5 Safety Culture Mistakes You Should Avoid at All Costs


Two men with strong safety culture working in manufacturing standing next to steel drums

We all know we should be aiming for a strong safety culture. The challenge is defining and measuring success in ways that everyone at your organization will understand.

“I believe that safety culture is best demonstrated in workplaces with safety processes that touch every person in an organization in a personal way,” says Scott Gaddis, M.S., vice president and global practice leader for environment, safety and health at Intelex.

The ideal safety culture, he continues, becomes part of the organizational fabric in visible ways that become normalized over time. Do you see frontline workers watching out for one another on the job? Are executives advocating for safety when no one else is in the room? Those are a few signs you might be on the right track.

But as with any large-scale strategic effort, it’s easy for well-intentioned professionals to make mistakes. 

“You can be sure mistakes will occur,” says Gaddis. “If we don’t act to understand mistakes as part of limiting our process exposure, we will drive the problems underground, and that erodes worker trust.”

Have you made and learned from any of the most common safety culture mistakes? Here are five Gaddis has seen throughout his career.

1. Focusing Exclusively on Safety Compliance

If safety professionals are driving safety programs based on legal compliance, they are focusing on regulatory standards that have been around since the 1970s, explains Gaddis. While it’s important to follow relevant safety and health laws, it’s equally important to understand their significant limitations. The best safety professionals know how to convince organizational leaders that compliance is not the same as culture and that culture is an investment with the potential for high returns.

“To be most effective with company leaders, talk with data,” Gaddis continues. “It’s not that leaders don’t value going above compliance, in many cases, it’s the fact that going above compliance requires resources.”

Taking the time to look at safety through an executive lens and considering the pressures they face related to profits and future revenues will help you ask for what you need in a more strategic way.  

2. Forgetting That Culture Is Built on Partnerships

If you are thinking about your safety culture in silos ⁠— divided by job title, department or location ⁠— you’re doing it wrong.

“Safety culture is a partnership that you can see throughout the organization,” says Gaddis. “It’s the belief that we all own safety together.”

In that spirit, safety professionals driven to improve their safety culture may end up spending more time on the floor engaging their workforce than they do in the office. They might also be uniquely focused on building their organization’s capability through high-level training and knowledge-sharing.

“Empower frontline workers with decision-making authority and the freedom to act, while ensuring they won’t be blamed for system-level failures,” Gaddis says. “When supervisors and other leaders take on the role of coach or mentor, they remove critical barriers to worker success.”  

3. Using Observable Behaviors to Evaluate Culture

If you want to assess the strength of your safety culture, it’s important to go beyond tracking worker participation in safety programs and other observable behaviors.

“I think any time we discuss safety culture, it’s tough because it’s hard to measure easily,” says Gaddis. “In its purest form, it’s our attitudes, beliefs, perceptions, values — and those things left alone are quite vague and difficult to classify.”

Instead of looking exclusively at workers’ observable behaviors, he says you may want to use a mix of factors to evaluate your progress, including things such as leadership involvement, training quality, the safety of the physical work environment and the transparency of your internal communications. Still, the truest measure of your safety culture might be the least tangible.

“Safety should be a core value, not a priority,” Gaddis continues. “Priorities change, but core values are non-negotiable and unchanging.”

4. Failing to Adapt to the Changing World of Work

On the one hand, consistency is key to a successful safety culture. Safety shouldn’t be less important when there are pressures to perform on a rigid schedule, for example. But on the other hand, your safety culture also needs to be able to change with the times.

“The workplace is evolving rapidly with technological changes to the safety system as we get more into machine learning and artificial intelligence exposures,” says Gaddis.

In addition to changes in technology, Gaddis notes the significant shifts in perceptions around mental health, cannabis, opioids, the aging workforce and shareholder demand for corporate sustainability performance.

“These and other changes are worth an honest conversation with your company’s leadership about the present state and what you believe, as a safety practitioner, is going to threaten or increase program success.”

5. Assuming Safety Culture Comes From the Frontline

Some organizations believe that safety culture comes from somewhere below the management level, says Gaddis.

“A lot of our mentoring and coaching and driving accountability is focused down to the frontline, when the reality is that significant barriers to success often exist in middle-management and above.”

How can safety professionals better address the multiple roles and perspectives within their organizations? Gaddis believes it’s about communicating with two top priorities in mind: The first is ensuring that workers are confident enough in their safety knowledge and skills to share them with others. The second is working on organizational behavior in an effort to increase the cultural value for safety.

“Looking back on my career, when I got those two elements grounded firmly in the work system, the rest of the management system leaped forward,” he says.

Ready to make cultural improvements that help keep people safe on the job? Join us and more than 5,000 of your peers at Safety 2020.

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