Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Safety Culture - A Little Thanksgiving Goes A Long Way

“Safety culture” is one of those buzz words that gets thrown around in the safety world a lot. The term originated in the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear accident to describe those aspects of an organization that are hard to see but affect safety, such as values, social norms, attitudes, and beliefs. The idea is that if you work in an environment where the culture is to be “better, faster, and cheaper” that will effect how you view the risks in your workplace and balance the often competing goals of production and safety.

This seems simple enough to understand, but how do you develop or engineer a safety culture? That’s where the trouble starts. Safety culture is often one of things that we put in the category of “easier said than done.” The reason is that there are numerous influences and components interacting in your organization to create a safety culture. It’s not as easy as just calling a company meeting and saying, “Ok, now we’re going to have a strong safety culture.” That would be like thinking we can fix some of the divisive political issues we face in the US and other countries by simply sitting all the politicians down and saying, “Ok, we need you all to get along and make things better now.” Obviously, it’s just not that simple.

Now, we have no advice for the political arena, but one paradox of building a strong safety culture though is that even though building one is not simple, the things it takes to build the culture, if looked at individually, are quite simple. Take for example recent research into the effect of social exchanges on safety attitudes. Basically, research suggests that in the employer-employee relationship there is a reciprocal relationship where when one party gives to the other, the other responds in kind. So, when you give me a present I feel somewhat obligated to give you something back in return. Conversely, if I feel like you’re being mean to me or treating me unfairly then I don’t feel the need to go out of my way to be nice to you. Furthermore, research suggests that employees typically are not the first to initiate the social exchange – most of the time they wait for the employer to make the first move and then act in kind.

Think about this in terms of a safety culture now – this suggests that you get what you give. If your safety culture is poor there’s a possibility that your employees aren’t seeing your concern for their safety, so they don’t feel the need to care about it themselves.

In the US tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day. It’s a time that we reflect on what we have and we’re thankful for it. What if we also decided to give thanks to our employees for all the ways that they work safely on a daily basis? Certainly no worker is perfect, and everyone does something “unsafe” at some point, but really, at the end of the day, our workers are “safe” more often than not. This doesn’t mean that they are always following the rules, but the goal of safety management is not to get employees to follow rules – it’s to protect people. Further, it’s really those workers at the so-called “sharp end” that create safety by performing their work day-in and day-out in a often varying and many times unpredictable environment. Sometimes this means having to work with (and around) rules that are confusing and many times unworkable.

Now, there are other implications if we did this, but if we thanked our workers for being safe what could that mean for our safety culture? In many organizations workers are seen as the problem, which many workers feel is unfair. According to the social exchange theory discussed above, this makes them less likely to care about safety, making the culture suffer. If we thank them for what they do the workers may begin to see how appreciative you are of their efforts and they are more likely to respond in kind, creating an atmosphere of trust, taking an important step toward building a strong and effective safety culture.


So this Thanksgiving Day take a moment to thank your workers for being safe. How simple is that? 

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