What Does a Good Safety Culture Look Like?
A good safety culture is one in which safety is a core value of the business. The process of producing a product or service inherently has safety built into how business is done. Despite what you may have heard to the contrary, safety is not the number one priority or value of a workplace. Why not? Well, ask yourself this question. Why does a business exist?
It exists to produce a product (good or service) and sell it (or them) at a price more than it cost to make said product. This leads to what's called profit. That's the difference between the sales price and the cost of the product to make. A businesses mission could be summed up as providing customers a specific product that they find valuable, and to give them a delightful experience.
In a well developed safety culture, the business has figured out how to improve processes, equipment, and employee behavior such that worker injuries and property damages are kept to a minimum. It has learned to foster an environment that seeks to have safety work with the operation to the extent feasible so that the business can do its main purposes and do them well. With that, let's take a look at that you need to make your safety culture one in practice and not just one based on lip service.
Set Your People Up for Success
Resources can mean many things to many people. I'm going to summarize the word to mean anything legitimate thing needed for a goal, strategy, tactic, or similar to work. Some examples include, but aren't limited to, funding, personnel, equipment, time, and any other relevant thing. You can't improve say your exit identification efforts if you don't get, well exit signs or similar things that identify exits.
A major thing you want to avoid is coming up with new or revised policies, programs, procedures, or other rules but not evaluating what's needed to make them work as intended. Training on a procedure that requires specific tools or equipment, but not providing said tools or equipment, means that the workers can't fully (if at all) comply with the procedure. So, don't think that training alone solves the problem. It's only one facet in the resources category needed to succeed.
Depending on what you're actually trying to get done, there can be many considerations that need to be looked at. While you won't want to just throw money at an initiative or other change, you want to be open to legitimate proof of the specific needs a given site may need to get the initiative implemented and maintained.
Enforce Company Rules
Once you've provided what appears to be needed for workers to implement the given safety improvement, you need to enforce it. I know, I know. Discipline can suck a lot. But, if you truly expect the initiative to be done, there need to be consequences for failure to meet expectations. But discipline doesn't have to be the only tool in your toolbox for enforcement.
If you are doing things correctly, you'll be doing two main types of worker observations. One type is planned, evaluating the ability of an employee to perform a job or task compliantly and effectively. The other is taking a snapshot of whether or not the employee is complying with the policy, program, procedure or similar. For the most part, the planned type will fit a bit more into the setting up your workers for success. The second one, which is the compliance snapshot, will fit more in the enforcement part of things.
In particular, if you find that a worker isn't performing the job or task compliantly, it may be as simple as telling them to wear their required PPE. And that might be the end of it. But if you find it happening often with that employee or with employees in general, you will need to consider other options. You may need to do full retraining. You may need to ground the person from operating certain equipment until they can demonstrate compliance and competency. You may eventually need to go to discipline. Enforcement, no matter the form it takes, is simply going to be what's needed to ensure that workers and management adhere to the rules put in place.
Evaluate Expectations Vs Reality
When you've reasonably set workers up for success and enforce company safety rules, you've made substantial strides in improving your safety culture. However, that's not where things end. If you've ever been in an airplane, you know that the further up you go, the smaller things tend to look. When high level management makes decisions, they generally are trying earnestly to make improvements in company safety culture.
However, ask yourself these questions. Do you think a CEO sees things in the same way that a regional vice president will? Do you think a regional vice president will see things the same way as a plant manager? You could make this comparison on down the chain to a ground level laborer or technician. They have different vantage points and are closer or further away from the specifics of what it takes to accomplish something. That needs to be taken into account.
To the high-level executives and senior managers, your facility managers may have legitimate concerns or feasibility issues with implementing and complying with a new or revised safety rule. So, you need to foster a culture where you are actively looking for and soliciting feedback for potential feasibility issues. You don't want to put your front-line managers between a rock and a hard place by not following a safety rule because they found out that there is a problem with doing it as written. You want that information as you need it to see if it's unique to a few locations or is systemic to the organization. You also want front line management and employees to help with finding better ways to achieve the goals of the safety rule or improvement.
It's no small feat to have a healthy, effective, positive safety culture. But if you remember to set people up for success, enforce your rules, and solicit feedback on any issues or potential improvements, you can maintain a safety culture that protects your human and other resources, and lets the company do what it was founded to do. You don't want to entertain those that say something can't work and leave it there. But you do want to hear from those with legitimate concerns and evidence so that they can be considered and properly addressed as needed.
On the other hand, you may find that your safety culture improvements fail to get rapid or long-lasting traction if you don't set people up for success, enforce your rules, and do reality check evaluations. It can seriously harm morale and be quite costly in terms of employee injury and property damage. If employees don't think they will be taken seriously if they speak up, or worse yet they think they could get in trouble for speaking up, you are waiting for something very serious to happen. You could get a literal fire develop from people simply going on as usual, patching things up with duct tape and band-aids, and things eventually falling apart.