What needs to be done to change safety culture?

What needs to be done to change safety culture?
Dennis Ryan
In the third and final installment of a three-part series aimed at redefining approaches to corporate health and safety, Dennis Ryan discusses what organizations can do to maximize their investment in health and safety as they strive to achieve safety excellence.
[Click to read part one or part two of the series.]

Can the massive expenditures required to support basic safety element programs be justified? Evidence suggests that the return in safety performance has been significantly less than expected.

It’s time to invest in changing the factors that can really make a difference in performance. What organization wouldn’t welcome a health and safety approach that improves safety as well as the bottom line?

This is not to suggest that companies abandon all efforts to implement basic safety elements and shift wholeheartedly into changing the human factors. These basic elements are still useful for ensuring that hazards are engineered out of processes, proper assessments are conducted before work begins, and accidents are investigated thoroughly.

What’s being advocated here is a more balanced emphasis that also focuses on the other factors that determine how successful safety professionals will be in implementing the basics.

If management is not seen to be leading the charge by fully committing to improvement, there will be huge barriers to the implementation of any program basics. If the perception of workers is that management’s number one priority is getting the work done quickly, their behaviour will be guided by this belief regardless of the safety standards that are put in place. If a company is generally a terrible place to work, the employees that are attracted to the company will be those that other employers wouldn’t want or didn’t keep on staff. If management has a track record of not following up when safety issues are brought forward, few new safety issues will be brought up or resolved.  

Human factors have a strong influence over the successful implementation of safety basics. The success of safety basics is in fact dependent upon the fertility of the culture and climate in which the program exists. This is where more energy and resources need to be focused.
So, what is it that must be done to change from a traditional approach to safety to one that is more effective for both employees and employers?

1. Focus on human factors
It’s essential to accept that there is much more to safety improvement than the typical basic safety program elements. Just about everything useful has already been squeezed from these low-hanging fruits. Now it’s time to try something new.

Until the softer human and cultural factors in a company are addressed, the best that can be achieved is a basic safety program that meets legislated requirements, and it may or may not be effective.

2. Use all the tools available to you
Utilize all existing safety tools available to achieve workplace safety goals. Understand the strengths and limitations of the measurement approaches that currently govern the safety profession.

Tools such as incident statistics and basic safety system audits have some benefits, but one needs to recognize their limitations, as well. There are other tools available — such as behaviour sampling and safety perception surveys — that safety-excellent companies use, and for good reason.

A good mechanic uses all of the tools in the toolkit, not just one or two wrenches.
3. Strive for safety excellence
Don’t be afraid to continually raise the safety bar.

Using programs that seek to bring all organizations up or down to one basic level will stifle the improvement efforts of companies trying to achieve excellence. The goal of these programs is safety mediocrity and compliance, not excellence.

A flexible approach ensures that companies that want to continue to raise the health and safety bar can continue to do so. These companies should never be encouraged to lower their expectations to meet a standard of safety that they have surpassed long ago. 

4. Always work to improve
Don’t settle for the status quo.

Doing the same thing the same way will not result in change. Do not be dissuaded or deterred by people advocating the status quo. They are either ignorant of the need for change or afraid of what changes will bring.

Be receptive to change. One of the biggest deterrents to change is the naysayers encountered along the way.

Part 1: Are we putting the cart before the horse?

Part 2: Safety excellence — any way you slice it

Dennis Ryan is the president of Compass Health and Safety, an Edmonton-based OHS consulting company. You may contact Dennis via e-mail at [email protected]This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it