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Meet one-on-one with Pat J. Karol

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Meet one-on-one with Pat J. Karol

So You Want to Build a Safety Culture?

So You Want to Build a Safety Culture?

Imagine you get a call from your operations manager the Saturday evening of Labor Day weekend. Sue is calling to tell you that Joe, a hardworking employee with 15 years of experience, fell 21 feet and is in the hospital. Joe’s lucky — he’s going to make it.


There was an issue with the fall protection gear, and Sue is investigating. This is the third time this year employees have encountered fall protection issues. Usually that means there wasn’t any protection. No one has been seriously injured, though, until today.


“Why can’t they just follow procedures? Why can’t they get it right? Enough is enough,” you think. “I’ve got to get tough!”


You intend to build a strong safety culture and ask Sue to meet you Tuesday morning in your office. In the meantime, you issue an edict that anyone caught not following procedures will be sent home and disciplined.


You know you must improve your safety culture, but is that the best way? Building a safety culture has as much to do with leadership as it does with managing safety. It has to do with creating an environment in which employees are “buying” safety and not being “sold” safety. In this environment, following procedures is second nature.


You can start by taking the 30-second Safety Culture Stress Test, to borrow a common vernacular from the  nance industry. The test will not give us the full picture, but it’s a start.


We can tell a lot about a safety culture by asking three questions:

  1. Do you have a safety metric? And is at least one metric an upstream or activity-based
  2. Do you reward safe behaviors and results based on your metrics?
  3. Do you react to incidents, including near-miss incidents, with urgency?


If you answered “no” to any of these questions, you’ve identified a good starting point for building or growing a strong safety culture. If you answered “no” to all three, don’t fret. Pick one to start. You can’t go wrong. Eventually, you will need to address all three.


What does a safety culture look like? It’s a common term with various definitions. In a strong safety culture, everyone follows procedures without reminders; employees look out for one another; and employees routinely suggest improvement opportunities and identify problems and solutions. A strong safety culture is about achieving the extraordinary in safety and health. Everyone in the organization understands the importance and benefits of safety. Each employee gets that he or she has a stake in the game. Everyone knows that individual risks differ, but everyone has risks.


There are four ways to build a strong safety culture.


1. Communicate Vision With Passion


Have a vision and be enthusiastic about it.


“The whole secret to managing a company is to articulate a common goal that inspires a diverse work group to work hard together,” writes former Navy Capt. D. Michael Abrashoff in his book “It’s Your Ship.”


So keep talking. Share your personal vision every chance you get. Your vision should emphasize cooperation over compliance. Although important in the safety world, compliance often is characterized by command and control behaviors, inspections and audits, all of which tend to evoke thoughts of minimum standards at best and negativity at worst. If you want employees to give that extra discretionary effort, then cooperation is the only route.


Leaders must inspire people. All the knowledge, wisdom and experience in the world are useless unless a leader can inspire his or her workforce to take action. Nobody exerts discretionary effort or does anything worthwhile until he is inspired.


“OK, how do I do that?” you ask.


  • Establish a vision of success through cooperation. Then, publicly display a signed copy of the written vision.
  • Define your vision in actionable terms. Ask all employees to sign it, and then post it as a public display of their commitment.
  • Post your signed vision and commitment, but don’t allow it to collect dust, literally and figuratively.
    Often people grow complacent to safety policies, rendering them meaningless.


Unlike management, front-line employees don’t care about numbers; they care about what you care about, and they know what is important to you. Above all, be enthusiastic about sending more people home safe day after day.


2. Be a Participant


Leaders can’t be spectators if they want to build strong safety cultures. They must participate. Set the example, and ensure that words and actions are aligned. Employees can learn more from their leaders than they can from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.


“OK, how do I do that?” you ask.


  • React with urgency after an incident or concern is reported. Be involved in the investigation, and follow up on corrective actions.
  • Frequently recognize accomplishments and desired behaviors. Don’t wait until the end of the month or quarter to see the metrics. The best recognition is frequent, soon and sincere.
  • Engage employees and functional leaders in human resources and other areas in safety conversations. Simply asking their concerns and offering to help sends a strong message of caring.


Being visible and willing to participate sends strong nonverbal messages that safety is important to leaders personally and to organizations. Any participation, especially recognizing effort and accomplishments, is a low-cost, high-impact activity.


3. Message Frequently


Leaders’ messages should be frequent, and they should emphasize the positive in safety. Employees often view safety negatively. If a message stresses only compliance and what happens when compliance is not achieved, the messenge will reach only a minimum standard.


“OK, how do I do that?” you ask.


  • Replace the word “safety” with operational terms. Rather than saying, “Be safe,” say, “Be sure you are protecting your eyes before walking out on the door.”
  • Prohibit clichés. “It could have been worse,” “just use common sense” and “accidents happen” all say no one can do anything about it.
  • Use handwritten notes. They are personal and influential and show a leader’s commitment.


You can’t over-communicate a message that is right, positive and supports leadership’s vision.


4. Make Safety Personal


Tell a story. People relate to stories, and employees relate to stories about safety at home and work. Everyone has stories (the sequence of events and experiences that shape what and how people think about safety), and often they are emotional stories that change people’s behaviors and lives. Even simple, ordinary stories inspire people.


If you think you have no story to tell, find someone who does and is willing to share it.


“OK, how do I do that?” you ask.


  • Personalize safety by posting pictures of important things, such as family, hobbies and pets, and connect those with safety. The photos will remind everyone that safety is important. One organization posted a picture of a worker standing in a stream holding a trout with the caption, “This is why I lockout machinery before servicing it.”
  • Use uniform chevrons, lapel pins or other trinkets to recognize individual accomplishments. These, when worn on outer garments, become conversation pieces that lead to safety discussions.
  • Tell stories that are simple, unexpected, concrete, credible and emotional. Stories that have these characteristics are memorable, according to brothers Dan and Chip Heath in their book “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.”


Leaders often get stuck on the numbers, which don’t translate well with front-line employees who must be convinced of safety’s importance. Changes — sometimes rapid ones — occur in work environments: machines, tools, employees, supervisors, managers, mergers, products, weather, etc. Each brings challenges and hazards. Strong safety cultures help organizations navigate changes and adapt fast enough to prevent new hazards from turning into the next fall protection issues.

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