MRO Magazine

How to build a safety culture

Some companies spend a lot of time and effort on logos, signs, meetings, awards, programs, supervisor intervention, monetary incentives, and even disciplinary action, yet they continue to have poor safety records. Meanwhile, other companies...

September 1, 2010 | By Simon Fridlyand

Some companies spend a lot of time and effort on logos, signs, meetings, awards, programs, supervisor intervention, monetary incentives, and even disciplinary action, yet they continue to have poor safety records. Meanwhile, other companies have outstanding safety records. What’s the secret of the successful firms?

The secret lies in the safety culture of the organization. In order to examine this topic, let’s begin with a definition of safety: ‘Safety is the state in which the risk of harm to persons or damage to property is reduced to, and maintained at or below, an acceptable level through a continuing process of hazard identification and risk management’. This definition is consistent with recent trends in which safety has become synonymous with the management of risk.

Effective safety management requires more than just an organizational structure and a set of rules and procedures. It has roots in a strong and visible commitment to safety by top management. With an organizational safety culture, the priority given to safety is continually demonstrated by management attitudes, decisions and methods, as well as by a clearly stated safety policy and objectives.

When management places safety ahead of financial gain, a clear message is sent to everyone in the organization, and a positive company safety culture is created. The benefit of this process is such that once the safety culture is created, it pays tenfold back and has a positive effect on the financial gains of organization.


Key indicators

There are no absolute measures of a company’s safety culture, but there are some key indicators that are almost always associated with a positive safety culture. One is the adequacy of the allocation of budgets and personnel to the safety function. Another is whether a safety position is considered a prize or a dead-end job. Still another positive indicator is when senior management not only reviews financial performance but also openly and objectively assesses the company’s safety performance.

A productive company safety culture encompasses both individuals and the organization, and thus must effectively address both attitudes and structure.

A successful safety culture needs clearly defined duties and well-understood practices, together with clear reporting lines.

A company’s safety culture is an intrinsic characteristic of the company itself. It is an inherent part of the operation of the organization and must be based on high levels of information sharing and trust between management and the work force.

The project of safety

Building a safety culture is not a safety function, but a project management function. Consider the following tools in managing a safety culture building process.

Assess: Assess whether your equipment meets the requirements of current and applicable safety and industry standards. Usually you may need to get outside help from professional organizations specializing in safety reviews of equipment. Compliance to the current and applicable standards represents the best due diligence and the best engineering practice.

Assign: Make specific work assignments and hold individuals accountable for certain safety objectives. They will become your safety champions.

Assign individuals to inspect equipment and work areas for problems such as poor lighting, missing guards or damaged equipment.

Assign ownership of a single problem to an individual (who may lead a group in resolving it).

Assign individual safety ownership for equipment retrofits, and well as for purchasing new safe and compliant equipment.

Assign appropriate budgets so these tasks actually happen.

Train: Once you’ve selected your safety champions, you must do more than just tell them, “Now I am making safety part of your performance evaluation.” You must train everyone that safety is equal to or greater than all other goals. Safety champions are teachers, but they are only as effective as their own training and the backing of management allow them to be.

Teach: Your trained safety champions will teach safety to the rest of the team.

Monitor: Check your safety culture progress by asking key questions. How are employees responding? How are your teachers carrying out their duties? Do they need more training? When did you last observe people working? Are safety inspection reports precipitating action? Is it easy to report unsafe conditions or equipment? Are you using outside experts to review equipment compliance? Are you ensuring that new equipment meets current and applicable safety standards? Are you replacing unsafe equipment? Are you rewarding your employees for safe or unsafe acts?

Recent studies show that in companies with lower accident rates, the personal involvement of top managers in occupational safety is at least as important as their decisions in the structuring of the safety management system (functions that would include the use of financial and professional resources and the creation of policies and programs, etc.).

The active involvement of senior managers acts as a motivator for all levels of management by keeping up their interest through participation, and for employees by demonstrating management’s commitment to their well-being.

The results of many studies suggest that one of the best ways of demonstrating and promoting humanistic values and people-oriented philosophy is for senior management to participate in highly visible activities, such as workplace safety inspections and meetings with employees.

Simon Fridlyand, P. Eng., is president of S.A.F.E. Engineering Inc., a Torontobased company specializing in industrial health and safety issues and PSR compliance. He can be reached 416-447-9757 or more information, visit


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