Less safety culture, more work accidents

| June 24, 2013
don't snub safety sign

A good reminder, but an outdated message? Experts say workplace safety should focus on a culture of safety, rather than individual blame. (Image from the National Archives and Records Administration, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Does your company have a safety program, safety culture or safety climate? If you’re not sure, that could have a direct and damaging impact on your health.

The relationship between safety culture and work accidents:

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, “Developing strong safety cultures has the single greatest impact on accident reduction of any process. It is for this single reason that developing these cultures should be top priority for all managers and supervisors.”

Occupational safety advocates have long been pushing for employers to move away from assigning “blame” for hazards and accidents – whether directed at the individual employee who suffered an injury or the lockout/tagout procedure that was somehow overlooked. And the director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, John Howard, recently echoed the sentiment at a Safety Culture Workshop on June 12.

According to a Bloomberg article, Howard said employers need to move away from the old concept of looking for blame for an incident rather than looking at the factors that contributed to it.

do not use scaffolding sign

Hazards like a missing scaffolding inspection tag might come down to the company’s safety culture.

How do you create a safety culture?

Now that the head honcho at NIOSH is behind it, what exactly is a safety culture, and how do you create it?

In the March issue of Occupational Health & Safety, safety consultant Shawn Galloway argued that it’s not something that a company can create, writing, “Cultures are not a program; they are the interconnectedness that explains why efforts work, don’t work, succeed, and fail.”

Although every company, industry and agency seems to have its own interpretation, they do share some basic tenents, including:

Open communication/reporting: OSHA says that in a strong safety culture, everyone feels responsible for ensuring workplace safety, and “pursues it on a daily basis; employees go beyond the call of duty to identify unsafe conditions and behaviors.” That requires open communication.

According to the Bloomberg report, Rafael Moure-Eraso, chairman of the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, said a company should have a “reporting culture” in which people are free to report near-miss incidents and system errors, without fear of backlash.

A commitment to learn: Training materials from the Alabama Municipal Insurance Corporation, for example, state that a safety culture is the “extent to which individuals and groups” will commit to various practices, including “adapting and modifying behavior based on lessons learned from mistakes.”

A “blame-free” environment: Pinning blame on an incident, individual or even a policy is seen as sidestepping the underlying lack of an environment that promotes safety.

Hazards will occur at every workplace, and can become lessons if they are reviewed. (Photo by Michael J. Nevins, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Hazards will occur at every workplace, and can become lessons if they are reviewed. (Photo by Michael J. Nevins, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Clear goals: Especially when first developing a safety culture, the most-successful sites are those that stay focused on their intended goals and the larger process, rather than being distracted by setbacks, OSHA says.

A measurement system: Employers should create a method for measuring improvement in their safety culture in a way that will have meaning for their individual business. Examples include “the number of hazards reported or corrected, numbers of inspections, number of equipment checks, JSA’s or pre-start-up reviews conducted,” according to OSHA.

While these guidelines are a start, there’s a clear need for further definition, and Howard also voiced his support for devoting additional resources to studying what makes a safety culture successful.

Category: Construction, OSHA, Safety Tips