Can you handle the truth?

Perception surveys will reveal your real safety culture

Can you handle the truth?
Dave Fennell

The words “safety culture” are mainstays in safety discussions in corporations across the country, and the opinions and perceptions of what a safety culture is are as varied as the people within those organizations. I have heard “We have a great safety culture” from confident managers and witnessed declarations of “We have no safety culture” from front-line workers. What really caught my attention was when I heard both of those statements from within the same company. 

But, what exactly is safety culture? Some have described it as the “feel” you get about an organization. Does it feel safe when you work there? In my very early days as a safety professional, I would get this sense about different parts of our organization. Some parts felt good, comfortable and safe, whereas others projected a sense of risk, discomfort and even doom. An examination of the safety statistics for those groups confirmed that the feelings were indeed accurate.

As a rookie safety guy, my attempts at communicating these differences to the management of the company failed miserably. My feelings and intuition held little weight in a technical company where everything was measured, analyzed, calculated, graphed and re-analyzed. 

Then I met Dan Petersen, the forefather of safety perception surveys. He had compiled 75 questions that were used to calculate scores on 20 categories of safety, including: safety attitude, communications, recognition for performance, supervisor safety training, support for safety, safety climate, management credibility and involvement of workers. Essentially, he was defining safety culture using 20 specific aspects of safety. This taught me that safety culture is not just a simple number or rating, but rather it is a complex array of multiple aspects — each of which must be understood and measured.

The content of the questions asked and the context in which they are asked need to be well thought-out. A good survey tool will ensure an accurate assessment of the culture categories. We need a tool that helps define, measure, justify and communicate that feeling about safety in an organization. The tool must also be designed specifically as a safety assessment tool and not just an off-the-shelf management assessment tool that’s adapted with some safety terminology.

This approach for measuring safety culture is distinctly different from the approaches we use for auditing and assessing our safety programs. Our audits focus on what we are supposed to do versus what we are actually doing. A safety perception survey addresses the softer issues behind those and how the organization feels about them. Petersen’s research identified that the 20 categories comprising safety culture had a far greater correlation to strong safety performance than many of the traditional items in audits. 

There are two options available to gather information about safety culture: conducting interviews or using a survey tool. Interviews by a safety expert can be very effective as they allow the interviewer to explore issues in more detail as they are brought to light. The downside is that you need someone with expertise in the process and in conducting unbiased interviews, and it will take a lot of time and resources, even with a smaller sample size. The survey tool can be used to get a much greater sample size and compilation of the results will be far more simple.

When it was time for our organization to conduct that first safety perception survey, we decided on the process using a safety expert. We invited Petersen into our organization and he began interviewing individuals at various levels using these questions. He was adamant that he wanted to interview three distinct groups of people: front-line workers, supervisors and senior management. Petersen believed that a strong safety culture existed when the views of senior management, supervisors and front-line workers were consistent, and that a culture was weak when there was disparity between the views. He taught me that we need to understand where the perceptions of management and supervisors vary from the views of the workers. It will be normal in a survey to see the perceptions of supervisors be about five per cent to 10 per cent more positive than those of workers and those of management to be about 10 per cent to 15 per cent higher. The real important information about your culture comes in those categories where the variances are significantly wider than that.

It was at this point in my journey where I learned another valuable lesson: Management must be prepared for the results of the survey. A good survey will have some pretty tough questions such as “Have you been asked to overlook safety to get a job done?” and “Can workers under the influence of drugs or alcohol work undetected in your workplace?” and “Does management care about workers’ safety?”

I would always conduct a pre-survey workshop with management to explore what they wanted to get from the survey and if they would be prepared to act on the results. Through that process, some managers would usually state they wanted to know the truth about safety in their organization, which inevitably would result in my best Jack Nicholson impression: “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!” It will be hard to accept some of the results, so it is imperative for the safety team to work closely with management to help them through some of these difficult truths and then be prepared to take action.

An integral part of a safety culture assessment is the follow-up action plan. The resources to work on the action plan should be agreed upon before the survey and it should be developed as soon as possible after the results are compiled. Workers will have taken the time to provide you with their heartfelt truths about safety and they will be expecting to see action from that. Don’t disappoint them by keeping it a secret.

Safety culture is a complex phenomenon, but it can be understood and measured. Understanding these key elements of a perception survey can help you find the truth about your safety culture and, yes, you will be able to handle it.

This article originally appeared in the August/September 2018 issue of COS.