Build a Safety Culture or Expect a Dangerous Incident


  • A safety culture can be categorized as positive or negative. Most businesses are on a spectrum between the two.
  • A positive safety culture arises from the use of proactive safety systems.
  • To build a positive safety culture, eliminate the negative and eliminate fear-based policies.

A 23-year old man in Colorado did not lock himself into a lift basket per procedure and was ejected from a man-lift, impaling himself on a construction stake. A 19-year old woman was killed when a backhoe operator dropped a digger in a hole she was occupying, apparently unaware she was there. The construction company had already been cited by OSHA twice for safety and water line violations. In Queens, NY, a machine fell and trapped a construction worker underneath, critically injuring him.

From apparently careless mistakes to habitual offenses, the lack of a positive safety culture resulted in death and serious injury.

Defining Your Safety Culture

A company’s safety culture is built on the perception that workers and management have the goal of a safe workplace. The safety culture may be categorized as positive or negative, with most workplaces falling on a spectrum between the two extremes.

“Instituting safety and health programs in the workplace can help prevent and reduce workplace injury and illness. Focusing on safety benefits employees and employers to ensure a thriving, productive business. Strong safety programs pay dividends for workers and employers in the long term.”
-Loren Sweatt, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health

Strong safety programs pay dividends for workers and employers in the long term. Click To Tweet

According to the safety consulting firm Predictive Safety, a positive safety culture arises from the use of proactive safety systems while a negative safety culture is built from “cause and consequence” reactive safety systems. Positive safety cultures share a set of characteristics.

  • The company embraces effective communication.
  • Everyone shares responsibility for work safety.
  • Safety policy is designed by the workforce, not by management alone.
  • The company is constantly  improving the system as opportunities arise.
  • If work is stopped for safety issues, workers are not reprimanded, punished, or otherwise treated negatively.

Meanwhile, companies with negative safety cultures tend to use fear to maintain compliance and see safety and health as a burden on the business rather than a benefit. They often encourage or expect workers to complete tasks on-time at any cost or break rules when they become inconvenient.

Building a Positive Safety Culture

Kevin Burns, a safety speak and management consultant, says to begin with removing negative or fear-based appeals. Take down injury photos and stop acting as though you are waiting for a worker to make a mistake. Remove the words don’t, never, and stop from your safety vocabulary. And never use the “regret factor,” which makes people feel they should have been more careful or done more to avoid an incident.

  • Replace complacency in routine work with a process that keeps safety in the forefront.
  • Don’t binge on metric-heavy presentations in meetings, suggesting numbers are a priority.
  • Everyone, from management on down, must follow the same safety procedures, policies, and programs.
  • Never bully employees into compliance.
  • Eradicate the phrase: “We’ve always done it this way, and nobody’s been hurt.”

Instead, provide your employees with resources to help them succeed in complying with safety standards and processes. As a leader, make the commitment to a positive safety culture in all communications and actions. Collect feedback and actually use it to reduce safety issues.

Take down injury photos and stop acting as though you are waiting for a worker to make a mistake.

If You Don’t Build a Positive Safety Culture…

A few statistics that hit the bottom line with a thud may encourage your company to think again.

  • 76 hours of lost labor time
  • 4 hours of transportation time
  • 56 hours of lost time for the working team
  • 14 hours lost by replacing an injured employee with a less experienced worker
  • 6 hours lost due to rubbernecking by the rest of the workers
  • 10 hours lost to damage repair and system restoration

Total time lost for a single safety incident: 166 hours. A single employee suffering an accident can cost more than four full-time equivalent workers.

A safety culture is built on the company culture. If the company treasures productivity at any price, reprimands workers for delays due to safety issues, and acts as though safety is a burden, a negative safety culture arises.

Instead, foster a positive safety culture by empowering workers to recognize and react appropriately to safety issues, requiring everyone to follow the same rules, and listen to your workers to find the best way to keep everyone safe.

That slogan still rings true. Safety is Job #1.

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