Building A Safety Culture

By Mark Troxell, The Graham Company. Edited by Christina Fisher. | September 28, 2010

The most successful companies have safety as a core value by promoting an incident-free work environment, which is a corporate mindset that no incident is acceptable and safety is not optional. Such companies make safety a personal issue rather than a corporate issue, and thus safety becomes a way of life for their employees, both on and off the job.

Companies that operate safely over the long term and develop effective safety cultures understand the psychology of why employees behave a certain way and, more importantly, how to get employees to actively care about safe behavior. This requires promoting a culture of empowerment where workers take the extra step to do something about safety issues. Management needs to put safety in a positive light and send a simple but strong message in order to help workers actively care. The safest companies understand that a safety culture can be the difference between a thriving business and bankruptcy — or life and death.

An incident-free workplace requires continual attention to three factors: the environment, the employee and the employee's behavior.

The Environment

The environment is the easiest of these three areas to address because it starts with you — the decision maker. Controlling work environment issues means addressing common exposures such as daily housekeeping, diligent maintenance of walking surfaces, proper equipment and tools for the job, proper positioning to reduce muscle strain, and installation of proper fall protection to control falls from height exposures. The work environment you establish will directly affect how your employees view safety on a site and will reinforce your company's commitment to an incident-free workplace.

To do so, your company must ensure the necessary safety and health controls are in place and remain in place. Enforcement of minimum safety standards put in place by federal, state and local agencies is usually not enough. In order to reduce the potential for an incident, you must make the site environment as user-friendly as possible. Many times this requires moving beyond enforcing minimal safety standards.

The Employee

The long-term success of your safety and health programs depends on the actions of all employees, from laborers to management. A culture must be established that empowers your employees to own their safety and rewards them for their positive behavior. You must encourage employees to believe that their active participation in the company's safety efforts will make a difference. Employees feel empowered when they have specific, attainable goals that are relevant and trackable. Goals need to be challenging but achievable, and safety accomplishments need to be publicized in order to improve employees' self-esteem and increase their belief in personal safety control.

A major part of an effective safety culture is the attitude of your employees in regard to safety. Attitudes influence behaviors. Establishing a positive attitude about work and safety will help build a culture of safety-focused employees. Negative attitudes will adversely affect safety, production and quality. Employees must understand that a positive safety culture encourages each and every employee to take action if a safety exposure is observed.

The Employee's Behavior

Management must not allow workers to opt out of the safety process. This means ensuring your employees are properly trained to recognize potential exposures in the workplace. In addition, companies should continuously evaluate the quality of the training their employees receive; training employees just to say it was completed is not good enough.

Even after workers receive training, there is still an opportunity for them to opt-out. It is critical that management absolutely prohibit an opt-out. Once employees are trained, it is vital that management establish a culture that encourages employees to intervene when unsafe behaviors are exhibited and, more importantly, to take the initiative to address the safety issue.

The most difficult part of intervening is talking to a fellow worker directly about his behavior. It is often uncomfortable to talk to a fellow employee about the need to improve his or her behavior — but it is essential. Employees and supervisors must understand that addressing another employee about unsafe behavior is not an attack on the person; it is simply about behavior and maintaining the commitment to a safety culture.

Training Supervisors To Be Safety Leaders

Many times companies place their best employees into supervisory roles. These supervisors are often technically proficient, dependable and trusted employees, but they also need to be safety leaders. The message these supervisors send to employees is so important. If the supervisor sends the wrong message to co-workers with regard to safety, it can undermine your entire safety culture and can make safety an afterthought. In order to create a safety culture, it is important to spend the time to teach every supervisor leadership skills.

Safety leaders must exert a positive influence and be consistent with the message they are delivering to co-workers. Effective safety leaders "walk the talk" and actively demonstrate safe procedures. In addition, they influence employees by always striving to surpass their safety goals; even when there is a temporary safety setback, leaders will still strive toward these goals.

Safety Leaders: Six Rules To Live By

Supervisors must have credibility to be good safety leaders. Therefore, supervisors need to learn the six management techniques for increasing positive influence and gaining credibility:

  • Role Modeling
  • Coaching
  • Problem Solving
  • Measuring
  • Relating
  • Enforcing

Role Modeling: Supervisors need to set the example. If a supervisor works without fall protection, he is sending a negative safety message to the employees he or she is managing. Supervisors must abide by the safety rules and processes that they enforce with employees; they are not exempt! Supervisors will also gain insight into the problems and issues their employees face by applying these rules themselves.

Coaching: Supervisors must develop a non-threatening coaching method that reinforces rules and processes. They must address coworkers in a positive fashion and should regularly remind them of safety successes before addressing issues of concern. A good coach must be an even better listener. As a safety leader, supervisors must always encourage coworkers to share opinions, ideas and concerns, but should also ask coworkers how they think the problem can be addressed. It is important to develop a general course of action with coworkers and let them have input on how to apply it. This also empowers employees and makes them an integral part of developing and maintaining a safety culture.

Problem Solving, Measuring And Relating: When problem solving, effective safety leaders seek the input of other people. They solicit feedback from coworkers, survey the feedback and brainstorm for solutions. One of the most difficult tasks can be deciding what to measure. Lagging indicators such as injury rates are considered reactive. Instead, a more proactive approach will yield better insights. Try measuring leading safety indicators such as positive or compliant safety procedures.

Safety leaders also have to relate to coworkers; this is almost an extension of role modeling. Employees will form a connection with others of similar experience. By encouraging supervisors to discuss similar situations that they have worked through, they gain understanding of their employees' perception and can give advice based on experience.

Enforcement of Safety Requirements: Now the tough part — safety leaders must enforce the rules. They may try other techniques to assure compliance first, but in the end supervisors must be willing to use enforcement if necessary.

Supervisors must do the following when handing out discipline:

  • Give the positive before discussing the negative. Remember — give four positive comments for every one negative comment;
  • Explain the specific rule, guideline or process that was not properly followed and the reason why the rule is important;
  • Explain the exact consequences of non-compliance;
  • Specify the desired behavior or method to assure future compliance;
  • If necessary, schedule safety training for the desired behavior;
  • Allow the employee to discuss barriers to compliance; and
  • End by assuring the employee's future success in compliance.

Continued Safety Comes From The Bottom

Creating a lasting, incident-free safety culture takes a commitment from upper management. The support and direction from upper management are important to the success of any program. Your team of safety leaders needs to be mindful that safety programs should not be perceived as "coming from the top." Rather, by starting with empowered, educated employees, your program will earn credibility from "the bottom up" and will have a better chance of having a long-lasting effect.

Editor's note: Mark Troxell started The Graham Company's Safety Services Department in 1999. He is responsible for strategic direction of The Safety Department and providing direct safety service support to construction clients. He has more than 20 years of safety experience. Troxell is authorized to instruct the 10- and 30-hour OSHA Construction Outreach programs and is actively involved in several local and national safety organizations.


Strategy: Effective Risk Leadership

  • Challenge the status quo.
  • Communicate your vision.
  • Target loss cost drivers.
  • Focus on leading indicators, not lagging.
  • Allocate costs to align with your objectives.
  • Create opportunities for improvement.
  • Empower, enable and energize team members to drive change.
  • Provide coaching and mentoring.

Strategy: Successful Leaders

  • Clarify and communicate your expectations.
  • Provide the right research and equipment.
  • Put round pegs in round holes.
  • Recognize and praise people regularly.
  • Demonstrate you care.
  • Develop your team.