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What Does It Take to Create a Safety Culture That Sticks?

Toby Graham /
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Workplace safety sounds like a no-brainer for everyone involved. No worker wants to work in an unsafe environment. No public official wants to spend agency time and resources investigating and litigating preventable accidents. No employer wants to deal with the myriad costs associated with safety incidents.

And yet incidents occur. People get hurt, regulators like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration get involved, and companies get in trouble.

It isn’t for lack of trying. More often than not, the organization at the center of the incident had some kind of environmental health and safety program in place—a program frequently backed by rigorous policies, controls, training, and leadership oversight. The problem is that what’s on paper doesn’t always reflect reality. Policies do not always become practices. People don’t always do what they’re supposed to do, even when they know they should.

In other words, a safety program is not the same as a safety culture. But let’s back up—what are we talking about here?

Safety Program vs. Safety Culture

A safety program is everything an organization does to keep people safe, healthy, and productive at work. It encompasses policies, procedures, training, tools, reporting, and various other functions, activities, and controls meant to prevent workplace injuries and illnesses.

A safety culture is a shared organizational commitment to safety. In organizations with strong safety cultures, everyone understands why safety is important, believes in the safety program, and takes responsibility for the safety of themselves and others.

Why Safety Culture Is So Hard to Create

Creating and maintaining a program is a relatively straightforward process. It’s harder to establish and measure something as intangible as culture. But you can’t have one without the other. Safety culture is the glue that keeps a safety program together, the fuel that keeps it running.

Therein lies perhaps the greatest challenge in creating and maintaining a safe workplace: it all comes down to culture—and culture is notoriously difficult to define and control. You can’t just make it happen. You can’t write it into being. There’s no “culture button” you can push.

Culture isn’t fixed, tangible, or knowable the way a program is. It’s a force, and a largely invisible one; pretty much the only time you can see it is when something goes wrong.

Or so it seems. The truth is that any culture is ultimately a collection of habits. By understanding and targeting workers’ and leaders’ habits, any organization can expose unsafe behaviors, adopt new ones, and establish a true safety culture. Here’s how 3 companies did it:

Creating a Safety Culture: How These 3 Companies Did It

1. Alcoa Started with “Zero”

“I knew I had to transform Alcoa. But you can’t order people to change. So I decided I was going to start by focusing on one thing. If I could start disrupting the habits around one thing, it would spread throughout the entire company.”

–Paul O’Neill, former CEO, Alcoa

Alcoa is one of the world’s largest aluminum producers. It’s also one of the world’s safest companies. That didn’t happen through luck.

In 1987, incoming CEO Paul O’Neill expressed his intention for zero workplace injuries. In a now-famous speech, he told an audience of shareholders:

“If you want to understand how Alcoa is doing, you need to look at our workplace safety figures. If we bring our injury rates down, it won’t be because of cheerleading or the nonsense you sometimes hear from other CEOs. It will be because the individuals at this company have agreed to become part of something important: They’ve devoted themselves to creating a habit of excellence. Safety will be an indicator that we’re making progress in changing our habits across the entire institution. That’s how we should be judged.

Despite initial resistance (read: panic) from the audience, O’Neill’s decision to prioritize worker safety number over profits—a “keystone habit,” as Charles Duhigg refers to it in The Power of Habit—paid off. Over the course of O’Neill’s tenure at the company, sales grew, lost hours due to employee injuries declined, net profits multiplied by 5, and company value increased from $0.20 to $1.41 per share.

2. Schneider Electric Empowered Employees

“Make it personal. It starts at the top and you have to be personally committed. You need to set the standard, take responsibility on a day-to-day basis and ensure your leadership team models these behaviors as well. Make it visible. Set goals and communicate regularly on your progress. Recognize and reward success. Just like other investments, safety, health and environmental performance must be measured, reported, evaluated and continuously improved. It should be part of your company’s regular review process.”

–Chris Curtis, former President and CEO – North America, Schneider Electric

The Schneider Electric company, based in France, already had a good safety record when Chris Curtis became President and CEO of the company’s North America division in 2008. Like Alcoa, Schneider Electric had set a goal of zero injuries. Curtis decided to push that goal further—by embedding safety into regular workplace habits.

“Every communication we do, from all-employee meetings to our daily production supervisor meetings on the factory floor,” he told Safety and Health magazine in 2011, “starts with a message on safety—how we’re doing, how important it is, and everyone’s role in creating and maintaining a safer workplace.”

For instance, Curtis would start all company-wide meetings by reviewing the latest safety performance numbers. Employees were also empowered to take safety into their own hands—by pointing out issues or stopping production lines, for example. According to Curtis, every employee knew they had “a personal responsibility to help create a safe work environment for themselves and the people they work with.”

By making it everyone’s job to identify and eliminate hazards, Schneider Electric saw its injury rate drop from 3.6 per 100 to 0.5—saving the company $15 million per year in direct costs alone.

3. Bayer Defined, Measured, and Trained Workers on Thousands Workplace Safety Habits

“When the leaders are well aware of the behaviors that teams are trying to develop into habits, it creates a built-in touchpoint for those leaders. The key to success is employee engagement and involvement and visible, strong leadership support for developing a safety culture. You have to take the concepts and fit them into what your organization is already doing.”

–Mark Aprile, Director of U.S. Occupational Health and Safety, Bayer

Bayer is a leading manufacturer of chemicals and pharmaceuticals, with operations around the world. A few years ago, the company embarked on a global mission to enhance safety cultures across its many facility locations.

Like Schneider and Alcoa, Bayer began with a commitment to zero workplace injuries (noticing a pattern here?). As this case study explains, the EHS team “defined the types of behaviors we would expect to see if the safety culture was early, developing, or mature in terms of leadership engagement, employee involvement, and the quality of the safety systems in place.” According to Kees Hommes, the occupational safety and industrial hygiene manager who helped spearhead the project, the idea was to “define the (behavioral) improvements that will have an immediate positive impact on the safety performance and the site-specific follow-up (e.g. the behavioral safety trainings).” These assessments would also “provide a baseline to measure future developments against.”

After surveying facilities in more than 20 countries, the company had established a database of several thousand workplace behaviors. More than a hundred safety and operations personnel then trained employees on each element of the new safety initiatives until behaviors reached “habit strength”—i.e. workers performed the correct actions 100% of the time.

Across the organization, new habits correlated with better safety outcomes.

“I was walking around the facility and it was impossible for me to find pallets that weren’t stacked according to the behaviors they had targeted,” said Mark Aprile, Bayer’s director of U.S. occupational health and safety. “It showed me how with engagement and buy-in, the employees can really improve their own personal safety and that of their teammates.”

For Bayer, every habit matters. After a year, sites that had implemented just 5 safe habits reduced their recordable injury rates by 11%. Sites that had adopted 20 safe habits reduced RIR by 35%.

Ready to Create Your Safety Culture? 4 Resources to Get Started

Want to become the next Alcoa, Schneider Electric, or Bayer? Start by considering what policies, teams, and systems you have in place. No, you can’t change your organization’s culture by changing what’s on paper, but you can use your EHS program to target behaviors and establish habits that eventually lead to a better safety culture.

To do so, you’ll need to question deeply embedded assumptions and hold everyone in your organization accountable for safety—beginning with leadership.

Here are a few resources to help you get started:

1. How to Make Safety a Habit

To the habit-forming brain, what we do is just what we do—because that’s the way we’ve always done it.

That doesn’t mean we’re powerless over our habits, however. Unconscious behaviors can be changed; new routines can be set. The key, according to Duhigg, lies in understanding “habit loops.” He writes that each behavior consists of a habit loop, comprised of three components—a cue, a routine, and a reward. One thing leads to the next and then, like a loop, it repeats.

Read more.

2. Calculating Your Safety ROI

Although countless business decision makers think of environmental health and safety as a sunk cost, it’s really an investment—and a shrewd one at that. Study after study confirms that organizations that invest in safety save money, boost productivity, and perform better in the long term. Why? Because a safer workplace leads to…

  • Fewer incidents: between workers’ compensation and insurance, legal fees, and employee replacement, every incident carries significant upfront and subsequent costs.
  • Improved productivity and efficiency: fewer injuries mean fewer disruptions, fewer lost hours, and fewer days away from work.
  • Higher workforce morale: the safer people feel, the better they tend to do their jobs.
  • A better reputation: companies that prevent safety incidents avoid negative publicity and negative brand associations among customers, prospective hires, and shareholders.
  • Easier hiring: given the choice, people would rather work for a company that prioritizes worker well-being.

Most executives know all this on a rational level, but without concrete numbers, it can be difficult to conceptualize the financial impact of a safety culture. Fortunately, the National Safety Council has come up with a calculation so easy that any decision maker can use it to estimate their organization’s safety ROI in seconds.

Read more.

3. The Value of Executive Buy-In in Promoting Workplace Safety

One of our clients recently reversed a pattern of workplace incidents and established a true safety culture. That’s good news, but not really noteworthy unto itself. KPA has helped countless organizations improve safety, lower risk, and save money.

What’s interesting in this case is how they did it.

The organization we’re talking about is an automotive dealership. Like many environment, health, and safety professionals, the service manager who contacted KPA struggled to “sell” the dealer’s leadership on EHS. There seemed to be no room in the budget for a better safety program. Decision-makers understood how important it was to minimize injuries and illnesses, but the organization was financially strapped as it was, EHS was one of many priorities, and there wasn’t a clear return on investment.

That’s when the safety manager had an idea.

Read more.

4. 4 Steps to Create a Stronger Safety Culture

Safety is a company-wide responsibility. It may seem that your team is doing everything possible, but you can always improve. It’s time to build a system that encourages employees, and management as well, to take part in the safety culture.

Although we created this resource for dealerships, any organization can use the same methods to establish and build a safety culture.

View the infographic.

KPA has everything you need to create a safety program that works and a safety culture that sticks. Organizations of all kinds rely on our tools, training, and consulting expertise to minimize risk and maximize business performance.

See how it works.

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