Improving Safety Culture in the Workplace (Step-By-Step Guide)

Workplace safety is more than box-checking and the occasional safety signs. If you want to build a safer environment for your employees, improving safety culture in the workplace is the place to start. According to research, at least.

A study by OSHA revealed that employers who implemented a strong safety and health management system noted a “transformed workplace culture”. Besides, they experienced “higher productivity and quality, reduced turnover, reduced costs, and greater employee satisfaction”.

Another study published by the Journal of Safety Research showed that a safety culture intervention (creating more and better safety-related interactions) improved performance:

“Results at follow-up indicated a marked improvement in HSO performance, interaction patterns concerning safety, safety culture indicators, and a changed trend in injury rates. These improvements are interpreted as cultural change because an organizational double-loop learning process leading to modification of the basic assumptions could be identified.”

What is safety culture really? 

Engaging your employees in safety is about encouraging them to take personal responsibility for one another’s safety. It’s not an easy process, but it’s well worth the effort.

When safety is a top priority, employees on all levels share the company’s safety values. Everyone on your team perceives workplace safety as part of their job responsibilities.

The trick here is that it’s easy for your safety culture to turn sour. If you’ll allow us to paraphrase, the road to strong safety culture is paved with good intentions… 

So, what does a negative safety culture look like? Here are a few examples along with ways to prevent bad safety culture habits.

Negative safety culture examplesIdeas to improve safety culture in the workplace
Back-firing incentive programs which may unintentionally encourage workers to avoid reporting incidents. For example, a safety incentive program where you reward employees based on declining injury rates.If you do choose to set up such a program, ensure that you have considered it from all angles. Is there anything that will stimulate employees to conceal accidents?
Asking employees to anonymously observe each other. This happens when each individual is responsible for reporting unsafe behavior of co-workers. Such safety programs can create a tense work environment where conflicts and rivalry are the norm.To avoid this, encourage employees to report any incidents or hazards without bias and backlash. Provide the opportunity to report positives and improvement ideas, too.
If an incident does occur, it’s easily attributed to the actions of an employee.Ensure that the blame for a workplace incident is well informed. Don’t just jump to the conclusion that it’s “human error”. Consider all the external factors and potential safety hazards that may have had a role.

So, how do you develop consistent safe work practices at your company?

It usually boils down to creating a safety culture improvement plan. This helps you encourage your workers to be more proactive about preventative procedures. And it helps you implement the appropriate safety measures across the board. Safety becomes a standard procedure, rather than an afterthought.

How to implement a sustainable safety culture

So, now you know a bit more about the characteristics of positive and negative safety cultures. In this section, we will outline how you can build a sustainable safety culture in your workplace.

The key elements of strong safety culture were outlined in the 1999 IOM report To Err is Human: Building a Safer Health System. Here they are: 

  • The actions at management level, and the policies that they implement to improve the safety of their workers.
  • The extent of the participation of workers in safety planning.
  • That workers had ready availability to any necessary protective equipment.
  • The way that group norms influenced the operation of safety practices.
  • The socialization process with which the company inducted new employees.

These are the basics of a successful health and safety workplace culture. All the facets you need to look at. But, your organization is unique, and, so, your safety initiatives must be adapted to it. True culture change requires a flexible, considerate approach. 

8 steps to build your safety culture

With this in mind, here are the steps to build a positive safety culture:

  1. Create accountability and well-defined responsibilities for your team
  2. Outline policies, goals and plans for the future. This ensures the continued growth and success of your safety culture.  
  3. Assess your workplace’s current attitude towards health and safety. Pinpoint any weaker areas and safety issues, and evaluate ways that they can be rectified.
  4. Put a strong incident report system in place. At the same time, work towards building your employee’s trust in the system. Workers need to know that their issues will be listened to and dealt with, and their ideas will be heard. They should not fear undue punishment.
  5. Keep your team motivated. Praise the successes and strengths of your operations, too.
  6. Put a safety council in place. Then, schedule in regular meetings to discuss potential safety improvements.
  7. Improve your workforce’s safety knowledge. Anything from daily safety talks to monthly training is a good idea. It will help encourage safe behavior among your employees.
  8. Simplify your current incident management and investigation process.

Culture of safety examples

Positive safety culture example

British Sugar Plc. is a great safety culture case study

The company had a strong safety record. But, in the space of just one year, it experienced three deaths of its workers. It was evident that they needed a behavioral change. 

The safety leadership team started a wave of culture change from the top. First, they assigned health and safety responsibilities to all directors. Then, managers were asked to report monthly to the company board. Annual health and safety-related targets were set and tracked. Finally, working partnerships with employees and trade unions were strengthened.

The company worked hard to improve their workplace safety culture. And the results followed soon:

  • A 43% reduction in injury-related time lost, over a two-year period
  • A 63% decline in major issues over one year
  • A significantly increased understanding of the directors regarding key health and safety risks

Negative safety culture example

A negative safety culture example can be found in the report by the IOM that we mentioned earlier.

At the time of the research, as many as 98,000 people in the US died in hospitals every year, due to preventable medical errors. One of the report’s main conclusions was that “the majority of medical errors do not result from individual recklessness or the actions of a particular group… more commonly, errors are caused by faulty systems, processes, and conditions that lead people to make mistakes or fail to prevent them.” 

For example, patient-care units in hospitals were stocked with full-strength drugs. Unless diluted, these drugs were toxic, which led to numerous deaths due to human error. Deaths that could be prevented.

Measuring your safety performance 

Measuring and monitoring the impact that your safety culture improvement plan is vital. This ensures that your health and safety standards continue to thrive and your workers remain happy and healthy at work. And it’s also the way to achieve continuous safety improvement in the future.

First, be sure to set clear, definitive safety targets for you all to strive towards. This is a key way to help everyone feel involved and share in the success. Then, you can move to the question at hand: 

How do you measure your safety performance?

You can measure your safety performance by making health and safety feedback a habit. Useful feedback can be obtained in a variety of ways:

  • Undertake a routine daily analysis of your safety performance.
  • Study employee satisfaction. You can find a great survey template from HSE here. This will help you gain a more nuanced understanding of the employees’ feelings about your current workplace safety. And this will make it easier to decide what changes or improvements to focus on.
  • Do follow-up surveys. This is a useful tool to gauge the success of your improvement efforts.
  • Organize weekly progress updates. You can brief your team about the progress towards meeting your safety culture goals. This helps you all stay on track.

Conclusion

Creating a safe place to work is the first step. It’s the least that you can do for your employees. And, with strong safety culture in place, you can become more proactive about health and safety. You can move beyond lagging indicators such as DART and TRIR.

So, if you and your management team are looking to commit to improving safety culture in the workplace, there’s no time like the present. So, go for it!

Further Reading

If you are wanting to learn a bit more about improving your employees’ safety mindset in the workplace, we’ve provided a few links to some useful further reading to help you gain a better understanding of any specific areas, or answer any queries that you may have.