Clarifying the Idea of a Safety Culture

In the December edition of Facility Safety Management magazine I penned an article on Just Culture  ( ).  As I do with all my articles I post them in safety forums and ask for the community for their comments and feedback; do so helps me to improve as an author and to explore more deeply some of the themes that I initially post here.  One flows into another and back again.

In my most recent article I explore the dichotomy between Just Culture and the very real need to hold some employees accountable for their unsafe behaviors.  I don’t want to rehash the article here (if you think it would be of interest to you, than I encourage you to follow the link and read it, or better yet subscribe to the magazine.)

While all of the posts were positive and supportive of the positions of the article, (such is not usually the case) there were a couple of posts that surprised and concerned me.  I have talked ad nauseum about how tired I am of safety professionals parroting the “we need to change the safety culture” mantra du jour.  I am weary of people who don’t have a clue what culture even means talking about how we had oughtta do something, but I won’t revisit my feelings here and grouse about it anymore than I already have.  I would like to focus on the very real need for safety professionals to stop trying to change the safety culture.  It’s impossible.  Why? Well for starters there really isn’t such a thing as a “Safety Culture”. All organizations with more than 6 employees (this is the number where group dynamics tends to kick in) has an organizational, or corporate culture (I would define culture as the shared values and goals of an organization or to make it simpler—but perhaps less clear—culture is “how we do things around here”).  The degree a company values worker safety is a part of the corporate culture, but it is not a discrete element.  I don’t want to come off as pedantic or as if I am splitting hairs, but it is important to remember that safety (or lack there of) is only a segment of a larger whole.  Show me a company that doesn’t care about the safety of its workers and I will show you a company that likely has little regard for other process failures—like scrap, poor quality, or even customer satisfaction.

The opposite of a safety is not production.  Companies that have immature manufacturing systems have poor quality, injure workers, high scrap rates, and waste a lot of money.  Companies that seem to tolerate an unsafe workplace really tolerate poor business systems and process variation.

As long as we ask organizations to chose between safety and their core businesses (i.e. production) we will perpetuate the myth that a company can’t efficiently increase production without jeopardizing safety.  We as safety professionals need to help to foster a continuous improvement culture where injuries are a waste and a symptom of a process that is out of control.  By positioning safety as a means of increasing the organizations ability to produce more efficiently (injuries cost money and disrupt production—just recording the downtime caused by injuries can open the eyes of some old school production leaders) we can change the perception of the safety professional from that of a policeman or impediment to production to a key resource that helps production to run more smoothly and that helps to save money.

Unfortunately, many safety professionals still position safety as at odds with production, profitability, and efficiency.  Commercial enterprises (both for profit and not for profit) exists at least to make money; it’s a primary concern.  For profit organizations make money for their share holders and owners.  Not-for-profit organizations make money because unless they do so, they will not be able to serve the common good.   Money is the life blood of our world, without it organizations collapse.  If safety professionals want to continue employment in a capitalist society they have to accept the fact that safety is NOT the number one priority nor should it be.  Making money is the number one priority, but that doesn’t mean that organizations can turn their back on worker safety. In fact, companies that truly understand process efficiency understand most fully that worker injuries are the worst kind of waste and that an organization cannot be successful for long unless it makes every sensible effort to protect workers.

Instead of working to improve the “safety culture” safety professionals need to focus their efforts on areas that they can control, and those areas may surprise many safety professionals.


Before continuing, I should disclose that much of my background is in training, much more so in fact than safety.  I hold a Bachelor’s degree in Education and a certificate in Training, Design, and Development.  So it’s, I think, fair to say that I am biased in favor of quality training.  I am of the belief that the most important training in terms of protecting workers is not the traditional “safety” training.  This is an area that I explored at length  in my article, What’s Wrong With Safety Training and How to Fix It. (see the link on this page).  Traditional safety training is almost exclusively compliance based (we do this training because we are legally required to do so) and much of it is limited in scope to showing a video and reading a standard.  In the purest sense, it isn’t training.  But a well-designed and training course that provides mastery-level skills to workers is the best protection against work-place injuries. Assuming that our processes are capable (that is, they are working as designed) and are not inadvertently placing workers at risk than training that ensures the worker can do the job within the process should offer the best protection.  Unfortunately, most of this training, if it exists at all, is typically informal and is not the responsibility of the safety professional.  Safety professionals can, however, point out deficiencies in training that raise the risk of injuries.  This sounds like a harder sell than it need be: poorly trained workers are also more likely to slow production, have higher scrape and defect rates, and create other costly production problems.

Awareness Of the Relationship Between Safety And Productivity

Operations tend to focus on production.  Whether your organization builds widgets, treats sick people, provides professional services, or distracts rodeo bulls from goring a fallen rider, time is of the essence.  The faster you can provide those goods or services without incurring other costs the more money you can make per good or service provided; in business terms we call this “productivity”.  A key to fostering a culture that values safety is to capitalize on its value of productivity.  This is both easy and difficult.  On one hand it’s easy to capitalize on the value of productivity by positioning safety as a time saver rather than a time consumer, but I will return to that point in a moment.  On the other hand, some corporate cultures don’t seem to value productivity, in which case it’s tough to sell safety on that basis.  But most organizations value money and so one can generally build an interest in safety by demonstrating the effect a safety initiative has on the bottom line.  It’s also true that there are some cultures out there that don’t seem to value safety, productivity, or even money; if you find yourself working there get out.  A corporate culture that has no regard for money—even not for profit organizations—are run by imbeciles that will ultimately run the business into the ground and you will never be successful making rational arguments to the leaders of these organizations; get out and get out fast.

Linking safety to productivity is simple, but to do that you have to have some idea as to what productivity means. In most basic terms productivity is the time it takes to produce one unit of whatever you are delivering typically expressed in “per hour” increments, for example 100 automobiles per hour.  Efficiency is more complex, but in the interest of simplicity, I will just say efficiency is the cost of productivity; the greater the cost the less efficient a process is.  “Waste” is a term used to describe anything that costs money but does not increase the value of the goods or services (the customer will not more for the good or service simply because money was spent on these things.)  So in this sense injuries adversely effect efficiency in multiple ways.  First, injuries disrupt production which means the rate of production slows (because time is lost it now requires more time to provide the good or service). Second, injuries cost money (and the costs here are fairly well defined and yet often ignored) both in direct costs (medical treatment, fines, wages paid to injured workers, Workers’ Compensation costs etc.) and indirect costs (insurance premiums, Workers’ Compensation reserves, legal fees, etc.). And third, in some settings (food manufacturing, chemical manufacturing, retail, logistics) the injury may contaminate inventory and create even higher costs.  All of these factors drive up the cost of production, increase the cost of doing business, and reduce the organization’s operating efficiency.  If a safety professional captures and advertises the connection between safety and productivity and efficiency he or she will advance the cause of safety far more effectively than by squawking about the need to change the safety culture.

contingency planning and prevention

I am an outspoken advocate of prevention.  I have publicly stated my ardent belief that given enough time and information all injuries can be prevented.  But there is a big difference between the possibility that all injuries can be corrected and the possibility that all injuries will be corrected.  In some cases, things will still go wrong despite our best efforts to prevent them.  In other cases, the cost associated with preventing a failure mode is so excessive that it is completely impractical to try.   In still other cases, the possibility of an injury is so remote that efforts to prevent it are foolish and seen as overkill.  In all these situations, we have to have contingencies to reduce the impact of a process failure.  Contingencies are all around us and have been a big part of safety but many of us have forgotten about them and how useful they can be.  Fire extinguishers don’t prevent fires, rather they are contingency tools in case there is a fire.  Fire extinguishers help us to make sure we can control the fire (if not put out the fire  all together) until people can reach safety.  Similarly, tornado drills don’t prevent tornadoes, rather they are designed to reduce the likelihood of an injury caused by the tornado.  Safety professionals who do a better job distinguishing between preventive measures and contingency measures will do a better job of convincing the organization of the value of safety than those who err on the side of prevention.  We must always remember how the costs of prevention and contingencies effect the operating efficiency of the organization.

I know I am hard on safety culture, and I know I am hyper critical of the providers of “culture-based” safety solutions (and for the record I believe I was the one who coined that term although I rue the day I did) but if we are going to survive as a profession we have got to stop whining about a broken culture.  It’s time to  roll up our sleeves and partner with Operations to increase operating efficiency by increasing the safety of our workplace.  As safety professionals we have the opportunity to create the biggest increase in operating efficiency since the invention of the assembly line; it’s time for us to bring our skills to bear not just in the name of worker safety or corporate responsibility but in the name of process improvement; it’s time for us to lead.


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