Safety really means safe behavior. In recent years a growing number of organizations have committed themselves to developing and supporting a corporate safety culture. But not every commitment endures. Economic challenges, compliance challenges and changes in case law makes maintaining a safety culture difficult. This leads to a critical question; how do we help safety cultures take hold?
Before we can answer that question, we need to understand just what is a safety culture? There is no shortage of definitions and characteristics associated with safety cultures. Rather than list the opinions of others, I’m going to share my own. Safety cultures are the shared beliefs and demonstrated practices of members of an organization that safety is part of every facet of the operation.
While it’s sometimes difficult to gauge safety the way you can benchmark productivity, you can still determine if your employees are engaged in a safety culture. There will be tangible and visible signs of your safety culture at work. The way your workforce approaches their responsibilities reveals how important safety is to your employees. After all, a workforce safety culture is the foundation for safety standards in your company. An organization with poor safety standards is an organization at risk. What is the risk of not having a safety culture or an undeveloped safety culture? To best answer that question, consider some of the benefits of a safety culture.
First, a safety culture reduces the number of injuries suffered by employees. Keeping employees safe is the highest priority for an organization, nothing is more important. It’s the only way to reduce workplace injury and illness costs, which impacts a company’s bottom line in both direct costs and indirect costs. After all, an accident that never occurs has no costs. This contributes to the company’s profitability and improves your organization’s ability to compete and thrive.
Why focus on workplace injuries? Because they happen frequently and in the aggregate are very costly. According to OSHA, a proven safety culture can reduce injury and illness costs by 20% to 40%. Additionally, employers now pay almost $1 billion a week for direct workers’ compensation costs alone and lost productivity from injuries and illness cost companies roughly $63 billion each year.
If you’re like many trucking companies, you probably have high workers’ compensation and liability premium costs. This creates a considerable squeeze on a trucking company’s profitability. Analyzing the impact of your workforce safety culture and then making improvements is key to controlling these costs.
Most organizations measure the impact of their safety culture by the reduction in the frequency and severity of loss, but there are other evidences as well. Consider the following questions as you examine your safety culture:
- Working Knowledge of Safety – Do your employees show a sound working knowledge of both safety and health issues, especially as they apply to your operation? Look for evidence of safety knowledge as employees conduct their duties. Consider their safety minded approach when training new employees in your organization.
- Safety Culture Outcomes Are Well Defined – Do you have safety related operational objectives and goals? Goals drive action and provide a benchmark for evaluating the effectiveness of your safety practices.
- Safety Is A Key Priority – Where is safety as an organizational priority? Several operational issues can compete with safety objectives. When there is competition for resources, safety must be a priority in every instance. Failing to do so creates a toxic work environment.
- Issue Resolution – Does your company look for problems or let problems find you? Safety Cultures should support being proactive. Their mission is to identify issues before they become expensive problems. These organizations are constantly on the lookout for risk factors and when they are identified, the company addresses the issue by putting a well-considered control in place.
- Investing in Safety and Health – Are safety and health areas where your organization invests time and resources? Companies with advanced safety cultures don’t rely on slogans. Instead they solve problems and make improvements. Organizations with effective safety cultures make visible and significant investments in safety and health.
- Everyone Gets Involved – Is safety part of everyone’s job? Everyone can and should play a meaningful role in the safety process from the bottom to the top. If the owners, the safety manager, the supervisors and the employees do not treat safety as part of their job, the organization will suffer.
- Safety Managers Visibly Lead – How visible is the organization’s safety manager? All too often safety managers spend their time pouring over data and compliance material. But, in effective safety cultures, safety managers and operational managers are in the work areas talking with employees about safety issues and visually confirming the workforce’s commitment to working safely.
- Everyone Is Comfortable Reporting Safety Issues – Are your employees hesitant to report safety issues? In a mature safety culture, employees are comfortable reporting any safety issues and accident near misses. They are confident they won’t be punished for coming forward and sharing their safety concerns. This is a key indicator of the strength of your safety culture.
- Look for Support Beyond Your Organization – Do you ask for help or opinions from resources outside of your company when a safety or risk control issue arises? Organizations with forward thinking safety cultures build a network of resources they can call upon to help shape their safety practices, share best practices with and identify how they can improve their safety results.
- Safety and Prospective Employees – Is safety part of your recruiting process? Do you try to identify “risky” behavior in candidates? Remember, you hire your next claim, be it a work-related injury or a truck accident where you are found negligent and liable for property damage and bodily injury. A prospective employee who treats safety lightly, may be a very expensive hire. Ask candidates about the safety practices they use when approaching their day’s work responsibilities.
- Rewards and Recognition – Do you reward and recognize employees for demonstrating desired safety behaviors? Companies with evolved safety cultures do just that. My favorite is the “Caught Being Safe” reward where supervisors reward employees on the spot with something like a Starbucks or Subway card when they see an employee clearly conducting their duties with safety as a priority.
With so many good reasons to foster a safety, what is the biggest impediment to developing a safety culture? Usually, it’s management. Safety cultures are driven from the top and If management is not “all in” for safety, why would you expect anyone else in the organization to be committed to safety. Management needs to examine their demonstrated practices and commitments. Ask yourselves:
- Do we walk the talk? Let’s face it, to be successful businesses need to be profitable. Does the need to be productive outweigh the organizations commitment to safety. Do you actively support safety even when the organizations profitability declines? Think about it, this just might be the time when you need a safety culture the most.
- Does the organization send mixed messages? Safety may be a priority when other business priorities are being met. But, when the organization needs to cut expenses, is your investment in safety one of the first areas addressed?
- Does the organization get “too busy” for safety? Hopefully not. Because when work activity increases, and safety is deemphasized, losses will increase.
- Does the organization believe buying insurance is a risk control practice? Again, hopefully not. Insurance is never a substitute for safety. But reducing insurance premiums should be a motivation to invest in safety.
The Bottom Line
Developing a safety culture is a challenge and it doesn’t happen overnight. It may require a company to change their business plan and how they value their employees. It must be driven from top management and be evidenced by every employee’s approach to their job. But, consider the rewards of a healthy and productive workplace:
- Fewer accidents
- Lower loss costs
- Reduced insurance premiums
Safety, is clearly an investment with many returns.
Andy Viglietti, Director of Risk Management, Dillon Risk Management