Mind Your Own Business: The Far From the Last Word On Building A “Safety Culture”

photo of the Diego Rivera Mall at the Detroit Institute of Arts taken by Phil La Duke

There is a nearly ubiquitous conversation ragging in the safety forums: how can one create a “safety culture” within my organization. This debate is troubling from a couple of perspectives.  First, there really isn’t any such thing as a “safety culture” the fact that people blather on about this topic shows a very deep ignorance of organizational culture.  Every organization of more than five people has a culture. In simplest terms, a culture is the codified collection of the norms, shared values, and rules of an organization. Cultures evolve to protect the organization’s interests and to determine what is acceptable behavior. In so doing, corporate culture makes it possible to govern the organization.

In some organization’s the corporate culture is so strong that changing from within is almost impossible, in fact, it is far more likely that a new hire will adopt the corporate culture rather than change it, no matter how strong the desire or ardently the new employee works for change.

I’ve studied corporate cultures and worked in OD for years.  I won’t bore you with a lot of pedantic excrement filled with a lot of jargon and theory, but if you want that, believe me there are plenty of people out there to fill your head with it.

Cultures are made up of shared values—kind of shared opinions of how important something is relative to the other elements of an organization.  Organizations tend to have a value of safety, that is, the organization places some value on safety relative to the other activities on which it can expend its resources.  Some cultures view safety as unimportant while others view it as of paramount importance, but all cultures place some priority on worker safety, and therefore, all organizations have a “safety culture” albeit some have a strong safety culture while others have a weak safety culture.

Even if a safety culture could be achieved (at some point it becomes a purely semantic argument) such a culture would neither be advisable or desirable.  A safety culture would mean that safety would be prioritized above all other business elements. Customer satisfaction, productivity, profitability, quality, and profitability all would take a secondary role over worker safety.  It sounds great, but in practical terms,  it doesn’t exist, nor should it.  No company exists primarily to ensure the safety of its workers.  In fact, most companies exist to make money.  This isn’t a bad thing; the safest companies in the world are the ones who went out of business because they didn’t make any money. Pursuit of a safety culture is a mish mash of Polly Anna idealism, cheap sales talk, and excuse making. (“I’ve done all I can; the culture is broken”).

As for the larger issue of a culture change, that may be necessary but that isn’t the job of the safety professional.  There are people with degrees in Organizational Behavior, Industrial Psychology, Organizational Development (OD), or other advanced degrees that qualify them to create culture change interventions. These people have years of Organizational Development experience before they are able to lead such a change; they aren’t safety professionals who have read a couple of books or attended a couple of speeches at a safety conference.   It’s been suggested that the skills of the safety professional and the organizational psychology field aren’t mutually exclusive; perhaps not. But just because someone read a couple of books about airplanes and has a flight simulator on his PC doesn’t make him a pilot. And frankly I would prefer a cardiac surgeon perform my coronary by-pass surgeon to a butcher, but effectively they share as many skills as a self-important puffed up safety huckster who believes—however earnestly—that he has the same skills as a professional skilled and experienced in OD.

So let’s shut up about creating a safety culture; it makes us seem even more out of touch than we already do.  We should however, foster an environment where safety is valued, but that isn’t a culture change, it’s a change in values.

Changing the values of an organization doesn’t take a whole lot of special skills.  A tenacious and conscientious safety professional can immediately start creating a heightened sense of value for safety within his or her organization.

Engage Leadership

I have written and spoken extensively on ways to engage leadership so I will just quickly summarize the key points here. In organizations that place a low value on safety professionals tend to have little or know credibility with the senior leadership in an organization.  Building credibility begins by speaking the same language and relating safety to the things that senior leadership find most compelling.  If the organization values sales above everything else, the safety professional should express the cost of injuries in terms of the amount of additional revenue it will take to replace the money spent on worker injuries.

Run the Safety Function Like a Business

Every safety function that is run like a business (i.e. the primary purpose of the function is to provide some service that is of quantifiable value) is much more likely to survive and thrive than those that are manage like overhead.  When the safety function sees itself as a for hire service provider it is far more likely to instill the kind of confidence required to build demand for safety.

Position Safety As a Partner In Improvements

For far too long, the safety profession has seen itself as serving a greater good that the rest of the organization, while the other departments busied themselves making money or improving quality, or making materials flow more efficiently, Safety saved lives. And while that is beyond important, it positioned safety as a parent and a policeman, but never a partner.  Safety became the smug outsider in the organization and then wondered why nobody trusted it.

But it doesn’t have to be like that, the Safety function plays an important role in bolstering operating efficiency (worker injuries interrupt production and make the operation less efficient), increasing profitability (worker injuries cost money), and creating a lean workplace (injuries are  waste).

Lead

Day after day I interact with safety professionals who deride leadership of their organization as indifferent or even hostile to safety.  These sad sacks talk in “us versus them” distinctions that make me wonder why they have jobs at all.  If safety professionals want to effect real change in how much value and priorities they have to be credible leaders not whiny crybabies who feel powerless to effect change.

People listen to those who have something to say, they learn from those who have something to teach them, and they follow people who are going to take them someplace better.  If you can’t these things for others there’s probably still important role you can play in worker safety, but shut up about culture; you don’t know what you are talking about.

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