Safety Culture: The Second Level of Leading Indicators

EHS Today - August 2014
By: Terry L. Mathis
Printable Version

Last month's article discussed developing metrics for safety drivers, the activities designed to drive safety performance to a higher level. These metrics can comprise the first level of a balanced scorecard for safety. They can be measured separately and viewed as part of a safety dashboard, or weighted and combined into a single score, or both. Measuring these activities indicates if your organization is truly working your safety plan. The metrics that follow can tell if your plan is working and having the desired results.

Second-level metrics are the result of the first-level activities which begin to improve the safety culture. For our purposes, we are going to define 'culture' as what the group of employees share and agree on, i.e. concepts, perceptions and competencies. The most prevalent definitions simply define culture as common practice. The basic premise here is that culture is not "the way we do things around here," but the influences that cause us to do things in that certain way. This methodology recognizes that an effective safety program drives workers' thinking and skills which drives their performance which, in turn, drives results. A true balanced scorecard for safety measures each of these four areas and begins to understand the relationships between them.

The word "common" is the key not only to understanding what a culture is, but also how to influence one. In safety, one thing that can become common rather quickly is a set of basic safety definitions. Having everyone in a group define or describe basic concepts the same way can begin to drive commonality of thought and action. For example, in your organization, what is the common definition of "safety"? If workers think of safety as simply "not getting hurt," that definition drives wrong thinking. If a practice does not "get you hurt" it must be "safe". If, on the other hand, workers develop a common definition of safety as: 1) Knowing the risks, 2) Knowing the precautions to minimize or control the risks, and 3) Regularly taking those precautions, they develop safety thinking that can truly help them improve their own safety performance and the performance of their fellow workers. The commonality of definitions can be driven in training, safety meetings, and other forms of communication and can be measured informally in focus groups or more formally in testing or surveys. Common definitions are a simple way to align thinking and get everyone on the same proverbial page.

Getting workers to adopt common definitions should drive commonality in perceptions as well. The way workers perceive safety challenges and the way they prioritize their perceived risks should begin to grow more parallel. Differences in perceptions should begin to narrow as workers see things more and more the same way. Again, common is the key to culture. Perceptions are also a great source for continuously improving your safety drivers. Knowing and measuring the way workers perceive the value of safety training and meetings can help you improve them. Perceptions of safety communication can help adjust the amount and quality as well as the media used to communicate. Perceptions of safety leadership and supervision can help leaders and supervisors see themselves through the workers' eyes and gain perspective on how to improve their style and techniques. Perceptions can be measured and managed, and their impact on safety results can be correlated.

Although there are many off-the-shelf perceptions surveys that claim to measure safety culture, organizations should strongly consider developing their own. There is no harm in utilizing expert help to do so, but the survey should be customized for the organization, which is not possible with most ready-made ones. The advantages of a customized perception survey includes the use of organizationally-specific terminology and the ability to measure perceptions about organizationally-specific programs or processes. For example, if you call first-line supervisors 'foremen' or 'team leads' or some other specific term, a customized survey will use your term and not some generic label that might be misunderstood or misconstrued. Also, if you have a specific program in your safety strategy, you can measure exactly how workers perceive its effectiveness. Another great advantage of a customized perception survey is that you are not charged to administer it each time so you can use it when needed rather than when budgeted. Some ready-made surveys are extremely pricy to administer and lead organizations to limit the use of them to only every few years which is not sufficient to determine trends in perceptual change. These and other advantages have led most forward-thinking organizations to develop their own instrument for measuring perceptions.

Another area of cultural measurement is the skill level or competency of the employees. On the worker level, this could be job-specific skills. For supervisors, it could be coaching skills. For leaders, it could be communication, organization and motivational skills. The level of competency is a key driver of safety culture. Each employee can be expected to become an expert at his or her job as well as a safety expert at the specific safety issues of that job. As safety drivers (such as training) dispense information, does that information get remembered and utilized to increase skill and expertise? Do safety meetings focus workers on the safety issues about to be faced? Does safety communication help to prioritize safety efforts and continuously improve? In short, do safety drivers increase worker competency?

Organizations that measure the quantity and quality of their safety drivers and then measure how these drivers have impacted these three elements of safety culture (concepts, perceptions, and competencies) begin to understand the process of safety improvement. You have to work your plan (drive safety improvement) and your plan has to work (align and improve your safety culture). If these elements of safety are effective and efficient, they drive improved safety performance, which is the topic for next month.

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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