26 Years Later – A Look At The Evolution of Safety Culture

Is “Safety Culture” dead?

‘Safety culture’ is one of those all at once great, catch-all, and ambiguous phrases that make up the safety professional’s playbook. While more than a few people will purport to be experts on safety culture – and be able to preach its merits until the cows come home – the reality is that safety culture is a very ‘what-it-means-to-me’ type phrase; everyone has a vague, amorphous understanding of the words and their implications, but precise rules are absent in place of ideas. In general, however, workplace safety culture refers to the overall attitudes toward and mindsets promoted with regards to safety in a business. The range and implications of safety culture range from danger awareness, to commitment, to prevention, to safe habit forming and more.

Dave Rebbitt, a safety consultant and speaker, recently published an article on EHS Today following the time-proven discussion formula:  “Is X/Y/Z dead?”  Using a format guaranteed to garner strong responses, Rebbitt, this time, had safety culture in the crosshairs. He explained that while the idea of safety culture might have seemed revolutionary and relevant 26 years ago after its coining as a phrase following the Chernobyl nuclear incident, he thinks its current day clout is dubious at best.

While the title is (likely intentionally) fairly sensationalist, some of his points do hit the mark. His biggest beef with the term seems to be that workplaces look to look to some magic ‘safety guru’ or method to solve their problems, while underlying organizational and operational habits may actually be what needs to be changed first. This horse-before-the-cart thinking is known to be detrimental in any area of business operations, though its application to safety, which is primarily a preventative, act-first field, isn’t as common of a talking point. Even so, the article is making ripples, and a quick “Is safety culture dead?” Google search will reveal other blogs looking to stir up a discussion around some of the points raised, or at least offering their own spin.

What The Current Discussion Gets Right

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The backbone of Rebbitt’s thinking lies mostly in the fact that safety culture often exists or is perceived as a kind of cure-all safety mechanism that will revolutionize the way a business approaches the safety of its workers. What ends up happening, if a proper foundation isn’t laid, is that safety culture then ends up functioning more as a blanket, covering up underlying shortcomings, rather than as a fitted glove, so-to-speak, working with and complementing good systems that are already in place.

The primary “systems” we’re referring to here have to do with organization and leadership. Rebbitt argues, and plenty seem to agree, that the safety of a workplace starts with the organization and efficiency policies in place. A workplace needs to have an effective, steady overall culture to sustain one of proper safety.

This likely makes sense to many safety professionals, who recognize that safety culture is not meant to be a short term fix, but an involved process that changes mindsets over time. In order for these changes to take hold, let alone stick around, there needs to already be a system that allows for it. While there isn’t a lot of detail given out on this point, here are a few items I see as essential parts of such a system:

Respect for leadership:  Asking for changes in habits, points of view, and work procedure usually means you’re asking quite a lot of those around you; employees are much more likely to make changes for leaders they have faith in based on past experiences.

Communication SystemsTrying to implement any kind of new safety idea without proper channels of communication (training, on-site reminders, person-to-person dialogue, company email/SMS lists, etc.) with workers at all levels is an uphill battle.

Improvement FeaturesBefore you look to change anything specifically related to safety, you should already have an independent method in place for testing and tracking changes. While reporting meaningful safety statistics and progress can be difficult (read: ‘days without an accident’ debate), the idea is still the same; simply having people used to making tweaks and changes for the sake of progress prepares them for any safety changes – having this adaptability built into your staff is essential.

What Doesn’t Hit The Mark

Of course, like any other article on the topic, this one is subject to personal opinion and disposition, but there are a few points that I think Rebbitt and his supporters are pushing that feel less on the mark; these feel more concerned with pushing the idea/post/discussion as being stand-out and noteworthy than offering any real solution.

My biggest qualm here is with the apparent aversion to “awareness.”  In Rebbitt’s original article, the phrase just looks like a dirty word. I get why just focusing on some ambiguously defined awareness or knowledge of safety doesn’t do a lot of good, but acting like having solid systems in place in other aspects of your business will automatically sort out your safety needs (at least mindset-wise) is misguided at best and just plain dangerous at worst. Another questionable assertion is the argument that safety culture is a temporary solution; done wrong, it may be, but reversion and length-of-stay are likely what separate those who are good at establishing norms of all types (safety included) in a workplace from those who are not.

What Safety Culture Means For Safety Professionals

For safety pros, this debate will blow over without much revolution in our thinking. There are some things to consider, but ultimately safety is still achieved best through working with your employees and using the channels and methods they respond to best. These change over time, but the overall idea behind safety culture, I would argue, remains relevant.

In conclusion, it’s probably not fair or accurate to say that “safety culture is dead,” but more on-point to say that how we understand and implement it most effectively has changed over the years. Ultimately, this isn’t revolutionary or unique to safety, but rather a reminder that every aspect of operations changes with time, and those likely to be the most successful are those that learn to adapt and grow in the face of a changing landscape.

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