In the U.S., workplace accidents account for nearly 5,000 deaths each year. This means that on average, an employee dies every 99 minutes. Additionally, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) documented over 2.1 million non-fatal injuries in the year 2020.
Before the 1970s, safety was not a high priority in the workplace. In many cases, it was much cheaper to replace a dead worker than it was to purchase proper equipment or protective clothing. During his presidency, Richard Nixon approved the organization of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Since then, the United States has seen a dramatic decrease in workplace fatalities from 38 a day in 1970, to a mere 15 a day in 2019.
Despite the improvement we’ve seen since the 70s, these numbers are still way too high. It’s up to us to improve the safety of our workplaces so we can continue to see employees returning home safely from work.
Safety within a workplace is a human right. While OSHA’s primary responsibility is to oversee the safety and health of employees across the country, they cannot supervise your every action. In the end, it’s up to you and your coworkers to create a culture in which safety is the center of all you do.
An organizational culture is the way your company operates. It’s determined by the values and behaviors that are shared between employees. Cultures among a group tend to form naturally, meaning people do very little to influence them personally. Although, through a conscious effort, both employees and employers are able to influence the type of culture they want to have in the workplace. If all employees align their values and form good habits, they can all have a personal influence on a strong culture where safety is a high priority. In this article, we’ll be covering the following:
- What is a safety culture?
- How is a safety culture developed?
- How should a safety culture be assessed?
- What are the signs of a safe workplace?
- How and why should safety training be conducted?
- What is the importance of personal responsibility?
Safety Culture Definition
Simply put, a safety culture is when a team’s values, beliefs, and behaviors are geared toward making a safe environment. It means that employees look out for one another, are situationally aware, and are willing to speak up or act when something’s not right.
A strong safety culture can mean the difference between a good day at work and a bad day at the hospital. It is important that employees do all that they can to develop and maintain it. A great example of a workplace that has a strong safety culture is a team that:
- Talks openly about safety
- Is careful in their practices
- Watches out for each other
Safety Culture Assessment
Employees and employers within the workplace will find that developing and improving a safety culture takes a lot of determination and commitment. If people within the work environment lack the desire to form a safety culture, any changes will feel overbearing and be seen as negative.
Employees whose employers tried implementing better practices have reported feeling irritated and uncomfortable in their workplace. The wave of new changes pushes out the “all is well” mentality, which can put workers on edge. The trick is to move forward and avoid discouragement.
Think of it as using a water pump. At first, the handle needs to be cranked hard and fast. Despite this required force, it still takes a while for the water to reach the spout. But, once it starts flowing, the work becomes effortless and the water flows naturally.
Similar principles can be applied to developing and maintaining a safety culture. Although developing a safety culture can be difficult at first, hard work and consistency are key.
The best way to achieve this is through accountability. Employers should hold routine culture assessments to ensure a safe and growing environment. During these assessments, the following should be inspected:
- Leadership and management:
- Do employers support the staff?
- Do they provide a sufficient amount of supervision?
- Do they implement policies and procedures?
- Do they conduct safety training meetings?
- Group behaviors and relationships:
- Do conflicts happen often?
- What types of social relationships can be found?
- Is there trust and respect between employees?
- Is safety a priority?
- Quality of work-life:
- Is the equipment adequate for the job?
- Are employees treated with fairness and respect by employers?
- Do employees feel an unhealthy amount of stress or pressure?
- Do they get time off?
- Do they get benefits?
- Are employees satisfied with the job?
Employers and employees alike should be able to ponder these questions and communicate openly about them. Employers should seek out areas that need improvement and target them. These assessments should receive a follow-up at leastonce a month but can be conducted more frequently based on your needs.
Developing Safety Culture
When employees mingle with one another, their personalities and attributes begin to mix and culture begins to form. Their opinions and actions influence each other until they’re all roughly on the same page. Your attitude, values, and behavior have a great impression on your peers!
The way you conduct yourself has a ripple effect that alters your workplace’s safety culture. All individuals within the workplace should seek to establish the following characteristics.
This means that employees are aware of themselves, others, and their surroundings. It is important for them to look out for hazards and be sensitive to risky situations.
This means that employees are not just thinking about their personal safety throughout the day. They are looking outward at what their co-workers are doing and determining if something seems unsafe for the team. They are also working together as a group to maintain safe working conditions.
Consider the following example: A team of four workers was constructing a new boat dock. Halfway through the day, one employee began showing signs of heatstroke. He insisted he was fine and wanted to continue working to which the others complied. Not long after, the employee went unconscious and fell backward into the water. He was retrieved and rushed to the hospital but was declared dead upon arrival. Although this team of workers didn’t seem to share a negative culture, they still lacked a culture of safety. Failing to assess the hazard and act accordingly resulted in a work fatality that could have been prevented.
Employees should always assume that it’s their responsibility alone to ensure safe practices. If they see an issue or a hazard that hasn’t been addressed yet, they should speak up and make sure the issue gets resolved. They should also keep an eye on their coworkers and help implement safe practices. After all, safety is everyone’s responsibility.
Training should take place both formally and informally. Formal training should happen any time a new employee is introduced to the company. Refresher training is generally given to seasoned employees once every one to three years depending on their specific job and their workplace. Likewise, training should be given any time:
- Policies change
- New hazards are introduced to the workplace
- Unsafe behavior is recurring
- An injury or fatality occurs
Informal training should happen every day in the form of teaching opportunities. Employers should give constructive criticism when necessary. They should spend sufficient time working on the floor with their employees, giving them any guidance they may need to complete their job safely. A good employer finds both teaching and learning opportunities in any situation.
It can be easy to see training as simply a means of accident avoidance, or a way of paying fewer fines for injured employees. But it is vital for everyone within the workplace to remember that at the end of the day, safety training could save a life.
Trainings are used to protect not only the employee, but also their families who are waiting for them back home. Almost every workplace fatality is preventable, but only if the unsafe situation is dealt with carefully, and not casually. It is up to both employers and employees to maintain a safe environment and a healthful workplace. Most importantly, safety training shouldn’t just be another task for employers to accomplish. It should be a huge part of the safety culture.
Personal responsibility is the most important characteristic that can be found or developed within the workplace. It is key in ensuring everyone’s safety. If each employee feels responsible for the safety of their team, then everyone will be working together to prevent accidents.
The idea of personal responsibility implies that the outcome of a situation, negative or positive, is based on the decisions that were made during that situation. As such, encouraging employees to take personal responsibility for their work creates more accountability on the job. As accountability and responsibility are cultivated, employees will feel more empowered to speak up about unsafe work practices. This is because they will feel that the integrity of their work is personally at stake when something dangerous happens.
There are many behaviors that hinder a safety culture’s potential for success. A few of them include:
- Placing blame
- Prideful behavior
- Victim mentality
Responsibility puts you in control and lets you ensure good outcomes. As soon as an employee resorts to any of these behaviors, they are relinquishing control over the situation.
Consider this example: A manager asked two employees to conduct a forklift inspection. During the pre-inspection, the first employee stepped away to use the bathroom. The second continued with the inspection by himself. He powered on the forklift and began driving forward as part of the key-on inspection. While accelerating, he looked back thinking he forgot his checklist. In doing so, the forklift veered off course and scraped along the side of a cement block, crushing the employee’s leg. He was rushed to the hospital, but never fully recovered from the injury.
During a discussion later on with the manager, the first employee insisted that it wasn’t his fault. He said his coworker was the one who decided to continue the inspection while he was away in the bathroom. He felt bad for his coworker’s accident but ultimately claimed there was nothing he could have done to prevent it.
In this example, you can see the first employee immediately resorting to those negative behaviors when confronted. He blamed the accident on his co-worker and quickly made an excuse, saying there was nothing he could have done to stop it.
This employee may seem justified. After all, the man only went to the bathroom for a couple of minutes and came back to find that a horrible accident had occurred. But, was there truly nothing he could have done to prevent it? Perhaps he could have been more clear by asking his coworker to wait for him to get back. Maybe he could have found a substitute to fill in for him until he returned. Regardless of what he decided, each employee had full control to determine the outcome of the situation. Their failure to act caused an injury that could have otherwise been prevented.
Encouraging employee responsibility will help any safety culture to grow strong and thrive within a workplace. So many preventable accidents are caused by workers who see danger but choose to say nothing or assume someone else will take care of it. Both employees and employers should always assume the responsibility is theirs. Doing so will ensure that everyone within the workplace is working towards a common goal: being safe.
Signs of a Good Workplace
Think of developing a safety culture like caring for a fruit tree. The fruit will only begin to grow as a good gardener gives it water every day and prunes its branches as needed. This process takes time, however.
Knowing that all the effort to encourage safe work practices was worth it is important for everyone within the workplace. It helps employers identify things that are going well and things that could be improved upon.
Listed below are ten signs that a workplace has a strong safety culture:
- People are friends with each other – Positive connections build positive environments. They enable everyone to communicate openly with each other and improve the overall ability to keep everyone safe.
- Safety is a common topic – This is especially true in casual conversation. If safety is a topic on people’s minds, then it has become a part of the culture.
- Equipment is high-quality and up to date – If you’ve ever used a dull knife, you know how awful outdated tools are. In a work environment, they can break, malfunction, or fail altogether, leading to an accident. Well-maintained equipment is a sign that safety is a priority.
- A fair disciplinary system is in place – Managers act justly and reasonably when safety rules are broken. This should be done as a way to ensure safety procedures are followed. Not as a way to retaliate against employees.
- Leaders are committed – Employers’ priorities are clear to their employees and safety is a top concern. Employers who are committed to improvement can drive and empower their workplace. They’re a strong motivator for a safety culture.
- Managers spend enough time on the floor – Employers begin to spend as much time as possible with those they’re leading. It allows them to direct the work, promote safety, and build meaningful connections with their employees.
- High productivity – Studies have shown that as productivity improves in the workplace, safety does as well. Though this may seem backwards, higher productivity and better safety usually indicates stronger management leadership in the safety culture.
- Managers respond positively to feedback – When topics of poor safety are brought up, it can be easy for those in charge to get defensive. This mindset is destructive to a safety culture. In a good safety culture, managers respond in a mature, responsible way when concerns are presented.
- Change is frequent – Complacency hinders safety. Of course, it’s important not to make changes where they’re not needed. But as issues are fixed and progress is made, change should be common.
- Injuries are uncommon – This one speaks for itself. Fewer injuries are a natural result of a good safety culture.
Everyone wants to return home safely at the end of the day. Safety culture allows values and behaviors to align, which provides a safe and healthful environment.
Seek to be situationally aware at all times. Develop a team mindset and look out for your coworkers. Take it upon yourself to ensure safety within your place of work. Conduct regular assessments. Safety culture can be a difficult thing to develop and usually takes time and a conscious effort. Keep an eye out for improvements that you notice, and seek ways to better your practices.
Managers should give formal safety training to both new and seasoned employees, as well as find opportunities for informal training. Personal responsibility is the best way to ensure safety within a workplace. It is the core value that should drive a safety culture. You have the power to control outcomes based on the choices you make.