Why It Is So Difficult to Change Your Safety Culture

One of the areas which is the subject of a great deal of discussion is the safety culture of an organization. To test the safety culture in your organization can be difficult. If you hold a position of authority, people are likely to give you the answers they think that you want. This means that you could have a totally false impression of the prevailing safety culture.

A safety culture is built up over a long period of time within an organization. It seems to absorb all the negative things that are thought or mentioned about safety. Memories are long and incorrect. Often incidents are misinterpreted and added to the folk lore.

There are some questions you can ask that may reveal information you are seeking. An example is this, “If you were recommending a friend to come and work here, how would you describe how our safety works.” If you ask a cross-section of people the same question and note the answers, you may end up with a snapshot of your safety culture.

Another question could be, “If you had a magic wand, what three things would you change about our safety here to improve it?” Again, note the answers and review those comments which are repeated by several people.

The problem arises when you investigate a subject like this and you don’t like the answers. What if you discovered a perception that there was a culture of blame? What do you do then? How can you modify the prevailing safety culture so that it is more aligned with what you want?

The difficulties start to arise when you realize that you can’t prescribe it, you can’t force it, you can’t impose or regulate it. You are powerless to urge, press or push for it. A safety culture is organic and develops within the workplace environment. It will grow in the “right” circumstances.

These circumstances include positive reinforcement, gentle encouragement, leading by example and respect for the individual. Respect for the individual includes creating a positive environment where staff members can decide the boundaries of safe and unsafe behavior. It’s about allowing them the ability to decide consequences for noncompliance of their safety regime. It includes encouraging staff to draw up the procedures and protocols for safe working.

As you can see, providing this sort of environment is way outside the comfort zone of most people in the workplace, especially those at supervisory and management level. These are the people who need to have a completely open mind to contribute to such a complete change in business philosophy. Without this cooperation at every single level within the organization, the safety culture will gradually deteriorate.