Establishing a Sustainable Safety Culture

EHS Today - August 2011
By: Shawn M. Galloway
Printable Version

Organizations in every industry eventually reach an important realization: safety excellence is equivalent to business excellence. What follows is a significant, yet unfocused, increase in the yearning for a "safety culture". Whether internal or client-driven, having a desire for such a reality is only the first step. Knowing where to focus your energy is step two. Internalizing the capability to achieve and repeat sustainable results is the final step. Regrettably, most organizations struggle to make it past the first step.

Core Values Cannot Be Delegated

"The way we do things around here," the most common layman's definition of culture, reaches in to most areas of operations. Like quality or customer service, safety is but one element of your overall organizational or occupational culture. Establishing excellence in any area of operations does not occur if the element is dictated, delegated, or becomes a responsibility of a single group or individual. An organization will never reach Six Sigma, a measure of quality excellence, if quality is a managed function. Similarly, companies will struggle to create a sustainable safety culture if it does not become "the way we do things around here".

Many organizations have removed the phrase "safety is our top priority" from their vernacular and moved towards safety as a core value, largely due to the realization that priorities are competitive and regularly change. Values are something you fight for and only become real when they are reinforced at or near the point of decision. For safety to truly become one of the organization's core values, it can never be delegated. Stating, "Be Safe," ten times a day reinforces this value more than doing so once a day. However, this reaches a point of diminishing returns when the term becomes so common that it loses its original benefit as people start to tune it out.

Alignment with the Board of Directors

People pay attention to what their boss pays attention to. This truism works both up and down throughout the organization. Reinforcing values cannot be accomplished without support from the organization's most senior decision-makers. Unfortunately, many Boards of Directors still establish expectations for specific safety results, leading some of the best intending leaders to manipulation to achieve the targeted metrics.

A common variable found among industry leaders in safety are clear, behaviorally-defined safety RREs (Roles, Responsibilities, and Expectations) which are established first for C-Level Executives and then cascaded collaboratively throughout every level in the organization. Over the past three years, a series of workshops and follow-up for Board members to establish such cascading expectations for multiple organizations have reported annualized gains in the significant improvement of leading and lagging indicators.

A Transformational Focus

Organizations achieving a culture of safety excellence realize that importance lies not in the quantity of safety efforts, activities, or programs, but in the quality and focus of the energy. Accomplishing the wrong objectives in the most efficient manner possible is an obvious waste of time. Yet the average organization continues to push safety energy, reactively and proactively, at the wrong target. Organizations finding themselves on the tipping point of excellence in safety culture and performance do not recognize such gains from an increase in energy applied towards safety.

A clear and concise direction becomes the epicenter. What one thing, if focused on over the next 90 days, would provide transformative improvement? While this might appear like an abstract strategy, hundreds of organizations have benefited from such a change in thinking. Many industry leaders maintain a focus on small incremental improvements over time; the outliers perpetually identify transformational targets. (Mathis, Terry L. (2011, June 1). Managing Safety: S.T.E.P.S. (Strategic Targets for Excellent Performance in Safety). EHS Today.)

Visible Results and Accomplished Goals

Multiple studies have confirmed what many have intuitively known all along. Visible progress towards established goals is a more effective motivator than money or personal recognition for the average worker in a world-class operation. As organizations significantly improve safety, the incident data, once vital, starts to lose the statistical significance valued by the organization. Random trends are left with little impact on the ability to maintain a level of proactiveness. Moving towards achievement metrics and away from failure metrics becomes increasingly vital.

Working with hundreds of safety committees has led to the discovery of a significant leveragable opportunity: bragging. While this runs the risk of sounding egotistical, experience has demonstrated that if people do not know of your team's successes, why would they want to support you or join in the fight? The most frequently found barrier to employee participation is perception of ineffectiveness, due largely to lack of knowledge of successes. How many safety committee successes can your employees remember? Work aggressively to ensure that any employee, when asked, can name three important accomplishments born from the recent safety efforts of your organization. Without this, the vital ownership and participation will continue to suffer.

Measurement is Friendly

Are those items that are being measured getting managed? Or are those measurements producing fear, avoidance behavior, or manipulation? Organizations will experience barriers in the achievement of excellence, largely due to the wrong measurement indicators. Simply put, we tend to measure what we do not desire, rather than what we do. When attention is largely concentrated on understanding the dreaded events that occurred, it is natural for our human emotional defense mechanisms to deploy. Someone is blamed.

Measurement needs to be viewed as a tool that helps us, rather than one that prompts mistrust for one another. How do individuals in your culture currently view measurement? Does performance feedback excite them for the opportunities of further gain that might be accomplished, or is fear prompted? Fear around measurement is an element that requires prompt attention, as it is pivotal to the ability to move the organization towards transformation and validation of energy output.

Programs Inherently Lead to Pushback

This aforementioned transformational focus will always be different for each organization and within each over time as they progress. Thus the need for the internal capability to focus, achieve results, celebrate and re-focus is critical. Dependency on external assistance for programs and processes should diminish over time. Sustainable safety cultures do not come in a box. There are no magical formulas, silver bullets, or other mysterious methodologies one can purchase that create such a desirable outcome. Creating a culture that provides sustainable value, and continues to focus on value-add, only occurs through a crystal-clear aligned focus and internal passion for excellence at all levels of an organization.

Creating a sustainable safety culture is not largely what you do; it is how you do it. You know your culture. Rather than trying to first change your operations to fit someone's program, make the approach fit your operations. It shouldn't be surprising that this is the most effective and sustainable approach to achieve sustainable value-add for your operations. This is the path to establishing a sustainable safety culture.

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