I once worked for a very large organization struggling to improve its safety performance, their Lost Time Claim Rate had levelled and at the time this was the only real safety metric they reported on. So, like many companies in this situation, they embarked on a journey to improve the numbers and drive change. In 2013 they began implementing a corporate wide safety strategy approved by senior leaders to move beyond the numbers and improve safety culture. There were five key results areas (KRAs) within the approved strategy – one KRA was safety culture. Safety culture as I found out, was a concept that was difficult to understand and even more difficult to improve on. How would we measure safety culture? How could you tell if you made a difference? What exactly are we trying to improve anyway?
The organization had traditionally focused on health and safety audits as a driver for change, but soon realized after several successful audit scores the change they were looking for was actually creating complacency and a false sense of success. Don’t get me wrong achieving a high score on an audit is important because it means your management system is compliant and you have communicated the essential elements needed to support your employees and keep them safe.
So, how do we measure safety culture? What should we focus on or try to change? In the traditional sense safety culture is not entirely measurable… you know it when you feel it or observe it. So, began the debate… hours of discussion ensued. So, in the end we decided to first define safety culture then figure out a way to measure it.
Safety Culture – Defining what we meant?
Safety culture is an abstract concept for many… even my safety team struggled to define. But if you are trying to change or improve safety culture you need to be able to articulate what you mean and have a 5-minute elevator speech developed to define safety culture. This way the people you are trying to influence can wrap their head around what success might look like or where you are going. To describe a good safety culture typically, people will say, they know it when they see it.
The best definition I could find is that, safety culture embodies the value placed on safety to the extent to which people take personal responsibility for safety in an organization. Safety culture is often described as the “personality” of an organization, as it is a shared value of safety. Check out the link below for a definition of culture from the National Standard on Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace – Organizational Culture.
As our work progressed on the safety strategy we initially decided to implement (with the help of our HR folks) a corporate wide safety perceptions survey. This survey focused on the five KRAs and asked relevant questions under each of the KRAs. The results were very telling and gave our team some great nuggets of information to focus our efforts on for the coming annual work plans such as the perceived risk to injury without procedures in place or the inevitability of injuries and accidents in our workplaces. All telling indicators of areas we should focus such as safety training programs and our safety awareness campaigns.
With the success of our survey we were then approached by the corporate HR folks to have safety questions included in the annual employee survey done corporately. The nine questions we initially used soon became the safety climate score for a work team and/or business unit. Included were questions about leader responsibilities for safety such as my direct supervisor regularly reinforces safe work practices and safety incidents are regularly discussed to reinforce learning…
The safety climate scores it was assumed could change like the weather… from one year to the next depending on what had gone on in the business unit such as a reorganization, a new leader (s), or pending union negotiations, a merger, etc. all of which could influence the perceptions of safety in a business unit or the corporation which would then over time dictate safety culture.
Safety Climate – So what do we mean?
Safety climate defined is, the perceived value placed on safety in an organization at a particular point in time. These perceptions or beliefs can be influenced by the attitudes, values, opinions and actions of other workers in an organization, and can change with time and circumstance. The safety climate is often referred to as an organization’s “mood”. For example, if one business unit had merged with another prior to the survey, the safety climate scores might be impacted, as we saw with one in our organization.
Simply put, safety culture is the personality, while safety climate is the mood of the organization in relation to safety. The personality of a group can change but it may take a long time, so patience is a virtue. The mood can be impacted by more immediate influences and is a good gauge to determine the potential for improvement or opportunities to shift the focus on other things related to safety that may over time have an impact on the organization’s safety culture. Like for example, for us a focus on the questions relating to leaders and their ability to fulfill their responsibilities for supporting their employees, reinforcing safe work practices, and addressing unsafe working conditions became a targeted initiative for our safety communications and supporting materials.
Although audits provide a necessary function for any organization and gives great insights and direction for improvement, I believe safety climate can give you another layer of insight that can affect safety culture and drive improvement beyond compliance and the numbers. It may take a while for senior leaders to see its value as it appears to be qualitative measure that reflects perhaps what employees are truly seeing and feeling about safety in the organization. Perception is often reality and if employee perceptions are indicating that the mood of safety needs attention why not take a closer look… you may be surprised at what you might find.