• Building a Safety Culture
    December 21, 2023
    Microphone branded with RSS logo against a blue background

    I recently sat down with my colleague, Dr. Russ Vernon, to discuss what safety culture is, and why it matters. Russ has been with Risk and Safety Solutions for six years as a subject matter expert, but before that worked within the University of California system since starting as a graduate student in 1987. His expertise extends into EH&S, risk management, health and safety, chemistry, and compliance so he was the textbook candidate to sit down and talk about safety culture overall, and how organizations can manage their own safety cultures.

    Emily: What is safety culture?
    Russ: Culture itself is an organization of values, beliefs, and attitudes. Everyone has an idea of culture and most of us have different cultures that we live in. Safety culture is just the attitudes and behaviors about safety that exist within the organization in which you work. If you work in a workgroup, you're going to have a safety culture, if you work in a department or division that unit will have a culture that should be similar but maybe a little bit different from workgroup culture, and the larger the organization is going to have a culture with language, expectations, attitudes, and beliefs about safety.

    Part of the challenge of managing safety culture is the difference between what we say we do and what we actually do, that is where safety culture lives.

    Emily: How can someone measure safety culture?
    Russ: It's indeed a significant challenge. The measurement of safety culture often falls within the domains of organizational psychology and sociology. Organizational psychologists typically focus on safety culture change, while sociologists generally observe and identify existing cultural aspects. Surveying individuals, observing behaviors, and analyzing relevant data, such as injury and near-miss rates, are common methods. The crucial aspect is understanding what people say, what they do, and how these factors impact safety culture. Using both surveys and other data collection methods is essential in gaining insights into the nuances of safety culture within an organization.

    Emily: So, say you have an organization that has decided they want to have a stronger safety culture. What are the steps? What does that look like?
    Russ: The first step involves conducting a survey to gauge the existing safety culture. This survey should delve into how employees feel about the organization, its leadership, and their working conditions. Data on injury rates and comparisons with similar organizations are also crucial. Once the survey results are compiled, they are presented to leadership, emphasizing the need for a stronger safety culture.

    Next, a grassroots organization is formed to facilitate communication between the workforce and leadership. This group, ideally representative of a wide range of employees, collaborates on identifying areas for improvement. Engaging with those directly involved in the work process is key, as they often have valuable insights into safety challenges.

    Projects are then developed based on the identified problems, with input from the workforce. For example, addressing a confrontational issue related to obtaining personal protective equipment (PPE) led to significant improvements in a manufacturing company. They made gloves readily available, eliminated confrontation, and tracked usage without judgment. This approach resulted in a substantial reduction in hand injuries.

    The process is iterative, with continuous feedback and improvements. Ultimately, building a stronger safety culture requires ongoing commitment, communication, and collaboration between leadership and the workforce.

    Emily: What are some of the critical factors that contribute to a positive safety culture?
    Russ: One key factor is aligning expectations with safety goals. When job descriptions and performance expectations emphasize safety, people prioritize it for personal and organizational benefits. Another is caring about individuals and fostering open communication are crucial. Connecting rewards to safety improvements can motivate employees, as they focus on what brings recognition and raises. And finally taking the time to engage in conversations, listen to concerns, and convey genuine care builds a positive safety culture. The adage holds true: "Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care." This approach encourages a collective effort to report issues and seek improvements, creating a safer and more productive organizational environment.

    Emily: What are some ongoing challenges, and how can you address them?
    Russ: One significant challenge is complacency, where people may feel that improvements are sufficient and neglect further efforts. To address this, it's crucial to repeatedly assess the current state of the safety culture by engaging stakeholders in open discussions about their concerns and the use of surveys. Creating a non-threatening environment encourages honest feedback. Tackling low-hanging fruit issues and continually iterating on improvements is essential because safety culture is dynamic. If you stop striving for enhancement, the culture may regress, hindering progress in injury reduction and overall organizational well-being.

    Emily: Can you discuss the relationship between safety culture and incident reporting?
    Russ: Absolutely. While incident reporting is crucial, the overall approach and attitude within an organization are equally important. An example from my time as the EH&S director at UC Riverside illustrates this. The Campus policy required each department to conduct safety inspections. We introduced a report comparing faculty and departments based on self-inspection protocols. Initially, no one tracked or identified criteria for these inspections. There was a philosophy of self-management which led to inconsistent reporting between labs. Quarterly reports to deans and faculty highlighted issues and the gaps between policy expectations and reality. With this report, chairs and deans could see the compliance gaps. By focusing on audits and addressing resource challenges, we significantly improved the safety culture.

    The UC Chief Risk Officer implanted a program to apply unspent employee injury recovery funds to prevent injuries through a Be Smart About Safety (BSSAS) program. This approach allowed us to allocate resources where injuries were most frequent, leading to impactful solutions and a safer environment. The key is upper management buy-in, where leaders are willing to listen and allocate resources based on identified needs.

    Emily: What is the difference between a safety program and a safety culture?
    Russ: Safety culture is the real-world attitudes and approaches people have toward safety, while a safety program consists of the steps taken to enhance and comply with safety standards. Safety programs often focus on achieving compliance as the minimum expectation, using rules and restrictions. However, true cultural improvement involves fostering a deeper understanding of rules, their purpose, and creating a dialogue. For instance, simply enforcing speed limits doesn't make drivers safer; understanding the reasons behind the rules and encouraging responsible behavior does. Safety culture centers on individuals comprehending rules, expectations, and making informed decisions for a safer environment.

    Emily: What's the role of training and continuous improvement in educating people about safety culture or your organization's safety culture?
    Russ: It's a crucial aspect because traditional rule-based training often involves one-way communication, making it less effective. Improving safety culture requires a two-way conversation. For example, discussing regulations and then understanding how they impact individuals fosters engagement. In academia, researchers have specific goals, like completing projects. By aligning safety guidelines with their objectives and offering efficient tools, we bridge the gap between organizational and individual goals. Conversations, inspections, audits, and feedback loops are essential for understanding and improving the safety landscape. Transparency in reporting changes and their impact is vital in transitioning from the current organizational culture to a safer, more collaborative one.

    Emily: One thing you've stressed is the significance of open communication and transparency in safety culture. Can you elaborate on the importance of communication in this context?
    Russ: Absolutely. I envision technology that provides rapid feedback about the choices and actions users take. It is having IT take the place of a safety professional looking over everyone’s shoulder. Take, for instance, our efforts in training AI to offer guidance based on user interactions. Enhancing this capability to observe user actions and provide tailored suggestions could significantly ease their workflow. Additionally, implementing a survey tool would enhance our ability to gather valuable feedback. Currently, our success with RSS Chemicals is attributed to instant hazard information access during inventory checks. We aim to create a two-way communication channel in our software, fostering a dialogue about safety culture and improvements. By expanding the information exchange beyond user requests, we can provide administrators with insights into their organization's safety landscape and suggest actionable improvements. This, coupled with advancements in how our tools offer guidance, holds immense potential for elevating safety culture to new heights.

    Emily: Where do you see safety culture going? Do you see any trends or advancements that could impact it in the future?
    Russ: Well, we've transitioned from a compliance-focused culture to one centered on continuous improvement. Initially, it was about doing the bare minimum to solve problems, but now we're focused on reducing administrative burdens and providing guidance for improvement. Safety culture has evolved from compliance to a more caring approach, moving away from a top-down model to instill a culture of caring at every organizational level. Despite challenges, like frequent turnovers in top management, fostering a caring culture can drive significant improvements. We've shifted the emphasis from ranking culture to measuring it accurately.

    Author

    Emily Slonim
    Emily Slonim
    Lead Communications Analyst
    Risk and Safety Solutions

    Subject Matter Expert

    Russ Vernon
    Russ Vernon, Ph.D.
    EH&S Business Development Manager
    Risk and Safety Solutions

Interested in more information?

Contact us