Safety Culture and Social Media

EHS Today - March 2015
By: Terry L. Mathis
Printable Version

American culture has already been heavily impacted by social media. Cultures once formed around the workplace, school, church, or other places where people gathered to build relationships. Today, people can get together and form cultures in cyberspace. It is just a matter of time until these cyber cultures are tapped as a resource to build organizational and safety cultures.

Organizations that have been challenged by their own logistics now have a way to connect previously disconnected workers and to form safety cultures via social media. Already, Facebook and LinkedIn have invited companies to form their own groups online. Many companies have utilized the internet to distribute safety manuals and guidelines to their scattered workforces via shared, restricted-access websites. Adding opportunities for their workers to chat with each other and share ideas, experiences and best practices is a logical extension of internet and cell phone usage.

Although logistically-challenged organizations will be among the first to use social media, other organizations without logistical problems will follow in close order. We often joke about people sitting across a table texting each other rather than speaking. However, the joke is becoming the new reality. We are becoming more and more users of social media and texting, and less and less users of interpersonal conversation. Recognizing this reality is the first step toward forming company and safety cultures via social media.

Sharing everyday experiences and ideas in real time is a great lure to participation for workers. The ability to communicate accident-investigation findings immediately or even to have a safety stand down via everyone’s smart phones could prove invaluable. Immediate access to another employee with greater expertise without travel could improve JSAs and other forms of pre-job planning.

The fact is workers already communicate with some of their fellow workers via social media. Groups of friends, family members at work, and neighbors who are also work associates often have friended each other and communicate regularly. An organization can easily create a work community online to facilitate the connection of these groups. Several types of social media already facilitate multiple groupings of contacts such as family and friends. Adding business associates is a simple next step, for which the technology already exists.

Organizations are already experimenting with the utilization of social media to enhance safety in their cultures. The ones that were quickly successful had three commonalities in their approaches:

  • First, they started with a beta group to prove the concept before expanding it to broader groups or organization-wide. The small groups were selected to be representative of organizational sub-cultures that already existed and had some degree of commonality and communication already. The problems encountered in each group were solved before expanding the cyber community to more members. Complex organizations selected more than one beta group, if they felt they were needed, to be a cross-section sampling of the overall organization.
  • Second, the group member’s experiences were monitored through surveys and focus group interviews to test the progress and analyze challenges. Overall usage of the media was also tracked to see what percent of participants used the media, how often and for how long. Length of comments and strings of dialogue were also measured to see if they were growing.
  • Third, successful organizations made sure everyone had the same access to social media by providing the same types of smart phones to everyone in the groups and making sure everyone had adequate access and instructions for using the site. Help desks were commonly provided for the users of the beta site through internal IT departments and help features were available through the social media programs used.

The organizations with successful beta groups began to expand the site offerings to larger groups in their organization. They were pleased with the beta groups and reported several perceived advantages which social media provided. The most common were:

  • Interpersonal communication among workers increased drastically and barriers to talking to each other about safety issues seemed to disappear. Perceptions of the importance and contribution of fellow workers grew in relation to increased knowledge of what others were thinking and how they reacted to organizational issues. Perceptions of teamwork and looking out for each other in safety reached new heights.
  • Communication of safety data improved. Accident and near-miss reports reached everyone via posts and were discussed among workers on the same social media. The testing of knowledge about recent events indicated much greater awareness of details and significance. Lessons learned from incidents were more widely known among workers. Communication of safety data was greatly enhanced and workers preferred getting the communication by social media rather than by more traditional communication methods.
  • Perceptions of organizational leaders responding to safety suggestions changed radically. Workers felt leaders were more in touch with workplace issues and were listening to workers more openly. The need for formal suggestions was replaced by an ongoing dialogue between workers and leaders.
  • Organizations with logistical challenges felt they were finally giving workers opportunities to network with each other and share best practices. The yearly meetings of limited numbers gave way to larger groups being able to get together daily.

These ideas only scratch the surface of what social media could potentially do for safety culture. Use and experience will teach the rest over time. Technology will be changing as fast as our ability to use it and that will open even more opportunities. Security of data will certainly be an issue, as it is already with all internet and broadcast media, but we will certainly run a race with hackers and cyber-crooks to stay ahead of their thievery.

Society, in general, is becoming a social media society. Savvy safety professionals will be getting together with their CIOs, IT departments, and with the growing group of cooperative providers to look ahead and explore the opportunities to utilize this world-changing social media to their advantage.

Terry Mathis, Founder and retired CEO of ProAct Safety, has served as a consultant and advisor for top organizations the world over. A respected strategist and thought leader in the industry, Terry has authored five books, numerous articles and blogs, and is known for his dynamic and engaging presentations. EHS Today has named him one of the '50 People Who Most Influenced EHS' four consecutive times. Business leaders and safety professionals seek Terry's practical insight and unique ability to introduce new perspectives that lead to real change. Terry can be reached at or 800-395-1347.

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