Can You Really Change Safety Culture?

Apr 20th, 2017 | By | Category: Health and Safety

EHS Journal - Tractor 2 by Piotr Bizior

When asked what an organization can do to improve its safety record, reduce insurance claims, decrease near misses, and “right the ship” to instill in its employees the importance of safety, many learned experts say that they need a culture change.  So, what does that mean?  Is it such a vague statement that most people just nod and accept this premise without relating it to actual day-to-day activities?

The second statement these learned experts will tell you is that culture change starts from the TOP.  I agree that if senior management is only committed to the bottom line, getting the job done regardless of how, and are that removed from daily activities, then the example they are setting certainly winds its way down to front-line employees. What else would you expect?  The old axiom seems to apply here — what’s important to my boss is important to me. Conversely, if it’s not important to the boss, why should I care?

Let me take a slightly different approach to culture change. Let’s assume that managers are not averse to complying with safety rules, practices, and policies, but they are not visible champions of these rules and regulations. In the agricultural products retail world, where I work, most of the facilities are small with staffs that range from three to one-hundred people, but most are likely to be manned by less than a dozen permanent employees. Many of the independent facilities are owned and operated by family members, but even when they’re not related, these small groups work together for long hours for weeks at a time, becoming more like family members than just another co-worker. Most employees are from the local area, are avid outdoors enthusiasts, hunt and fish together, and even socialize after hours at community events. During spring, all efforts are used to get fertilizer and other agricultural products to the farmers as soon as possible. Working 16-hour days for weeks at a time is not uncommon.

This description sets the stage for making changes in culture (changing bad habits or reinforcing good habits), understanding why rules are important, and the significance of being hurt on the job for you co-workers, family, and friends.


Practical Tips

Listed below are some suggestions to move the needle in the right direction as it relates to safety:

  1. Demonstrate that safety is important by being safe. Walk the Walk.
  2. Continually reinforce that personal safety is important to management, coworkers, family, and friends. These coworkers are a “work family.”
  3. Reinforce good behavior. A complement, word of thanks, or small tokens or appreciation are always welcome.
  4. During safety meetings (formal or informal) use real life examples of accidents or near misses that relate to the job. Mix work examples with those from off-work incidents.  For example, if many of employee’s hunt, then use examples where someone was injured while hunting and how devastating that can be to their home and family.
  5. Relate rules and regulations to real life. If you cannot explain the importance of workplace policies, then workers will not accept that it’s really important.
  6. Getting the job done quickly is often rewarded. Consider changing this to getting the job done safely. If you broke an all-time shipment record of fertilizer and only injured 2 employees, is that your definition of success?
  7. Let employees talk about their near misses or injuries and incidents. Everyone will listen.

So my philosophy is simple.  Treat each other like family.  Care about each person’s personal safety and the impacts on their family and the business.  Demonstrate that you care, and slowly the culture you desire will be achieved.

Good luck and be safe!


About the Author

Bill Qualls is the Executive Director of ResponsibleAg, Inc., a non-profit organization with over 2,500 members founded in 2014 to promote public welfare by assisting agribusinesses comply with federal environmental, health, safety, and security rules regarding the safe handling and storage of fertilizer products. He is a Certified Professional Environmental Auditor and Certified Environmental and Safety Compliance Officer, with more than 25 years of experience directing and managing hundreds of EHS audits at manufacturing facilities in more than 15 countries. Bill served as the President of the board of directors of the Auditing Roundtable and is now the current Chair of the Environmental, Health, and Safety Advisory Board with the IIA.  Bill was awarded the James Ball Lifetime achievement award for his contribution to the EHS audit community.  He is also on the Board of Governors of the local Institute of Internal Auditors.

Photograph: Tractor 2 by Piotr Bizior.

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