Broadly, culture refers to the ways in which people interact with each other. This includes things like the modes and methods of their communication, the expectations and the norms of their behavior, and their commonly held values, beliefs, and knowledge. Culture can be examined across entire demographics or geographical and political regions, like nerd culture or American culture, and it can also be seen at smaller and more specific levels, like within a workplace.
Organizational culture is a developing branch of the social sciences, and the field complements efforts within occupational health and safety. Studying the cultures within organizations like businesses and industrial workplaces can shed light on faults or deficiencies in their safety performance and help generate understanding of how safety fits into that culture: Is it a valued and intrinsic aspect of the company’s operations? Or is it often reduced to just afterthoughts and empty platitudes like “Safety First?” Or does it fall somewhere in between?
Safety Culture Maturity
Health and safety’s role in an organization’s culture is best measured on a maturity scale because building and maintaining a strong culture of safety is a matter of growth and gradual change, not a matter of flipping a switch.
A Product of Daily Operations
The key to enabling this gradual change is to first look at safety not as a set of rules to follow, but as a product of the employees’ workdays. In other words, safe performance should be viewed as something created by the workforce, just as much as the products or materials they produce. By looking at safety as a product of daily operations, organizations can better measure how safety is achieved.
Improving the System from the Bottom Up
Because cultures are developed organically through the regular interaction of their members, another method of understanding an organization’s safety maturity is examining the degree to which its workers (especially those in the most safety-sensitive positions) directly contribute to improving the safety system. Organizations with strong safety cultures understand that the best resources for identifying areas of improvement are their frontline employees. The employees know the work environment best, and they often understand its hazards better than their management does. Engaging frontline workers in this way not only helps to improve the system from the bottom up, it lets employees know that their experiences and knowledge have value.
How Safety Lapses are Addressed
An organization’s safety culture can also be understood by examining how management and supervisors address safety lapses, and even safety concerns. In many traditional and immature safety systems, unsafe performance is often met with reprimand and even punishment. This could occur even if the unsafe act were unintentional, like a consequence of fatigue or illness. It is possible that the likelihood of fatigue or illness contributing to an accident could even be greater within an immature safety culture, because the impaired worker may not be comfortable sharing with supervisors that he feels unable to perform safely. Plus, it is all too common in many workplaces for an employee’s safety concern to be dismissed and the stoppage of work to be met with reprimand. As a result, much can be learned about a company’s safety culture by looking at employees’ ability to communicate with managers about safety-related issues, along with the way managers respond to such concerns.
Of course, safety’s role within organizational culture is a rich and complex subject and this blog entry can only scratch the surface. But a little bit of understanding can go a long way in making small but beneficial adjustments in the way employers and their employees approach safety. Because literally every individual in an organization has a stake in its safety performance—from apprentices and the youngest frontline hires all the way to the Chairman of the Board—it is paramount for the organization to examine and measure safety as both a component and a product of its culture.
To find out more about the characteristics of positive safety cultures, check out our previous blog entry, “Seven Characteristics of a Positive Safety Culture at Work.”