Building A Better Safety Culture To Reduce Risks

The goal of many safety professionals is to reduce risks in order to prevent injuries. So why is the “Zero Injury” metric a goal that seems attainable by some organizations and impossible to others?

How often do we see a “mature” safety program – one that is compliant with Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) regulations, consensus and industry standards – reach the point of diminishing returns with the typical incentives and milestone celebrations? It’s easy to blame that on the organization’s “safety culture” – that nebulous, non-measurable metric that is a critical part of every program.

What Is Safety Culture?

According to OSHA: “Safety cultures consist of shared beliefs, practices, and attitudes that exist at an establishment. Culture is the atmosphere created by those beliefs, attitudes, etc., which shape our behavior.”

Organizations that are struggling to improve or enhance their safety culture are generally looking for that magic silver bullet that they feel it needs to move its safety programs to the world-class level. Does such a thing exist?

In many cases the organization feels that focusing on employee attitudes toward safety is the key for improvement. For about 20 years, in order to do this, many organizations turn to the “magic bullet” of Behavior Based Safety (BBS) programs. But what is it about a BBS program that makes some safety professionals cringe while  others praise it as the best thing since sliced bread?

Behavior Based Safety

BBS programs first gained popularity in the 1990s and many were successful in improving safety cultures. However, in some cases, the thought of a BBS program can also alienate some employees because they view it as a way to shift the blame for accidents onto them instead of the organization.

Many of these programs are marketed by BBS specialty consultants as simple to implement and are usually described in ways that imply they will be successful in changing employees’ level of commitment toward  safety. However, organizations that turn to these BBS specialty consultant-based programs are usually only successful when they have all of the necessary elements of a mature safety program in place already.

What many BBS specialty consultants point to when selling their programs is the classic case of Alcoa. Most experienced safety professionals know the story of how former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill took over the struggling company (both financially and from a safety perspective) and transformed it into a world-class safety leader. Basically O’Neill had the insight to understand that a radical change was needed on all levels. What was that change? It was referred to at the time as simply changing “habits”. O’Neill recognized that   Alcoa was not focused and decided the best place to start was the safety culture. He imparted his commitment to changing safety habits to the rest of the organization and it worked from a safety perspective – while also increasing profits to the point that other non-safety professionals took notice.

Learning from Alcoa

Looking back, we can all learn from what O’Neill did and how it changed Alcoa. To ensure a sustainable  safety shift, the culture must be imbedded in day-to-day tasks and functions. Without a sound basis, it generally fails to stick. As a testament to this commitment, Alcoa is still promoting this process as part of their core safety values … almost 20 years later.

According to Alcoa’s 2014 Corporate Sustainability report, their approach to safety focuses on four main activities:

  1. Identifying hazards and assessing the risks associated with products, services, and operations.
  2. Developing and implementing both design and operational controls with built-in layers of protection to mitigate the impact of those risks.
  3. Monitoring and maintaining hazard recognition, risk assessment, and operational control activities to ensure they are current and effective.
  4. Reacting to correct gaps in protective systems and continuously improving system stability.

For most mature safety programs these four elements look familiar. So what made Alcoa so successful?

From the beginning, the key element of the shift was O’Neill’s commitment to it. Employees recognize when an organization and management in general are committed to them and their safety. That is the key – without which the shop floor will not be committed either. Buy-in through employee engagement is the most important part of the culture; but that buy-in won’t be there unless all levels of management are committed too.

The Key to Safety Culture Success

Commitment is required throughout the organization – from senior officials to the newest employee. When employees are put first above profits, they know it. It’s not something that an organization can just talk about doing; it must truly make that commitment internally. Doing rather than just saying is the difference. Putting words into action shows employees that the organization is serious and that is the basis for a successful culture – whether it is a safety  culture or any other aspect within the organization.

When employees feel they are the focus of increased scrutiny with respect to safety they feel the problem is pointed at them. This is the failure of some BBS programs. However, when the company is committed to engaging its employees AND puts them first by actually addressing their concerns, they get the buy-in necessary to make successful culture change.

HETI…Here to Help

Before implementing a BBS program, a company should be sure all the elements of a compliant safety program are in place – since building proper regulatory programs is the foundation for solid safety management. There are many available guidelines relating to safety management systems (ISO, OHSAS) that incorporate the basic strategy of Plan-Do-Check-Act (as described in previous issues of HETI Horizons) and all center around the same thing. “The Doing” portion makes the difference. One of the best and simplest programs is available on the OSHA website:

The EHS professionals at HETI can provide guidance and valuable technical support on the implementation and continuous improvement of safety management systems. HETI specializes in providing the resources needed to build safety and risk management programs the right way. Whether it’s helping establish a new system … or performing a gap assessment on a mature one … HETI is available to support those efforts.