Having a safety culture is not the same as building a culture of safety.
By Kevin Beaty
Every company has a safety culture. But not every company has a “culture of safety” that protects its employees, its reputation, and its bottom line. Companies that don’t treat safety as an essential part of their mission and operations are not only increasing risk, they’re also missing out on important benefits.
A culture of safety focused on eliminating workplace injuries and illnesses can help reduce workers’ compensation, medical, legal and insurance costs; decrease absences, and improve productivity. For every dollar invested in safety, a company can save $4 to $6, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
If you don’t focus on safety, accidents happen, and you’re at a loss as to why your employees continue to make poor decisions that result in injury. Whether you realize it or not, you have established a safety culture that is driving these results; it just so happens that the culture in question is not very good.
An effective “culture of safety” is one where management values safety and employees take responsibility for their own safety and that of their coworkers. It is sustainable, realistic, and focused on the long term.
What does it take to get from where you are today to a culture of safety? It begins with top management support. Some of us are lucky enough to start with strong support from senior management. For others, it can require a bit of selling.
Whether it’s the CEO of a large corporation or the owner of a small business, the top leader in the organization must make safety personal. That personal commitment is a core value for the CEO that must be communicated early and often throughout the organization. Management values safety when it takes ownership and leads through words and action. When management leads, employees will follow.
If there is a strategy plan, safety must be part of the plan and highly visible. Also, no matter the size or complexity of the business, safety performance improvement becomes part of the performance management system for all direct reports of the CEO and down through additional levels of management.
Sufficient funding for safety improvement must be budgeted at a level that goes beyond just maintaining the status quo to a level that enables the organization to drive significant results.
Safety as Skill
Next up, it’s important to invest in talent. It’s been a long time since safety in the workplace was viewed as a part-time job that can be handled by the maintenance department or human resources. Safety is a science that requires technically skilled and educated professionals who can help lead an organization to success.
Safety professionals require leadership skills as well, so make sure you’re willing to continue to invest in them. If you are the site or business leader, here is something that might surprise you. Your new safety person does not own safety in your workplace; you do. This is all the more reason to invest in the best talent. He or she will develop the programs and help keep you compliant but can’t make or break a good safety culture. Only the site or business leader can do that.
The saying, “What gets measured, gets done,” certainly applies to safety. It is important to establish key performance indicators for safety and ensure they’re visible at a high level in the company, alongside other core targets, such as quality, delivery, productivity, inventory turns, etc.
The Total Recordable Incident Rate (TRIR) is a tried-and-true, but lagging indicator of safety performance that is commonly used in the United States and by U.S. multinationals. It actually measures failure, as the key component is the number of injuries that have occurred, so it’s essential to also include other leading indicators, such as a safety management score, number of completed safety training courses to date, or a percent-safe score from behavioral safety observations.
Leading metrics have been identified. Research can help determine the best ones for your organization. Here are some key tips regarding safety metrics:
1. Lagging indicators can be useful but only at the higher levels of an
organization, such as an overall company result or for each business in the corporation. They become less meaningful further down and especially with plants that have a small population.
2. A TRIR of 0.00 is perfect, but unfortunately it might only measure
how lucky you are and is not a good indicator of the presence of safety in your organization. Better indicators are those that lead us to where we want to go.
3. When it comes to setting employee goals and objectives, hold
them accountable for activity-based targets; that means projects and tasks they can accomplish and not the TRIR, over which they have little control.
You have top management support and the right talent and targets. Now it’s time to focus on other key program elements. It’s a good idea to use a third-party company whose expertise includes environmental, health, and safety auditing. It’s worth the price to get a good baseline understanding of where you stand regarding compliance with country-specific safety regulations. If you’re far enough along, have this firm also audit compliance with your own internal safety standards. Don’t worry about the results or try to over-prepare for the audit. It’s much better to get an honest assessment of where you are today so you can set the right plan in place for improvement.
From the audit, develop a corrective action plan to address and close out all findings in a timely manner according to a simple priority system. Hold onto that corrective action plan and continue to use it as a valuable long-term tool. You’ll want to add your own internal inspection items to the list and keep it evergreen.
That talented safety professional you hired will prove the value of your investment after the audit. He or she will be able to target key safety programs for development or improvement, provide an overall exposure and key risks assessment, develop a training needs analysis, and so on to build out the foundational elements of a successful safety program.
Your job is to give the safety professional the tools and time to be successful. The critical need for time goes to the safety-training program. It goes without saying that training should be high quality, with a means to measure effectiveness and comprehension. But just as important is a willingness to dedicate enough time off the floor per employee per year to get this important job done well. “Leader-lead” safety training is a culture-of-safety fundamental. That means that supervisors and other managers conduct safety training with your safety department acting in support of those efforts.
Safety inspections of the workplace should be continual. Many methods and levels of coverage for conducting inspections exist, but the key, once again, is management involvement. The plant manager should inspect at least one area or section of the operation each week at a minimum. This is a great way to get involved in front of your employees. As a site leader, every walk to the production floor should include at least one discussion with an employee about safety. It does not take long but makes a world of difference. Two more tips for leading with safety:
1. As a manager, start every meeting with safety.
2. Reward individual employees spontaneously when you catch them
doing something the safe way. The most meaningful reward from the business leader is a heartfelt, “Thank you for caring about your safety.” No other safety incentive program is necessary or even comes close.
Everything we’ve discussed so far has been all about management ownership and leadership around safety. Once you have all of this in place and running smoothly it’s time to do more to engage employees in the safety program. You’ll want to listen and act on their suggestions whenever possible, encourage participation on safety committees, safety project teams, safety promotional campaigns, and even safety projects that benefit the community where you’re located. Behavioral safety programs designed to observe and reinforce safe behavior will draw interest and participation from your employees, but these programs are only recommended in a mature or maturing culture of safety, so that is a topic for another day. Make sure that you encourage rather than require employee participation. You can be sure your employees will want to join and participate on a winning program.
There is no goal line to cross when it comes to safety; we can only strive toward a vision of an injury-free workplace. Remember, there are serious consequences for companies with persistently high injury and illness rates but significant benefits for those that build a culture of safety.
The good news is that every organization, from large to small, can win with this strategy. Even in the toughest organizations, employees will follow if you lead them. If you value safety, they will too.
Kevin Beaty is senior manager for environmental health and safety at TE Connectivity.