Creating a Safety Culture on the Jobsite
Creating a stronger safety culture takes time.
- By David Ward
- Dec 01, 2022
Ask any company if they have a safety culture and the answer is probably yes. Ask them how they define a safety culture and you’re likely to get different answers. Some may point to KPIs that show how many days have passed since the last incident. Others will tout a spotless safety record and zero OSHA violations.
While data points are possible outcomes of prioritizing safety, they don’t reflect a true safety culture. A safety culture is a combination of protocols and processes as well as a mindset that embraces and prioritizes the safety of everybody in the workplace.
Building a safety culture is similar to building a quality culture. In fact, the challenge is very similar to “zero defects” in manufacturing. And as you cannot “test in quality” after a product is built, you cannot “inspect in safety” to a process. In both cases, safety is not solely the job of a safety officer. Rather, it’s the responsibility of the entire organization.
Safety Culture is Changing
For years, safety culture has followed the principles of behavior-based safety, which is a proactive approach to increasing safe behavior by focusing on reducing hazards, risks and incidents. This is primarily accomplished by observing the work environment, behaviors of workers in that environment, analyzing the consequences of their actions and providing proper reinforcement of a desired behavior to prevent accidents. Examples include checking if the jobsite is clear of obstructions, making sure there’s enough PPE for the entire crew and verifying worker attendance at safety talks.
While behavior-based safety is still widely practiced, some safety experts believe it’s time for it to evolve. Some safety experts believe safety management is long overdue for innovation. Instead of focusing on finding faults with safety culture or policies, safety managers need to weave safety protocols into all construction process participants.
According to safety expert Rod Courtney, author of the recently published, “The Eight Habits of a Highly Effective Safety Culture,” and HSE Director at Ampirical Solutions, “a safety culture is rooted in what employees do when nobody is watching.”
Jon Broyles, corporate safety officer at AMG & Associates, also believes the safety industry is changing. According to Broyles, “The safety industry is growing by huge leaps and bounds and is seeing some of its biggest movements toward safety culture.”
Going beyond safety checklists, safety culture is about a belief system, not simply completing and filing documents. As safety culture evolves, it creates an opportunity to update or change outdated processes that no longer serve the organization or its workforce.
Part of the safety evolution is being driven by the rise in digital technology to modernize outdated protocols. For example, replacing paper sign in forms with digital check in, keeping a digital record of worker certifications, training and work history and being able to analyze jobsite data to create better safety management plans, which today are largely “one size fits all” templates. Using digital tools on the jobsite improves safety through better record keeping and analysis.
While organizations will adapt and define their safety culture based on their industry, environment and workforce, the key principles of any organization with a strong safety culture include:
- Support from the highest levels of the organization
- An entire workforce that embraces safety guidelines and rules and is empowered to enforce them
- Being fully equipped with essential safety materials and supplies
- A company-wide commitment to staying up-to-date on new safety standards and changes in regulations
- Consistently communicating safety information to the entire organization
- Removing any obstacles that may prevent the workforce from following safety practices
The Role of the Safety Officer in a Culture of Safety
In a true safety culture, where everybody is responsible for safety, there is still a need for a safety officer or a team of officers. Their role is not to simply observe, incite fear or police the workforce. Rather, it’s to apply their expertise to proactively identify sources of potential risk before they impact workers or the workplace.
For example, imagine a flash flood sweeps into a construction jobsite and the project supervisor can’t account for everybody who was present. The general contractor had a dated process for managing check-ins where everybody signed in at the jobsite trailer, scribbled their name on a form and went to work. The paper forms may be hard to read or destroyed in a storm and there’s no way to verify the workers and visitors, their location or if they’ve been injured.
In this example, a trained safety officer would have gotten ahead of a potential issue and mitigated the risk. In the safety officer’s routine analysis of protocols, they would take a closer look at existing processes, such as paper-based sign in forms, and recommend digitizing the process. This way, critical information can be captured through a worker’s smartphone at the start of the day and safe two-way communication and location-based information is easy to administer throughout the day or the project.
Essentially, the safety officer’s role is to be on the lookout for potential risks as opposed to pointing fingers or putting the spotlight on incidents after they happen.
Five Signs of a Strong Safety Culture
Fostering a safety culture isn’t about instituting new policies and procedures after an incident, though it is often a catalyst for change. It’s also not about assembling a safety culture task force and rolling out an internal marketing campaign to motivate the workforce, though this tactic tends to bring safety to the forefront. And it’s definitely not only about avoiding violations and fines, though that can be an outcome.
Safety culture is part of the fabric of the organization and evident in the way everybody working at or on behalf of the company does their jobs to prevent accidents and incidents. Safety culture will continue to evolve, driven by customer demands, changes in safety regulations and the rise of digital tools. Establishing or strengthening a safety culture requires the following actions.
- Empower workers to report issues. Employees should be recognized and rewarded for identifying issues, even potential safety risks, without fear of losing their jobs or creating friction with a coworker. When employees feel safety is everybody’s job and they won’t be punished for making a mistake, safety improves.
- Don’t support shortcuts. Prioritizing speed over safety, even if a project is behind schedule, inspires workers to take shortcuts. In turn, this creates bad habits that are passed down while establishing a precedence of “this is how we always do it.”
- Expect improvement, not perfection. Since creating a culture of safety is an iterative process, don’t expect perfection. While achieving a 100 percent safety record is an enviable stretch goal, humans make mistakes and those mistakes create new opportunities to learn and improve. Further, be strategic about the way safety goals are communicated to the workforce. For example, highlighting a project’s perfect safety record to date may subtly send a message that safety issues shouldn’t be raised or reported. The message should be about prioritizing safety and rewarding team members for speaking up against potential issues.
- Document near misses. Having a record of potential accidents helps to identify and mitigate future ones. When the process is digitized, it creates an ability to spot trends over time, leading to new and improved safety protocols.
- Clearly define the role of the safety officer and articulate it to the entire company. Too often, safety is viewed as the role of the safety manager as opposed to the responsibility of the entire organization. When safety is put solely in the hands of one person or a small team, it puts the safety professionals at odds with the entire organization. It does this by inadvertently positioning them as the team to hide things from as opposed to the people that can help foster a safer work environment for everybody. Yet when safety is everybody’s responsibility, it separates the function from the people, lowering the risk of accidents or incidents.
Making a Safety Culture Stick
No workplace or workforce can entirely eliminate safety risks. Yet they can shape their culture around best practices, focusing on what they can control and consistently identifying ways to improve.
Creating a stronger safety culture takes time. Big shifts can happen quickly when organizations apply digital tools to document and analyze near misses, spot workforce trends and reward employees for elevating potential risks.
This article originally appeared in the December 1, 2022 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.