Changing Mindsets One Leader at a Time – Safety Culture (Part I)


SafetyCultureHave you ever wondered how do I get people to do the right thing when it comes to safety? Always choosing the safer option versus what’s always been done?  While working on a safety culture project for a large complex organization defining culture was a source of great debate and discussion.  What is culture, let alone what is safety culture?

Just search the phrase culture and see what comes up… so I guess simply put culture is the “way we do things around here.”  It is those shared beliefs, attitudes, practices, and perceptions that influence the behaviours of your people when it comes to safety.  It is often referred to as the personality of the organization relative to safety.  Safety culture is the decisions and actions that people take when the safety person isn’t watching, or a leader will take when forced to make an operational decision.

What influences safety culture?  There are a number of things from my experience that can influence safety culture in an organization.  The key ones in my mind are safety leadership, accountability, risk appetite, and empowerment without an understanding of these your culture won’t be influenced in a positive way.   So often we spend our time focused on ensuring employees have compliance training, that there are policies and practices in place and that they are being followed, and that our management systems are rock solid, but if we don’t focus on the keys mentioned above – mindsets won’t change.

Leaders are the critical layer to influence safety culture in an organization.  Safety does not do safety, its leaders do.  Every day, with every decision, with every action and comment.  They will influence their employees to care about safety if they care about it.  But safety leadership in a lot of cases is not intuitive for leaders.  Organizations have a responsibility to ensure leaders have the competence to manage and lead safely.  This competence can be gained through education and training when leaders are put into these roles.  Safety leadership should never be organically grown in leaders, it should be coached and trained in a purposeful way.

Leaders need to understand that their commitment to safety is important and vital.  This is achieved by holding leaders and employees accountable for their actions for safety.  Inconsistent messages abound if employees are not held accountable for doing the right thing.  Accountability means responsibility, and everyone is responsible for safety and therefore everyone is accountable. People will inherently take the path of least resistance given a choice you want to make sure that path is the safest one.

​Understanding the risk appetite/tolerance of your folks in the field is important as this will highlight the amount of risk leaders and employees are willing to take to achieve business outcomes.  It’s important to establish risk appetite first and ensure this is communicated to those executing the work so that they can stay within these tolerances when forced to decide.   Communicating expectations for decisions that impact safety must be considered ahead of time so that employees understand how to take action.

The last influencer of safety culture is empowerment.  Ensuring employees feel empowered to make decisions (based on the above) and do the right thing in a supported way.  So often leaders make decisions that the employees must live with in the field but given the variability of work this can lead to the least preferred decision.  Employees need to feel they have input into these decisions as their experience and knowledge in the moment may be critical to achieving safe outcomes.  In top down organizations employees are not given the latitude or support to make decisions but if the risk appetite has been communicated, and accountability is maintained, then the risk tolerance will be clear and empowered employees will do the right thing.

There are questions you can ask yourself in relation to what influences your safety culture…

1.)  Safety Leadership – What kind of training or support does my organization provide its leaders with respect to safety?  Is safety embedded at all levels and throughout corporate/companywide leadership training?

2.)  Accountability – As part of employee/leader performance reviews, annual bonus, and/or project outcomes, is safety factored in to those conversations, evaluations, and/or reviews?

3.) Risk Appetite – Has the organization formalized and communicated what is acceptable risk? Has there been criteria established for risk with respect to operations, finances, people, and business outcomes?

3.) Empowerment – Are employees involved and asked to provide input on decisions that impact them in the field?  Is the organization’s hazard reporting program working? Does the program drive continuous improvement or cause angst for operations?

The answers to these questions will indicate whether or not your health and safety program is influencing the safety culture or just maintaining compliance and acceptable audit results.

Just as the safety professional can’t be everywhere either can the leaders in an organization.  An organization hoping to influence its safety culture should focus on these four things.  Each can and will influence safety culture when communicated and applied in a consistent and intentional way.  From the old timers to the those new to a leader role, organizations need to understand the influence leaders have on safety culture and spend the time invoking their allegiance to the cause. Traditional safety tended to focus on the employee and their interface with the established health and safety management system but to move beyond compliance and improve safety performance organizations need to focus on their leaders and the influence they have on safety culture.  Changing leader mindsets will drive change and improve safety performance in a lasting and sustainable way.

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