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4 Keys to Changing Your Safety Culture

Nov 04, 2019

What does a good safety culture look like? Is it one with a low total recordable incidentBusinesswoman giving presentation to a group of colleagues rate? An environment where workers look out for each other’s safety? For Peter Susca, M.S., an effective safety culture involves a few key elements that help safety professionals effectively gauge the success of the processes and procedures in place, and demonstrate the value of safety to the business.

“Culture has the capacity to drive organizations to success or failure,” he says. “The decisions fostered by an unhealthy culture can disable the defenses of the best safety management systems and programs.”

In his September 2019 Business Class column in Professional Safety Journal, Susca examines the the influence of organization culture on occupational safety and health and identifies some key steps safety professionals can take to integrate safety into the business culture. 

1. Examine Process Health

In the business world, success is often measured by outcomes. What is truly important and reflective of safety performance, however, is not just the outcome of a process, but the process itself. Susca reminds safety professionals that a bad process can lead to good outcomes, so it’s imperative to examine how those outcomes are achieved.

It’s easy to assume that because workers got a job done effectively that they did so in a safe manner. By closing examining process health, you can learn about workers’ safety decisions and how conditions can be improved so that workers can do their jobs more safely and don’t have to take unnecessary risks.

“The first challenge for safety professionals is teaching executives the value of looking at risk rather than outcomes,” says Susca. “We all have to be experts in process health because If you’re always chasing outcomes, then you’re perpetually fighting fires.”

He adds that focusing on outcomes rather than processes can create an environment where decisions are made based on cost reduction rather than risk reduction, and that in many cases cost reduction actually increases risk.

“We’ve got to take people from outcomes to seeing risk first,” he says. “Risk is created by decision-making and the processes that result from that decision-making.”

2. Look at Hazards From a Business Perspective 

One of the greatest challenges safety professionals face is demonstrating how safety affects the bottom line. This may be due in part to a misunderstanding on the part of some executives about how safety impacts business performance. Susca urges safety professionals to go beyond explaining why a hazard is a safety concern and show executives the financial impact that hazard could have on the business.

 “You have to ask yourself why this hazard is valuable for the business,” says Susca. “By approaching hazards in this way, it forces you to examine the issue from a business standpoint.”

When stakeholders agree that a hazard could cause an injury or fatality, they can then assess why the hazard exists in the first place. Looking at hazards from this perspective allows stakeholders to determine whether having the hazard is in the best interest of the business not only from the safety perspective, but also from a cost and quality perspective. If it’s not, they’ve made a business case for eliminating that hazard. 

3. Anticipate Risks

So much of the work safety professionals do is centered around risk management. To change the culture and move organizations from a reactive to a proactive mind-set, Susca encourages safety professionals to not only address current risks, but also anticipate future risks and how those will impact the organization.

“Safety professionals need to think about where the next risk is going to be created and how risks that are perceived as static may change,” he says. “We need to be able to predict that and prevent it from happening.”

It’s important to recognize that workplace risks are dynamic and treated them as such. For instance, introducing a new employee into a process changes the risk. Safety professionals must consider and anticipate these changes so they can adjust accordingly and properly manage those risks.

One way that safety professionals can better predict future risks is to look at process health. By examining the processes, procedures and personnel currently in place, safety professionals can gather insight into how risks may change over time.

4. Train Your Leaders

In what Susca calls the “Value Tug-of-War,” there is often inconsistency between an organization’s philosophy about safety and the actual workplace conditions. Many organizations use the motto “safety first,” but that philosophy does not always align with the measures in place to protect their workers.

To effectively change the culture, leaders need to learn to value safety. It’s contingent on safety professionals to work with their leadership to understand what they want to achieve and how they want to get there. Safety professionals cannot hope to reach their organization’s safety and health goals if they don’t have a clear understanding of what those goals are.

“It is imperative that senior leadership understand the health and impact of the organization’s culture and lead culture transformation,” he says. “Their success is dependent on the management team’s capacity to carry the value and approach to the first-line supervisors and workers.”

Susca encourages safety professionals to start conversations with their leadership and ask them, “What does “safe” look like?” and get them to express that. From there, safety professionals can begin to understand their leadership’s safety philosophy and how everyone can work together to meet those objectives.

“Integrate safety in a way that’s meaningful to the business and be an expert at that,” he says. “Become part of the culture, be part of the solution and immerse yourself in the organization.”

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