By: Thomas Carson

Safety Culture Needs Safety Structure to Survive and Thrive 

While catching up on my industry current events blogs and newsletters from the last few months, I was struck by how often the “safety culture” topic comes up. It seems that safety culture is a mandatory subject if you want to be considered a legitimate pundit in the safety profession. But when you really think about it, safety culture is one of those phrases that most of us just accept as a concept whose meaning is so obvious as to not require definition, and whose presence is so necessary, as to not being open to challenge.  

I had an algebra teacher in high school who was a stickler for the discipline of “proving” algebra rules. He often said that any time someone called an idea or rule self-evident, they usually had no idea how to prove it was true, so that got me thinking about the notion of safety culture.  

We intuitively think of a positive safety culture as one in which all employees, from the top down, are aware of their workplace hazards or have ingrained processes for identifying those hazards and are empowered to take appropriate steps to mitigate hazards without fear of retribution.   

But doesn’t calling out safety culture as a concept sound a little like a variation of the siloing of safety? We do not talk much about the engineering culture of companies, or the accounting culture. And how does safety culture get implemented anyway across an entire organization that has to include these other departments?  

The Missing Piece
There is a piece missing in these discussions. I don’t see how to cultivate a
culture of safety without having implemented a structure for safety. Put another way, if safety processes and thinking are not woven into the rest of the day-to-day processes across all departments of an organization, then they are not really part of the organizations’ culture, or DNA.  For a fun example of why this is so important, check out this image from a LinkedIn post last week:   

Now for all I know, this was a prank, but nevertheless, at least two comments in the post asked where the safety professional was, which is the problem when there is no ingrained safety culture – the safety professional cannot be looking at every activity every day, and she tries, she has become what my friend Dave Jeary calls the “Permission Professional” – definitely not scalable. And if the safety culture is not an integral part of all operations in all departments, then employees may be making work decisions with inadequate training (what is an appropriate anchor system) and incomplete context (am I allowed to stop this procedure if I am not sure?)   

This is a large part of what programs like ISO 45001 are all about – defining goals and requirements in such a way that organizations pretty much must embed the processes deeply into existing structures to be effective. If your organization is compliant with OHSAS 18001, ISO 45001 or OSHA’s VPP, then you are already operating in a safety culture supported by a safety structure. If not, ISO 45001 provides a blueprint for beginning the process.  The ASSP has several helpful overviews of this process – check out this summary as a good starting place.  

Final Observation
When you do not embed safety processes into an organization-wide structure, it becomes all too easy to seriously weaken the safety program when management priorities change.  There are plenty of safety professionals who have seen firsthand that safety actually was not the most important value of the organization when markets shift, and business dries up. Embedding safety culture into safety structure is truly a commitment to safety as a value.
 

I would love to hear your thoughts on this – implementing meaningful safety programs is a journey, not a destination, and each has stories to tell! 

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