Organizational consultant Hal Resnick contends that workplace safety is a culture and creating it can require major organizational change.
He suggests taking a look at major events, such as the Costa Concordia cruise-ship wreck off the coast of Italy; the BP oil spill environmental disaster off the Gulf Coast; the Exxon Valdez oil spill off the coast of Alaska; the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl; the loss of the Columbia and Challenger space shuttles; and what he called “the thousands of accidents that happen to people every day in the work environment.”
“These major events dramatize safety issues,” he said. “Yet the root causes of these accidents — and most others — lies in the lack of a fundamental safety culture,” he said.
“In virtually every one of these incidents the post-disaster analysis revealed a set of underlying conditions that made these disasters both predictable and avoidable.”
Resnick, based in Ponte Vedra Beach, is president of Work Systems Associates Inc. His 30 years in organizational development and training includes work with EverBank, The Haskell Co., Lockheed Martin, Shell Oil and others. His newsletters are posted at his www.worksystems.com website.
In a recent newsletter, Resnick wrote that individuals are harmed every day in what are avoidable conditions at the workplace.
“Management’s excuse is that excessive attention to safety will hamper productivity and break the bank,” he said.
Resnick said the reality is that creating a safety culture drives the same values and actions that also create increased productivity; enhanced product quality and reliability; increased innovation; continuous improvement; enhanced employee engagement; and an improved bottom line.
“It’s both the right thing to do and it makes good business sense,” he wrote.
According to Resnick, a safety culture has three dimensions: organizational or structural, group norms, and individual responsibility and accountability.
He provided questions about each.
Structural attributes of a safety culture
• Are roles and responsibilities clearly defined and followed?
• Are employees empowered to act to address safety concerns, or are they expected to follow the chain of command?
• Does the organization recognize and reward employees who raise issues, or is the general response to shoot the messenger?
• Are work processes and procedures clearly defined and followed?
• Is attention to safety everywhere or confined to an employee’s own work area?
• Does the company expect everyone to do work safely or is the message that the organization can’t afford the time to do everything “by the book”?
• Are safety reports reviewed with action and follow-up or do they generate a defensive response?
Group norms and values
• Are employees at all levels across the organization encouraged to speak up to raise concerns without fear of retaliation or reproach?
• Are audits welcomed or seen as an intrusion?
• Is safety perceived as a real commitment or an act of compliance?
• Does peer pressure encourage individuals to speak up or keep their mouth shut?
• Are safety and production intertwined or is safety seen as a cost that interferes with production?
• Are accidents seen as preventable or to some extent unavoidable?
• Are employees encouraged to have a questioning attitude?
• Do employees believe they are treated with trust and respect?
Individual responsibility and accountability
• Do employees at all levels accept personal responsibility and accountability for safety or is it seen primarily as the job of the safety department?
• Are potential safety issues identified and addressed before an incident happens?
• Does senior management lead safety by personal example?
• Do all employees have the authority to stop work or is that authority reserved only for management?
Resnick writes that the path to a safety culture is consistent with making a major organizational change. He provides these steps:
1. Commitment. Senior management must first make a collective commitment to the development of a safety culture, and translate that commitment into a series of defined statements and expectations, along with tangible or measurable outcomes.
2. Assessment. The next step is a comprehensive organizational assessment of the current state of the safety culture. This process typically requires three to four months and engages a significant number of employees at multiple levels of the organization, as well as the active solicitation of input from the entire workforce. The assessment uses a combination of historical data and reports, anecdotal evidence and stories, and employee inputs.
3. Action plan. Once the assessment has been completed, the gap between the current state and the desired state can be determined, leading to creation of an action plan. The plan should be completed within several weeks. Implementation may extend over several years.
4. Endorsement. Before implementation can be considered, the plan must be shared and endorsed first by the senior management team and then by multiple management levels throughout the organization. Endorsement of a plan is the commitment to provide the effort and resources required to ensure its success.
5. Communications. The en–dorsed plan should be communicated throughout the organization. The communication process is actually the first step of implementation in that specific behavioral expectations should be included. Employees should immediately be held responsible and accountable for demonstrating the desired behaviors.
6. Implementation. Longterm implementation with senior management monitoring and feedback can now begin. The process might extend over several years and will not be completed until the safety culture becomes a natural part of the organization.
7. Continuous improvement. The final step is ongoing continuous improvement to ensure that the safety culture remains an integral part of how business is conducted.
“Organizations that truly embrace a safety culture find that their entire organization develops a collective spirit of goodwill that extends from employees, to products and services, customers, and ultimately to an improved bottom line,” Resnick wrote.