have led to long-standing cultural blockages.

10. Continue to ask the right questions. 

 The key to getting useful information from employees is to ask the right questions. When gathering data on the safety culture, make it easy for others to respond and document what they say for the record so they can see that you’re taking them seriously and value their input. Getting individuals across the organization involved early and throughout the process can help attain and sustain the highest level of safety performance and culture.


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