A Culture of Safety: It Starts At the Top

You’ve probably heard phrases like, “Safety First”, “Safety is a Core Value”, “Safety is No Accident”, “Stay Alert – Don’t Get Hurt” or something similar.  These catchy phrases and slogans are clever reminders to employees that leadership places an emphasis on employee safety.  Unfortunately, catchy safety slogans targeted safety initiatives, or regularly meeting safety committees are believed to be the medicine that can cure the “disease” of occupational injuries.  The reality is, however, these programs are treating the symptoms and not the underlying disease.  Like medication, these “pills” can prove to be effective for a time, but if a dose is missed, the symptom may return.

Creating a Culture of Safety is the path to treating that underlying disease.

A Culture of Safety is the attitudes, beliefs, perceptions and values that employees share in relation to safety in the workplace1.  While most organizations agree that developing a Culture of Safety is a desirable and noble goal, leadership commitment to its development is surprisingly rare.  Organizations that have achieved and sustained a Culture of Safety have one thing in common; a Chief Executive Officer who articulates the benefits of a Culture of Safety and who, by both words and deeds, defines safety as a value.

In an article2 titled; “Safety Leadership: It’s time to take ‘Magical Thinking’ out of Safety Leadership” written for Safety & Health Magazine, the author wrote, “…many leaders talk about improving safety without, in fact, having changed very much at all.”  The article continues by providing four principles that leaders can use to guide their risk-based decision-making.

  1. Hold yourself accountable first. When leaders emphasize worker responsibility, they put the burden on individuals who have the least control and the most to lose. Personal accountability has to start with the CEO.…
  2. Know how safety really works. Too many senior leaders don’t understand the systemic nature of safety and focus on the wrong data. Their lack of understanding creates cognitive bias, recency bias and a sense that safety is somehow outside their control. Educate yourself about the body of major safety concepts and practices in operations, and know what you don’t know.
  3. Lead safety as if your family worked there. What would you do differently if you knew the risks in your workplace also affected your spouse or child? Keeping in mind the irreplaceable person behind every injury statistic helps you prioritize your actions – and remember that workers are your partners in safety, not your adversaries.
  4. Have a strategy. The leader’s job is to guide the organization to its destination – and that job is no different in safety. Always be able to articulate safety expectations and performance levels for one to five years down the road.

Assisting your organization in creating and sustaining a Culture of Safety will continue to be a focus of the ALPHA Fund Loss Prevention Team.  If you would like additional information or would like a personalized consultation, please contact your ALPHA Fund Loss Prevention Specialist

References:

Cox, S. & Cox, T. (1991) The structure of employee attitudes to safety – a European example Work and Stress, 5, 93 – 106

Duncan, C. (2014) Safety Leadership: It’s time to take ‘magical thinking’ out of safety leadership, www.safetyandhealthmagazine.com

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