Creating a Culture of Safety: More Than a Kitschy Catchphrase

creating a culture of safety

You’ve probably seen it before: a well-meaning cartoon safety poster hanging in your company warehouse about ladder safety; complete with a catchy slogan like, “while on a ladder, never step back to admire your work.”

Reminders like these are good for a chuckle, but are they actually effective?

All too often, organizations espouse the value of safety by pasting the walls with posters like these, making safety one of the organization’s core values while meeting only the minimum requirements for safety awareness, training and protective equipment.

Unfortunately, the critical importance of safety is seldom taken seriously unless there’s a serious accident in the workplace.

3 Misconceptions About Safety Culture

The term safety culture, coined in 1988, has become a very common concept in the world of safety, and for good reason.

As evidenced by the many significant accidents and incidents over the years, even though organizations may say safety is important, the underlying culture of the organization puts safety down on the list of priorities.  A company may even have the systems in place to track safety and to meet regulations imposed on them, but safety isn’t what is truly valued at the end of the day or what drives day-to-day behavior in the field.

There are a number of recent incidents around the world that leave me wondering: if organizations are talking about safety culture all the time, why aren’t we able to drive safety values and thinking into their DNA?

Why aren’t more organizations able to embrace safety culture in a meaningful and sustainable way?  Here are 3 misconceptions that are keeping organizations from truly embracing safety into their culture:

1. Although many people use the term “safety culture”, the current methods for assessing and transforming culture tend to fall very heavily on the safety side and less so on the culture side.

In order to truly drive safety as a value in ways that change behavior at all levels in an organization, it’s time for the field to acknowledge a critical need to bring safety and culture into more of a balance in the assessment and transformation of organizations.

2. The way in which we intervene to drive safety performance needs to be turned on its head.  Addressing the symptoms without addressing the root causes of unsafe behavior doesn’t create sustainable improvement.

This is not to suggest that this shift in approach is not happening.  One example of a cultural evolution is the Aviation Safety Action Program (ASAP), developed for use in the aviation industry by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Integrating a completely new system into the DNA of airlines made it possible for companies to identify risks before they result in accidents, thereby giving them the ability to proactively address potential hazards.  This process also fundamentally changed the way in which safety is viewed in organizations.  Rather than being something that people hide away for fear of punishment, employees are rewarded (not be punished) for voluntarily disclosing near misses and breaches of safety before they come to light in some other way.

3. The term “culture of safety” creates the impression that safety is the only positive outcome of understanding and shaping a culture.

Contrarily, research shows that organizations that create clarity and alignment about what they stand for, what they value, and how people work together, not only achieve better safety performance but they also tend to pull ahead of their competitors in metrics such as sales growth, market share, employee satisfaction, customer satisfaction and operational performance.

At the end of the day, creating a culture of safety is not about catchy slogans, posters, or PSA’s. It must become a part of your organization’s DNA.

If you truly want to create a culture that values safety as a key aspect of success, you must begin to tip the scales and find the balance between safety and culture. Only then will you be able to move meaningful, sustainable change around the importance of safety in your organization.

This article originally appeared on Forbes

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Chris Cancialosi

Chris Cancialosi

Partner at gothamCulture
Chris Cancialosi is a recognized expert in the field of leadership and organizational development with particular focus on the leader’s role in shaping high-performing culture.
Chris effectively combines his operational field experience with his knowledge of organizational psychology to provide unique and practical solutions to today’s ever changing business landscape.
Chris Cancialosi