How to Create A Safety Culture in Diverse Work Environments

Creating work cultures takes time and consistent effort in either direction. Offering a safety culture at work provides the employees with a sense of commitment and protection by their employer.  A “safety culture” at work is gradually becoming a prevailing paradigm in the North American environment

Recently, I delivered a Respectful Workplace workshop to a group of safety professionals. They came from a wide range of industries (from water-park developers to IT companies).  I decided to ask each of them to share one known hazard that is ever-present in their workplace. The list was exhaustive as we dove into each of their environments. The experience provided a powerful reminder that ‘hazards’ look different depending on where you work.

Defining a Safety Culture

We then launched into a discussion about their safety culture.

We’ve heard the expression “never walk past an unsafe act or unsafe condition,” but depending on the strength of one’s safety culture, this philosophy may have little impact.

What is an unsafe condition in your workplace?  Here are some possible definitions:

Unsafe Act – Performance of a task or other activity conducted in a manner that may threaten the health and/or safety of workers.

The lack of or improper use of PPE. Failure to tagout/lockout. Operating equipment at an unsafe speed. Failing to warn people in the area of work activity. The bypass or removal of safety devices.  The use of defective equipment. The use of tools for other than their intended purpose. Working in hazardous locations without adequate protection or warning.   Or, the improper repair of equipment.

Even, Horseplay.

Unsafe Condition – A condition in the workplace that is likely to cause property damage or injury.

It could be defective tools, equipment, or supplies. Perhaps, inadequate supports or guards, inadequate warning systems or fire and explosion hazards. Overlooked conditions such as poor housekeeping and uneven walking surfaces. Even excessive noise and poor ventilation pose safety threats to human beings.

Employees Must Buy Into the Safety Culture Environment

Consider while you read not only the ‘physical hazards’ in the workplace, but also ‘psychological hazards.’

At your workplace, how often do employees intervene in the unsafe actions and conditions that they observe? When employees see something, do they ‘say something,’ and if so, what happens? Why do employees not speak up or if they do, why are they ineffective?

Employees are definitely the best line of defense against unwanted events, so we need to find the answers to these questions.

Learning why employees don’t speak up when they see something unsafe, and why they fail when they do speak up, will improve the rate and the success of those interventions.

The Consequences of Employee Silence and a Safety Culture

Research finds that on average, employees intervene in only two out of five unsafe actions/conditions that they observe!

This is far too low.

Yet, this statistic is troubling for a less obvious reason: its cultural implication. There is much research on the impact of an organization’s culture with regards to its employees’ behavior.

The influence of culture on safe and unsafe employee behaviour is of such concern that regulatory bodies, like OSHA in the United States, the Canadian Standards Association (CSA), and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in the U.K., encourage businesses to foster “positive safety culture” as part of their safety management programs.

After all, employees tend to behave in a way that they see as consistent with the values and expectations that exist in their working environment.

Safety Culture From the Top

Social contact and communication help to establish these behavioral norms. When supervisors and leaders don’t deal with unsafe behavior, employees will believe that formal safety standards aren’t important and that they aren’t expected to adhere to them. Employees are more likely to act unsafely in organizations with a diminished safety culture. Yet their unsafe behavior is less likely to be stopped in those same organizations.

The result? A massive risk!

So why don’t employees speak up?

Your organization likely has a safety policy stating that employees can stop work when they see something unsafe. But despite being encouraged to do so, research tells us that they intervene less than half of the time.

So, what else is keeping employees quiet?

It’s not because their supervisors discouraged them from stopping work, or because they thought it was not their responsibility to report unsafe actions.

The Main Reason Employees Don’t Speak Up and What You Can Do

The main reasons come from their past attempts to stop unsafe behavior. If an employee tries to report an incident but gets yelled at or treated negatively, why would they keep reporting?

So, here is my suggestion for you this week.

Have a conversation within your team about how people can (and should) intervene when they see an unsafe act or unsafe condition.

Make sure employees know that it’s okay to intervene. That you expect that behavior of them.

Make sure that they know they can do so without feeling like they are going to receive a defensive or angry response.

Create this as an ‘organizational norm’ and see how it will increase your safety culture as a result.

You can thank me later.