safety culture for all types of work

Safety culture: Identifying essential components

Author: Hannah L. Glaspell, MPH, GSP, CIT, Senior Legal Editor

According to one of the first definitions of safety culture, it’s “an organizational culture in which ‘safety is an overriding priority.’” The term “safety culture” implies a value for safety or a culture of safety. Still, now use the term to describe an organization’s culture as it relates to safety values and beliefs, regardless of whether the organization truly values safety.

Benefits of a strong safety culture

A strong safety culture has many benefits for you and your organization, including:

  • Reduced injuries and illnesses: According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), developing a strong safety culture has been shown to have the single greatest impact on incident reduction compared with other interventions or factors.
  • Cost savings: Fewer work-related injuries and illnesses means less risk of costly OSHA citations and fines, lower workers’ compensation claims and premiums, lower medical costs, and less time away from work and absenteeism. With fewer employees needing time off to recover, the need to hire and train replacement staff or pay overtime to existing employees to fill in for injured workers also declines, which saves both time and money.
  • Higher productivity: Fewer incidents mean less production downtime, and preventing safety issues that may injure workers can also maintain the quality of your products or services, such as maintaining equipment or machinery.
  • Better employee engagement: Employees who believe the company takes their safety seriously are more likely to be engaged in their work and have higher morale. Higher morale often leads to lower employee turnover, which allows a company to retain its most talented and experienced employees.

Key components for a culture of safety

How can you tell if your organization has a strong safety culture? You’ll want to look at a few key dimensions or characteristics.

Clear, consistent, and timely communication

The extent to which staff are informed about safety issues is an important indicator of an organization’s safety culture. Safety communication can take many forms, including policies and procedures, training, safety meetings, and incident debriefs, all of which can contribute to a stronger safety culture.

If communications about safety aren’t sufficient, employees may not have enough awareness of the potential hazards or enough clarity on what’s expected of them to stay safe. Therefore, this dimension is critical to maintaining a strong safety culture.

Teamwork and collaboration

Teamwork describes the observable behaviors that teams enact while working together toward common goals. Collaboration is a broader term that describes what occurs between individual employees, groups, and departments and across the levels of an organization. Organizations that demonstrate good teamwork and collaboration are more likely to have strong safety cultures.

Teamwork processes that are important for enacting safe behaviors include:

  • Monitoring team progress and systems for safety threats,
  • Specifying safety goals, and
  • Providing backup when others are in distress.

Collaboration is considered a characteristic of a safety culture because employees may be more likely to collaborate to develop solutions to safety-related problems. This is often partially because organizations that prioritize safety also value collaboration and participation in safety efforts, which encourages employees to uphold this value.

Frequent reporting of incidents and unsafe conditions

While injury and illness reporting are a regulatory requirement, the level to which members of an organization report injuries, near misses, or safety concerns can shed light on the relative strength of its safety culture. In a strong safety culture, employees are more willing to report mistakes and errors.

Reporting is essential to organizational learning and continuous improvement, so cultures that encourage and promote reporting will be able to improve safety systems in response. In organizational cultures where mistakes are penalized, individuals are mocked or shamed for reporting, or there’s a lack of response to reported incidents, employees will be less likely to report, which is the opposite of a strong safety culture.

Fair implementation of rewards and punishments

Organizations that respond to mistakes or unsafe behavior fairly and consistently generally have stronger safety cultures. Employees learn the expected behavior by observing the behaviors of others and the resulting consequences or the lack thereof.

While having an altogether “no-blame” policy in response to incidents or noncompliance isn’t realistic, effective safety reporting systems aren’t punitive or punishing. In strong safety cultures, correction or discipline is enacted to help people learn from their mistakes and to discourage undesirable behavior in the future. Additionally, safe behaviors are rewarded.

Adequate resources and support for safety programs

Strong safety cultures are maintained through a commitment to safety as a priority, which includes time, money, and other resources dedicated to improving safety for all employees. The availability of resources and information for safety management is a key indicator of the strength of an organization’s safety culture.

Having adequate policies and procedures to communicate and standardize safety across an organization demonstrates a robust commitment to safety. It provides employees with the knowledge they need to feel capable of performing their work safely. One primary way management can demonstrate a commitment to safety is by adequately funding safety programs. Without dedicated resources, hazard assessment and control, training, and incident response can’t be optimally performed.