By Phil La Duke
The approach d’jour to improving worker safety is to change the organizational culture to one that is more supportive of worker safety. The idea is so pervasive in the market place that many of those who recently were purveyors of Behaviour-Based Safety (BBS) have quickly switched to “cultural interventions” despite being thoroughly unqualified to provide such services. It seems that every consultant that has read a book about culture is now promising to build a safety culture and solve all your problems.
The basic idea is correct; an organization’s culture can either make or break the safety function’s efforts. Furthermore, if an organization is going to change it has to do more than rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic, it has to reengineer its foundation; it needs to change at a molecular level. It requires transforming the mission, shared values, and norms of the organization.
There’s a very simple flaw in all this: as a rule, safety professionals don’t lead change of this magnitude and no mater how great their desire attempts by safety professionals to effect real permanent change will fail.
Timing Is Everything
Culture change must be pushed from above and getting that level of buy-in is likely to require a level of dissatisfaction that goes far beyond worker safety. Culture change typically is driven by a larger business need for change. For example, all organizations have a maturation cycle—they begin as entrepreneurships, evolve into professionally managed companies, and so on until they reach the point of philanthropic organizations. Every time a company transitions from one stage to the next, it must reevaluate its values, mission, and vision. Another opportunity for cultural change is when a company is facing bankruptcy and must drastically revamp its business model. In either of these cases, the larger business need for change affords a wonderful opportunity to include safety in the new agenda.
Collaboration Is Key
If the safety professional is going to capitalize on the changes being driven for other purposes he or she must be prepared and ready for the transformational push, and positioned such that safety is more than just an attractive addition to cultural intervention, but an essential one.
The key to this preparation and positioning lies in collaboration. Safety professionals need to make a concerted effort to partner with other functions. The first relationship that safety professionals should cultivate is with the process excellence group. A proven track record of collaborating with the process improvement group, positions the safety function as key resource in organizational change. Even the simplest changes will likely involve the process excellence group, and big organizational changes will most certainly employ these professionals.
Another essential collaborative relationship should be between Safety and Legal. The legal department will likely be significantly involved in the architecture of change, and the more closely Safety is involved at the beginning of the intervention the more likely Safety can insinuate itself into the organizational changes.
Get On Board Early
Beyond collaborating with other functions, safety professionals need to understand the big picture of why the change is necessary, and what the change is expected to bring in terms of benefits to the organization. A safety professional who understands the goals of the intervention is far more likely to make worker safety a part of these goals than one who is not sure of the role safety will play in the new order.
Climate Change Versus Culture Change
I’ve met many safety professionals who sit around congratulating themselves for already changing the corporate culture to one that values safety. Hogwash. In most of these cases they have been successful in changing the climate—something important, and an accomplishment in its own right, but not the same as changing the culture. Culture change isn’t dependent on personalities, enforcement, or policies, but climate change is. It can be difficult to see a meaningful distinction between culture and climate, but the most important difference is that climate change is typically a temporary change that is easily disrupted by a change in leadership.
Changing the organization’s view of safety is challenging and doesn’t happen over night. In fact, the process of changing a corporate culture such that it values safety can take years. But with the right positioning and partnerships, safety professionals can play a pivotal and valuable role in culture change.
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