How to create a workplace culture of safety Featured

8:00pm EDT May 26, 2010

While many businesses see safety as a cost, investing resources in a workplace safety culture can actually have a positive effect on your bottom line. In fact, a survey of CFOs of mid-sized companies cited increased productivity, reduced costs, increased employee retention and increased morale as the top benefits of workplace safety.

“When budgets get tight, poor safety cultures tend to cut safety first because they don’t understand its importance,” says Jonathan Theders, president of Clark-Theders Insurance Agency Inc. “Good safety cultures find ways to continue to focus on safety because they know what the ultimate downside could be.”

Smart Business spoke with Theders about how to create and maintain a culture of safety in the workplace.

What are the keys to developing a successful safety culture?

One of the keys is getting your people to look at the establishment of a safety culture as not simply compliance but as continuous business improvement. Sometimes the only reason companies do safety initiatives is because OSHA tells them they have to. They may be doing the right thing, but they aren’t doing it for the right reasons.

Once you get a grasp on why something works the way it does, or how a safety procedure integrates into your day-to-day work, that culture begins to permeate.

One benefit of a great safety culture is the camaraderie that forms. When you are focused on continuous improvement, people challenge each other. When they see people breaking through a bad habit, or taking shortcuts to make things easier, they hold each other accountable. It’s not just a management thing then; the whole organization is feeling the importance of safety.

When you get to that positive safety culture, employees will do the safe thing not just because they have to but because they want to.

How can you change your company’s culture to integrate safety?

Leadership is an essential part of a changing culture. You constantly have to talk about it and reinforce those good habits.

Culture change is an evolution, not just a change in behavior on a whim. You don’t just flip a switch and suddenly you have a healthy safety culture. It takes dedicated time and effort.

An example would be wearing a seatbelt. When the law passed requiring mandatory seatbelts, some people embraced it, but many resisted. It made safety sense, but it was ‘change.’ Continuous effort was made to educate and enforce the law, and today we don’t think twice about using seatbelts. The culture changed, and it has become a standard of living.

How do you get people to take the culture seriously?

Make sure rules and regulations are clearly defined, enforced and reinforced with rewards for those who meet/exceed expectations. Also, there must be consequences for breaking procedures or taking shortcuts. Whether it’s getting written up, or disciplined another way, there must be some skin in the game for not following procedure.

Employees who own their workplace safety tend to take training more seriously. When you understand where it fits in the big picture and why it matters, safety training is a huge part of that bigger picture.

From the standpoint of training, you have to make sure that your most seasoned employees are doing it correctly. Then invite them to help with training. Those employee trainers will take things more seriously, which will communicate to new employees that the safety culture is important. It tends to feed on itself.

By integrating experienced employees in that way, new hires start from the ground up doing things the way they should be done.

How can you improve your safety culture?

One thing good safety cultures do is take a lot of time looking at near-misses, things that could have been accidents. Record them. Talk about them. Even though nothing happened and nobody was hurt, what could have happened would have been catastrophic.

Learn from those near-misses. First, take note of what could have happened and what really happened. A good safety culture allows you to talk about those things.

When near-misses happen in a closed safety culture, employees want to hide them. They are concerned about something bad happening to them, so they don’t have those proactive discussions.

When learning from accidents or near-misses, it’s important to look at why the systems failed instead of finding one person to blame. We have a tendency to assign blame when things aren’t right instead of taking an objective look at the system. It happened, so determine how you can prevent it from ever happening again. When employees see how you conduct these accident investigations as part of a good safety culture, they will want to integrate themselves into the process because they don’t see it as a fault-finding mission where someone is going to be fired.

Another aspect of successful safety cultures is their focus on encouragement and reward. It could be as simple as a pat on the back. It could be high marks in a performance appraisal, money or a gift card. Whatever it is, you are recognizing good safety practices.

A good safety culture also helps you identify hidden costs. There are the obvious costs of worker injury, but you also have overtime for other employees, replacing the worker and the cost associated with retraining. There are so many reasons to protect your work force and ingrain that culture.

Jonathan Theders, CPIA, is president of Clark-Theders Insurance Agency Inc. Reach him at (513) 779-2800 or