How Does Your Company’s Safety Culture Rate?

As a safety and health consultant and former OSHA Compliance Officer, I have been in a lot of different workplaces.  It is usually pretty easy for me to begin assessing the safety culture of an organization from the moment I enter the building.  It’s the little things that speak volumes about the culture of an organization. I do believe that most companies follow a maturity path in their safety culture journey.  In my experience, there are about five maturity levels for a safety culture which I have named and described briefly below.

Level 1:  The Limited Safety Culture

Not all companies will start at Level 1.  Most of the companies that I have seen at this maturity level are small companies, however that is not always the case.  In a Limited Safety Culture, there is no safety staff, and the company focus is on production.  Shortcuts are common and very little regulatory knowledge exists in the organization.  Safety performance may below average, or by the grace of God,the company may not have had any injuries.  Generally a company at this maturity level begins to move towards Level 2 when one of the following occurs:  an OSHA inspection, an insurance inspection, an injury (especially a serious one), or a higher level manager brings information back to the organization that enlightens other managers on how little they know in the area of safety and health.

Level 2:  The Compliance Culture

In the Compliance Culture, safety is viewed as something we have to do.  The company has learned that there are a myriad of confusing regulations and upper management does not want to go to jail.  A safety manager may be hired, and can usually be described as a “bull dog” or “the safety police”.  Safety is the responsibility of the new safety manager.    Safety performance is below average, incident rates are rising, incident investigations focus on blame, and the safety program’s focus is on regulatory compliance and discipline.  At this stage, safety is something we do to employees.  The worst part about this maturity level is that the company is finally focusing on safety but seeing little results for the effort.

Level 3: The Nanny State

In my observation, the Nanny State is the most common safety culture.  You will recognize it by the “safety first” signs posted as you enter the property.  Even with all the “safety first” signs, these companies usually only have average safety performance.  You see at this stage, safety is a separate activity that is not integrated into the business process.  Nanny State companies want to take care of employes, so they end up doing safety for the employee in a top-down system that focuses on policies and procedures.   The company will also usually begin to review it’s data, be startled by the costs of incidents, and implement reactive safety measures and incentive programs.   The safety manager is part “safety cop” and part incentive program manager.  Managers and supervisors feel that if employees would just follow safety rules, everything would be fine.  Oh, and employees do follow the rules…at least while someone is watching.

Level 4: Participative Safety Culture

In the Participative Safety Culture, the safety manager is finally viewed as a partner by employees and managers.  Management is committed to the safety effort and employees are involved.  In fact, work would not intentionally be performed in an unsafe manner at these companies.  Supervisors perform safety activities jointly with employees, and safety begins to be integrated into the business process.  Safety is usually viewed as equal to production and quality. Safety activities are now more proactive, and incident investigations focus on root causes and preventative actions.  Because safety performance is above average at these companies, it is very easy to get stuck here.

Level 5: The Instinctive Culture

At this level, employees own the safety process.  It is common to see employee-run safety committees with authority and budgets.  Safety has been seamlessly integrated into business operations and is a part of everything the company does.  Managers and supervisors are fully on-board with all safety activities and they practice what they preach. Executives have very visible, meaningful roles in the safety process.  Safety performance at this level is world class, and there is a focus on wellness and off-the job safety.

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