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    February 22, 2024

    How to Improve Safety Culture: A Comprehensive Guide

    It’s one thing to develop a workplace safety program, but developing a workplace safety culture is another matter entirely.

    A safety program can be built in a few meetings. A whole new culture involves diligent work and ongoing cooperation at all levels. Here’s how EHS departments can build successful safety cultures and improve on the cultures they already have.

    Building and Improving Safety Culture in the Workplace

    So, what is safety culture in the workplace?

    Safety culture is a product of individual and group efforts in the workplace. It’s the attitude or beliefs that employees share in relation to the handling of safety issues in the workplace.

    Fostering a proactive approach towards workplace safety is fundamental to cultivating a culture of safety. The definition of safety culture and how it applies in the workplace is about more than just establishing safety policies; it’s also about how you handle safety issues when they arise.

    How well do you listen to your employees when they bring up problems? Successful workplace safety cultures are two-way streets. In today’s world of social media and business savvy, employees are no longer willing to tolerate a “my way or the highway” approach.

    Cooperation and openness are the foundations of a positive safety culture in the workplace. You can put in all the policies you want. If you don’t prove to your employees that you’re willing to step up to the plate to keep them safe, those policies won’t mean much.

    Here are three things you need to start building a strong safety culture.

    1. Forward-Looking Accountability

    Many people think accountability is synonymous with blame. When accountability is done right, it has an entirely different focus.

    Backward-looking accountability is the type that involves blame. In this type of accountability, you’re more focused on assigning blame to someone for making a mistake than preventing the mistake from happening again. Sometimes, blame is helpful. But if it devolves into a witch hunt, it’s no longer a learning experience.

    Instead, strive for forward-looking accountability. This type of accountability focuses on the changes that need to be made to prevent the same mistake, rather than reprimanding an individual for making a mistake.

    2. Management

    Everyone likes to believe they’re a good boss. But building and improving safety culture starts by looking within.

    Companies with strong safety cultures aren’t reactive. They don’t need to be. Safety is a part of daily activity–and a part of day-to-day management that leadership recognizes as an ongoing responsibility.

    Unfortunately, many managers get too caught up in safety metrics to move beyond reactivity. Metrics do play an important role in your safety culture–they tell you what you need to improve. But if you want to improve those metrics, you have to look past them. Look at root causes and see how you, as a manager, can help eliminate problems before they arise.

    3. Strong Relationships

    In case you hadn’t already guessed, strong relationships are the bedrock of any lasting effective safety culture.

    If your employees don’t believe that they can have honest conversations with you, they won’t feel comfortable coming to you with problems. And if they don’t feel comfortable coming to you with problems, nothing will ever change.

    The good news is that being a good leader and building good relationships go hand-in-hand. Don’t just point out problems–point out good work as well. Seek understanding and listen actively when problems arise. Seek feedback on your own effectiveness–and act on the feedback you receive.

    Reducing Workplace Incidents

    Workplace safety initiatives and injury prevention are worthy of serious investments. By creating a safe workplace and making it your top priority, your organization can prevent injuries and improve operational efficiency. You can also help employees stay informed about various ways to keep the environment safe through proper workplace safety techniques. By following the tips below, you can help ensure your staff is committed to building a safe work environment for everyone.

    • Visualizing safety: By posting flyers in common areas – kitchen, printing areas, stock rooms, and maintenance halls – you can help your staff understand proper safety techniques and provide them with different resources. Hang posters where your employees can see them, so they clearly know where the first aid kit is located, along with fire extinguishers, fire doors, and fire alarms. Also, designate fire wardens to give updated information and check extinguisher expiration dates.

    • Demonstrating safety: When you have employee meetings, take a little time to have someone come in to discuss ergonomics, proper lifting, and ways to avoid hazards in a workplace atmosphere. You should have flyers made with details on workplace safety and proper lifting or draft an email with details on proper lifting techniques, how to dispose of hazardous materials and fire prevention safety. Demonstrating proper ways of disposing toner waste cartridges or chemicals is another great way of showing how to follow employee safety procedures.

    • Teaching responsibility: Make sure to delegate team leaders to help with routine checks to ensure there are no hazardous areas. They should report things such as seeing overloaded outlets, spills or waste cartridges that haven't been disposed of properly. This can include things like improperly throwing liquids or glass in the trash.

    • Using ergonomic tools: Employees should be given access to adjustable monitors; wrist supports and adjustable keyboard trays. Reducing neck strains can help cut down on headaches and migraines.

    • Promoting sustainability: Encourage your employees to recycle by having clearly labeled bins at their disposal. That way you’ll know your staff is doing their part to protect the environment. They should also make sure all recyclable materials are separate from trash, and both should be taken out and disposed in their proper receptacles. Housekeeping staff should also be on board with your recycling efforts.

    How to Evaluate a Safety Culture in 3 Steps

    What makes a safety culture succeed? Is it a list of policies? Your PPE? Your number of incidents?

    The drivers behind a successful safety culture are complex and how to improve the safety culture within your organization involves a multifaceted approach. . They essentially boil down to how you communicate safety and how your employees perceive safety in relation to management priorities. As such, evaluating your safety culture is all about assessing context clues.

    Here’s how to evaluate a safety culture in three easy steps. 

    1. Review Your Programs and Policies

    When determining how to improve the safety culture in your organization, the first step is to take a long, hard look at your health and safety procedures, along with your safety programs and policies. This sounds simpler than it is in practice.

    We’re talking about taking a deep dive into all of your documentation. These are the documents that spell out the real lay of the land for your communications channels, work order processes, incentives, and incident investigation, among other processes.

    This is also the home of your program language, which is more important than you think. Remember, your programs are the first tool of safety communication. If your programs are designed in a way that is inherently punitive and the language reflects this, you’re already at a disadvantage when trying to encourage a culture of openness and communication.

    2. Communicate with Leadership and Employees

    This leads into the second step, which is communicating with leadership and employees. This is your first opportunity to take a step toward active culture assessment, and it needs to be handled with care.

    A culture of employee engagement is critical to the health of your safety culture, but the role of management is more formative than many people realize. Employees tend to follow their manager’s lead, even through cues that managers don’t realize they’re sending. For example, ordering all employees to wear hard hats in a certain area falls flat if managers never wear hard hats in that area.

    The key at this step is to assess how you’re communicating safety. In other words, what messages are your managers sending, regardless of whether or not they mean to? And how are your employees interpreting those messages?

    3. Assess Your Safety Training

    Finally, take a good look at your safety training, as this is one of the most overt forms of safety communication you have in your toolkit.

    Training employees demonstrates your commitment to safety, but it also gives employees clues as to the flavor of your commitment. If trainings are rote and tend to be doled out punitively, it tells employees that you think of safety as a box to be checked, not a core value.

    Five Ideas for Promoting a Culture of Safety at Work

    When it comes to cultivating a culture of safety at work, the right training procedures can make all the difference in the world. Safety tools come in all shapes and sizes. Here are five techniques to help your team adopt a responsible attitude so safety becomes ingrained in your company culture.

    1. Practice “Good Housekeeping”

    Workplace safety is greatly affected by the tidiness of the work environment. From workplace ergonomics to literal tidiness, workers can be made aware of “good housekeeping” practices through a well-planned campaign. Use posters, meetings, and/or social media and emails to reinforce the overall campaign. These safety rules should be clearly communicated and consistently enforced to ensure they become a natural part of daily routines. 

    2. Perform Regular Job Safety Analysis

    A job safety analysis (JSA) is a breakdown of every step involved in completing a particular task, along with the hazards that are present during each step. Finally, the actions your employees can take to mitigate those hazards can reduce incidents and improve overall safety.

    3. Schedule “Toolbox Talks”

    Toolbox talks are casual gatherings that focus on one small aspect of safety. They are very specific talks, and are often led by an employee. These are not long meetings, but rather 15-minute gatherings so everyone can bone up on particular safety issues you’d like to point out.

    4. Rally the Troops Around PPE for a Month

    The personal protective equipment (PPE) in use at your company is necessary when hazards just can’t be removed or avoided. Make sure everyone remembers the protocol for their PPE: what to use and when, plus proper maintenance.

    5. Don’t Leave Your Contractors Out of the Conversation

    Contractors who perform their work at your job sites are part of your safety culture, too. Everything that applies to your regular employees can be applied to your contractors as well, when it comes to safety.

    Should Remote Workers Be Part of Your Safety Culture?

    On-site hazards aren’t the only threats to your safety culture. If you have remote workers, you still have the obligation of keeping them safe on the job. Keeping remote workers safe on the job is an up-and-coming challenge that many companies find they are not prepared for – or even realize they need to be prepared.

    When employees work from home, you’re no longer able to control the quality of their work environment. Things like a suitable workspace, smoke detectors, and the absence of trip or safety hazards aren’t guarantees. But some states deem that this lack of ability to regulate the work environment is irrelevant.

    Workplace Safety Issues for a Remote Workforce

    You might not realize it, but telecommuters are covered by your workers' compensation insurance in some states. If a worker trips and becomes injured while on their way to check an email or breaks a leg tripping over a dog while trying to retrieve a briefcase from the car, your company could be held liable.

    These examples sound a bit far-fetched, but similar instances have been ruled compensable. If you have remote workers, you need to consider the safety of their work environment. The first place to start is by checking your state’s workers' compensation laws and requirements, as these will vary by state.

    Best Practices for Work at Home Safety

    Managing the safety of remote workers is new territory for many companies. The following best practices can help you integrate your telecommuters into your organization's safety culture.

    • Conduct physical inspections of an employee’s remote work environment and spot potential hazards.

    • Define the boundaries of a home office. Without establishing these boundaries, employers could be held liable for any safety incidents on the employee’s property.

    • Have your remote workers work a specific schedule. Not having regular working hours (regardless of when those hours are worked) could also put you at liability for any incident that occurs within the employee’s workspace.

    • Maintain a specific list of employee responsibilities and scope of work. This prevents an employee from claiming an injury in their workspace unrelated to their work.

    • Consider offering flexible remote work rather than a permanent work-from-home position. Having workers on-site for part of their work week limits the amount of time they’re working in their own, unregulated environment.

    • Provide safety training to remote workers just as you would your on-site employees. 
      • Read this guide to learn more about safety training strategies and tools.

    • Require remote workers to attend safety meetings and get them involved in safety-related campaigns, even if it’s via Zoom.

    • Provide telecommuters with a list of safety practices they can put to use in their home workspace, such as best practices for sitting at their desk, taking breaks, and doing safety sweeps of their work area.

    • Offer recommendations for ergonomic chairs, mouse pads, and other office equipment. If it’s in the budget, offer to reimburse all or a portion of their purchase. It’s the same as purchasing equipment for your on-site workers, plus it helps reduce the risk of workers incurring an injury while working from home.

    Why It’s Important to Focus on Remote Worker Safety Now

    Remote workers may not play a role in your organization right now, but that may change in the near future. Studies predict that by the year 2020, nearly half of the country’s workforce will operate remotely in some capacity.

    Of course, the number of remote workers in your company will largely depend on your industry and job requirements. But even if you don’t foresee a burgeoning remote workforce, don’t think you’re completely immune to it. There’s a growing demand among workers for more flexible hours and work arrangements, which has heralded an equally growing flexibility of companies to offer such benefits.

    No one’s forcing you to join these companies, but not doing so could mean becoming unable to attract or retain top talent. This is a huge problem for EHS leaders because high turnover and low employee satisfaction affect the strength of your safety culture. It’s in your best interest to start preparing for a potential shift now before it becomes a focus later.

    Getting your remote workforce involved in your company’s safety culture should be as much of a priority as keeping your on-site team safe on the job. Their productivity and performance can still be affected by off-site hazards, which impacts your company as a whole. It’s up to you to keep them engaged, even when you’re not able to see them in person.

    Two Safety Culture Models to Try in Your Organization

    What kind of safety culture do you have? Like any other form of culture, safety cultures are quite diverse, as are the approaches to culture. The way in which you think about culture, and the way in which you enact culture, has a profound impact on how your organization handles safety.

    Having the right framework is a good place to start, especially if you’re looking to improve your safety culture. The LEAD safety culture model and the Dupont Bradley Curve are safety culture models that offer a markedly different approach (leadership in one, mentality in the other). Regardless of what fits your organization, both options offer a smarter way to conceptualize culture–and realize growth.

    LEAD Model

    The LEAD safety culture model focuses on the skills that make an effective safety leader, summarized by the acronym LEAD:

    • Leverage (recognizing achievements, providing clarity, and coordinating work)
    • Energize (inspire, empower, and assist workers in growing new safety skills)
    • Adapt (learning from past performance to build safety resilience)
    • Defend (teaching vigilance, monitoring work, and driving accountability)

    Each of these skills drives a particular mindset, which can be categorized in one of two dimensions: promote/prevent or flexibility/stability. A promotion focus is about emphasizing achievement and proactivity, while a prevention mindset is about taking a careful approach to work. A flexibility mindset means workers are more receptive to change in the workplace, while a stability mindset means that workers draw on established ways of doing things to plan work in advance.

    The LEAD safety culture model is broken into four phases:

    1. Prepare
    2. Measure
    3. Implement
    4. Embed

    At each phase, the model focuses on learning from the workforce and leveraging their support to communicate between management and employees and get employees involved in implementing a safer work culture.

    DuPont Bradley Curve

    The DuPont Bradley Curve is an old safety model proposed in 1994 by Vernon Bradley, when DuPont CEO Ed Woolard put together a team to develop a system that would allow sustainable and lasting improvements in organizational safety.

    The idea is to help organizations understand where their safety culture is in development, where their current culture falls short, and what they can do to grow.

    The curve is displayed on an XY graph, with the X-axis showing relative culture strength and the Y-axis showing injury rates, the curve sloping down from the high point of the Y-axis to the furthest point of the X-axis.

    In the Bradley Curve, there are four stages of organizational safety maturity:

    1. Reactive
    2. Dependent
    3. Independent
    4. Interdependent

    In the reactive stage, organizations believe accidents are inevitable, safety is based on instinct, and no one takes responsibility. In the dependent stage, people view safety as following the rules, and responsibility for safety is placed solely on safety overseers. In the independent stage, employees and managers at every level take individual responsibility for safety, believing safety is achieved when everyone looks after themselves. Finally, in the interdependent stage, employees and managers take collective action as teams, believing safety is part of the shared culture of an organization and that a zero-injury rate is an achievable goal.

    In this sense, the Bradley Curve is very much a behavior-based model. It looks to improve safety by changing safety behavior over time.

    These safety culture models have one key feature in common: they rely on an organization taking action to see cultural growth. And to do that, you need tools that tell you where you stand.

    How to Change the Safety Culture in Your Organization: Helpful Tips

    With these safety culture examples and best practices, including deeper insights on how to improve safety culture at the workplace, you’ll want to apply creativity, patience and an open mind. This will help get the safety message across. Remember: cultivating a safety culture at work is a lot like growing a garden: it takes time, consistent effort and all the right conditions in place for growth.

    If you have more questions about how to build a truly great culture, don’t hesitate to check out our safety blog for more useful ideas and tips.


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    Katy Lyden, MS, OHST

    Katy Lyden is a Domain Analyst and EHS Subject Matter Expert for StarTex Software, the company behind EHS Insight. Prior to her current role, Katy spent 17 years successfully leading EHS programs for several large companies within the manufacturing industry. Katy is a Navy veteran, retired Emergency Medical...