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What you need to know to create a great culture of safety

It's no secret that culture is one of the fundamental elements of organizational success. A strong culture produces innovation, team spirit, commitment, and discretionary effort. When a company has a great culture, it retains talent, increases profitability, and attracts the best and brightest. Safety and culture go hand-in-hand. A culture that supports safety shows its value for employees, and this in turn generates reciprocal behaviors that drive the culture. Creating the kind of safety culture you want starts at the top. Here are some things you should know to get started:

1. Safety Culture Defined
Safety culture means the shared, often unconscious values, attitudes, standards, and assumptions that govern behavior around safety, especially in situations that lack clearly defined rules and procedures. The culture's norms are the driving values of the organization, "the way things are done around here." Culture comes from the people at the top of the organization, the leaders who set the direction and model the path to success. When leaders exhibit a clear value for safety and set the tone for eliminating risk, they infuse that attitude into the workforce. It becomes part of the company's DNA. Safety culture is manifested in concrete and quantifiable characteristics that can be measured and strategically managed to improve safety, employee confidence, and production.

2. Leadership Drives the Safety Culture
Leadership's primary safety role is to build a culture in which safety is a driving value. A culture that is led by safety engages people in their work, inspires employees to go above and beyond their stated duties, fosters collaboration between workers and management to reduce risks and exposures, and creates an environment in which leadership is trusted and perceived to truly care about the health of everyone in the organization. Building a strong safety culture requires a comprehensive strategy of evaluating current functioning, defining the desired culture, and engaging employees at every level through defined behaviors and regular feedback.

3. Culture can be Measured and Improved
Understanding the state of culture, and how leaders are influencing it, is critical to improving safety functioning. Strong safety cultures produce better results and sustain them over time. The hard part is knowing where to target improvement efforts. A study of 94 organizations spanning eight countries and 18 different industries shows statistically significant correlation between specific culture characteristics and injury rates. Focusing on these culture characteristics—including management credibility, teamwork, and organizational support for safety—is how we improve safety outcomes and create a culture of success.

4. Leaders Drive Results
Creating the kind of culture where safety is a driving value (or isn't), is something done by leaders through their day-to-day actions. In the most effective safety leaders, certain behaviors have been seen to recur, including vision, credibility, action-orientation, collaboration, communication, recognition and feedback, and accountability. Our experience has shown that these characteristics can be developed among leaders wishing to become more effective safety leaders, and that when they do, organizations realize significantly greater gains. A recent study shows that companies that develop leaders alongside their BBS implementations show a substantially higher first-year improvement in injury rates (40%) over companies implementing BBS alone (25%).

5. Culture Reflects Organizational Relationships
Among the most powerful predictors of safe outcomes are the cultural artifacts of the relationships employees have with their superiors and with the organization as a whole. Several of these factors can be understood from social exchange theory, which says that important aspects of relationships (between individuals or between an individual and a group) can be viewed as a series of exchanges. For example, employees treated with respect and offered support by their supervisors are more likely to reciprocate through job performance, extra-role behavior, and loyalty. On the other hand, employees who feel demeaned or disrespected are more likely to disengage.

In Closing
Every workplace has a discernible way to do things. How we make decisions and approach tasks, apply concepts, and execute directives are all strongly influenced by our culture. In terms of safety culture, it is not enough for organizations to simply understand what they need to do to improve safety, they must also understand the context in which things are being done. For good or ill, cultural dimensions reflect organizational relationships. The characteristics that define culture are fundamentally about the relationships that employees have with each other, with their leaders, and with the organization as a whole. Leaders are the ones who communicate organizational priorities and values, build relationships, and signal what is accepted and what will be rewarded. To bring about a safety culture, leaders must lead.


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