The concept of safety culture has been gaining more widespread attention in high-hazard industries as more and more safety practitioners see the influence that workers’ attitudes and behaviors have on both the causes as well as the effects of workplace incidents. In addition, senior management are also well aware that, as Kevin Bridges (2013) puts it, “a positive safety culture will no doubt produce dividends in improved safety performance, with fewer lost-time incidents” (para. 6). Improved safety performance and fewer incidents can result only in good things, so the attention being placed on safety culture is well-deserved.
Safety cultures tend to be categorized as positive or negative, but it is not a hard dichotomy; an organization’s safety culture can fall somewhere on the scale between the two, depending on the aspects of the safety system that need improvement. Positive safety cultures and proactive safety systems work hand-in-hand, just as negative safety cultures are cause and consequence of reactive safety systems. Previous Predictive Safety articles have shown the inability of reactive safety systems to prevent incidents; incidents can be only mitigated at best. And in a negative safety culture, it is not uncommon for workers to feel pressured to bend or break safety rules or safe work procedures to meet deadlines or production goals (Carrillo, 2004; Weekes, 2014). When personnel—whether managers, leadership, or co-workers—pressure others “to break or ignore safety rules [it] indicates a negative safety culture…where workers are encouraged or expected to break rules in order to complete tasks on time” (Weekes, 2014, para. 5). A negative safety culture paired with a reactive safety system ensures that sooner or later the system will fail the workers it is supposed to protect, and safety professionals have begun to see this, perhaps often without identifiable recourse.
Many writers and industry experts have been strategizing effective ways in which organizations can overhaul their safety systems and cultures, and a common thread among their publications is the importance of effective workplace communication, especially regarding safety. Predictive Safety will soon publish its guide to effective communication for workplace safety, which will help readers understand the crucial role that good communication plays in achieving safety goals and preventing incidents, since communication is a fundamental and integral aspect of a culture in any context. And when communication throughout all levels of an organization is strong, open, and meaningful, a positive safety culture follows.
Safety professionals at the daunting outset of changing their organizations’ safety cultures may be overwhelmed, but first establishing several qualities of a positive safety culture will provide them at the least some goals toward which to direct their efforts:
1. In a positive safety culture, nothing takes precedent over safe work under any circumstances. The workforce never feels as if safe work procedures are an obstacle or hindrance to doing their job tasks correctly, on time, and without reprimand.
Rosa Antonia Carrillo’s (2004) article for Occupational Hazards (now EHS Today), titled “Breaking the Cycle of Mistrust to Build a Positive Safety Culture,” (URL below) is a valuable resource for any safety professional seeking to improve their organization’s safety culture, and it shows how integral good communication is to that improvement. When communication is less than effective, mistrust builds between individuals and groups.
Her article describes one particular operation with safety culture problems, an unnamed “plant” with many departments, where despite an ostensible focus on safety above production by the supervisors and management, “often employees assumed that it was more acceptable…to take a safety shortcut than it was to miss a deadline” (paras. 7-8). She elaborates:
Most of the time, the pressure to put production over safety is implied, not stated. Sometimes it is a miscommunication like a manager’s casual comment, “It would be good to have this order ready to ship by next week,” being interpreted as a rush order. It is easy for an employee to assume that the supervisor wants the job done no matter what when, in the past, people were expected to take risks to get the job done. (Carrillo, 2004, para. 9)
If employees are under the impression, for any reason, that safety rules must be broken to achieve the results that management wants, the safety system cannot protect them, and this symptom of a negative safety culture perpetuates the accident cycle (see our previous article).
2. In a positive safety culture, all personnel, from the front line to the senior leadership, share the same responsibility for safe work.
Unfortunately, we humans tend to want to shirk responsibilities of any sort and especially avoid blame. At a high-hazard operation with a negative safety culture, complacency and ineffective safety-related communication can lead to lapses in accountability, whether for oneself, one’s co-workers, or one’s subordinates, because the culture occasions blame and reprimand rather than compassion and positive change.
Carrillo’s (2004) article describes the likely common sentiment among frontline workers that supervisors and company managers showed little concern for their well-being (which of course may result in part from the pressures described above). Carrillo (2004) uncovers the communication issue at the heart of this misunderstanding:
“Of course, managers did care, but often they did not understand the importance of expressing that care.” The managers “that employees felt could be trusted even if the company could not” were those who “talked to people one-on-one, gathered their opinions, their concerns and ideas, and acted on them” (paras. 12–13).
Sometimes, management’s seeming lack of concern is also made evident by apparent double standards. Carrillo (2004) explains:
Many times, people were not disciplined for failing to use proper personal protective equipment (PPE), but they were punished for accidents. Managers were seen walking through the plant without proper protection. Management wanted employees to remind each other to wear their PPE, but employees felt that constituted “enforcing the rules,” which is a management responsibility. Thus, employees felt management was sidestepping its responsibilities. (para. 17)
A truly positive safety culture would mean that all personnel, regardless of position, job description, or time spent at the worksite have an equal responsibility in keeping themselves and each other safe, and hold themselves and each other accountable. Management especially should lead by example and “walk the walk” when it comes to safety, not just “talk the talk.”
3. In a positive safety culture, the safety system is informed by the workforce, not designed and enforced only by management.
A surefire way to ensure the workforce discards official operating and safe work procedures is to make them unsuitable for the workforce’s use, either because they are difficult to understand (due to advanced vocabulary, jargon, or the workforce is not fluent in the language used), or because they do not reflect the workers’ own experience doing the work. Teague, Leith, and Green’s (2013) ethnographic study of an Ohio refinery illustrates an example of the cultural disconnect that can occur when the elements of a safety system are “pushed” upon the workforce without their input:
The crew felt they had little in common with the managers who had devised the new safety culture with which they were being asked to comply. Process cleaner Luca expressed the alienation he felt about pressure from…management to subscribe to a total safety culture created through slogans such as Wait 1. Wait 1 was supposed to prompt a worker to pause before embarking on a task that might be hazardous. Luca believed that top managers did not have to worry themselves about safety in their own work. “They don’t have to Wait 1 before they put their hands on the keyboard, or look before they walk down the corridor” (Leith, 2008, p. 163). In Luca’s mind the requirements for managerial safety were very different from what was required to achieve operational safety….[O]perating manuals, which were supposed to direct the crew’s every task, were inadequate, so the workers had developed their own alternatives. The crews believed strongly that their own understanding of safety was superior to that prompted by managers in offices. (Leith, Teague, & Green, 2013, pp. 187-188).
In short, the safety system should resonate with the workforce and represent their experiences and job tasks realistically through their own input. Not taking advantage of the wealth of practical knowledge that frontline workers can provide safety systems and operating procedures essentially devalues their first-hand experience and expertise, and it maintains the cultural rift between them and the managers, ensuring that frontline supervisors continue to turn a blind eye to nonstandard and potentially unsafe practices because production goals are routinely met (Teague, Leith, & Green, 2013).
4. In a positive safety culture, discovering and acting on opportunities for improving the safety system occur continuously.
The complacency that results after a period of incident-free work is endemic to a reactive safety system, which only seeks to improve the system as a reaction to an incident. Open lines of communication, trust, and proactive safety practices can help to ensure that a safety system is in a consistent state of improvement. A positive safety culture does not occasion complacency after periods of incident-free work; it understands that incident-free work is the result of the positive safety culture and the continuous attention to improvement that it creates.
5. In a positive safety culture, communication occurs openly between departments, members of the workforce, and management. Communication is not just one-way and is always open and encouraged.
The kind of miscommunication described in #1 above, when meaning has not been appropriately conveyed and assumption results, and the double standards illustrated in #2 above, stem from a lack of commonality among standards, understandings, and/or directions disseminated by management and supervisors (not being on the same page, so to speak). When a workforce’s supervisors supervise differently, the workforce may not have a clear understanding about what exactly is expected of them: “Managers and supervisors didn’t agree on safety goals or standards. One supervisor would enforce a rule, another wouldn’t” (para. 16). Open communication and certainty of meaning about standards and rules—among all personnel—can help a safety system operate optimally in a singular direction that is understood throughout the operation, instead of requiring the workforce to conform to whichever supervisor is overseeing them on a particular shift.
The method used to disseminate information may also be the culprit when that information is not absorbed by its intended audience. Carrillo (2004) illustrates:
Many of the miscommunication issues related to over-reliance on memos, bulletin boards, and e-mails in place of face-to-face contact. People felt they didn’t have time to have conversations, but the results of miscommunication sometimes ended up costing a lot more. An example that caused a lot of animosity occurred when a minimum manning policy was implemented. Grievances were filed because no one knew about it. Yet, it had been posted for over a year on a bulletin board because no one had read it….We should never assume that letters, memos or reports have communicated important information. One of the Challenger accident investigators coined the phrase, “Information is not communication.” (paras. 18–20)
6. In a positive safety culture, management/leadership play an active role in ensuring workplace safety and show, not just say, that the safety of the workforce is the top priority.
Carrillo’s (2004) article shows how the communication gap between the frontline and management feeds the mistrust that can exist. Workers want to see their managers in the worksite, taking an interest in their job tasks, their safety concerns, and at the least, having some first-hand understanding of the worksite environment and what actually happens on the front line. When managers are absent from work areas, “employees [perceive] the lack of visible presence as lack of interest” (para. 11). Carrillo (2004) shows how important attentive and visible managers are to employees’ trusting them:
[Employees] said they cannot trust decisions made by managers who have never been to the job site, haven’t demonstrated visible concern, competence or interest in learning about the real challenges workers face. (para. 11)
Another important aspect of the management’s active role is to take employees’ concerns seriously and act upon them. Realizing that no one understands the hazards of the job more than those who do the work is paramount to achieving the positive safety culture. “Managers saw that responding to safety concerns and suggestions in a timely manner was at the heart of building trust and credibility” (Carrillo, 2004, para. 22).
7. In a positive safety culture, incidents, safety issues, or stopping work for safety concerns are not met with reprimands, negativity, nor punishments.
Maybe the most significant indicator of a negative safety culture is that reprimands or punishments are the status quo when lapses in safety occur, and this characteristic corresponds with #2 above. Responding to a safety issue with punitive measures sends an illogical message to the workforce, “Don’t hurt yourself, or you’ll get in trouble,” when avoiding injury or death should be all the impetus a worker needs to work safely, since self-preservation is innate. The punitive aspect of a negative safety culture also inhibits improvement of a safety system, as shown by Carrillo (2004): In the aftermath of an incident in which a worker received an electric shock (but luckily survived), “no one came forward to admit they had failed to tag the electrical outlet as faulty because they knew it would mean days off without pay at best and dismissal at worst” (para. 1). Knowing he or she had almost killed a co-worker seems punishment enough; if the worker was comfortable coming forward, his or her input could help management understand what circumstances led to the problem and how to avoid it in the future.
When a safety system relies on disciplinary measures to prod its workforce into working safely, fear of punishment pervades the workforce, and the workers become less willing to be open in their communication. When accountability and responsibility are not equal across the operation, it all but guarantees safety lapses. Carrillo’s (2004) finding demonstrates how punitive and negative safety cultures contribute to the accident cycle:
“People were not held accountable for not following proper procedure but were punished when they got hurt. This caused resentment and anger. Consequently, people began to suppress information and the incident rate increased” (Carrillo, 2004, para. 23).
There certainly may be additional characteristics of a positive safety culture, and those outlined here could be given much more in-depth exploration. Plus, experts from within industry as well as academia are exploring the concept more and more, and technological advancement is helping make positive safety cultures and proactive safety systems the new norm in high-hazard industries. Predictive Safety is at the fore of creating this new norm, so let us know how we can help you bring your company’s safety system firmly into the 21st century.
Bridges, K. (2013). Sharing responsibility for safety. The Safety & Health Practitioner 31(6): 17.
Carrillo, R.A. (2004). Breaking the cycle of mistrust to build a positive safety culture.
Occupational Hazards 66(7): 45+. Retrieved from http://ehstoday.com/safety/best-practices/ehs_imp_37126
Teague, C., Leith, D., & Green, L. (2013). Symbolic interactionism in safety communication in the workplace. In N.K. Denzin & T. Faust (Eds.), Studies in symbolic interaction: 40th anniversary of studies in symbolic interaction (175–199). Bingley, UK: Emerald.
Weekes, J. (2014, December). 12 ways to promote a positive safety culture in your workplace. Health & Safety Handbook. Retrieved from http://www.healthandsafetyhandbook.com.au/