Creating a Safety Culture

A safer work environment demands buy-in from everyone in the company.

By Alexandra Walsh

A safety culture is a broad, company-wide approach to safety management. A safety culture is the end result of combined individual and group efforts addressing values, attitudes, goals, and proficiency of a company’s health and safety program.

Management Buy-In

In creating a safety culture, management’s commitment to workplace safety helps workers take it more seriously and translates into a safer work environment for everyone.

Everyone should be in the same boat when establishing goals and objectives for their safety culture. Management must be willing to offer support by providing adequate resources, especially time, and hold supervisors accountable for doing the same.

The entire management and supervisory staff need to set the example and lead the change. It’s more about leadership than management. If top managers aren’t on board, safety and health issues will compete against core business issues such as production and profitability—a battle that will almost always be lost. Management needs to understand the need for change and be willing to support it.

Showing the costs to the company in terms of dollars that are being lost (direct and indirect costs of accidents) and organizational costs (fear, lack of trust, feeling of being used) can be compelling reasons for looking at needing to do something different.

Because losses due to accidents are bottom-line costs to the business, controlling these costs will more than pay for needed changes. When successful, a company will also go a long way in eliminating barriers such as fear and lack of trust—issues that typically get in the way of everything a company wants to do.

Responsibility for encouraging a safety culture may start with management, but it trickles down to each individual in the company. Everyone has a part in keeping themselves and others safe.

Tips for Building a Safety Culture

Creating an effective safety culture is an ongoing process and takes a large commitment on behalf of the entire company. However, the effort pays off in a positive attitude toward safety and a reduction in accidents and incidents.

Here are some tips from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to get you started on building a safety culture at your company.

  1. Conduct self-assessments/benchmarking.To get where you want to go, you must know where you’re starting. A good place to begin is OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Programs (VPP). A variety of self-audit mechanisms can be used to compare your company’s processes with other recognized models of excellence, such as Star VPP sites. Visiting other sites to gain firsthand information is also invaluable.
  2. Develop measures and an ongoing measurement and feedback system.Don’t just rely on accident rates alone. Use activity measures that encourage positive change. Examples include the number of hazards reported or corrected, number of inspections, number of equipment checks, and pre-startup reviews conducted.
  3. Continually measure performance, communicate results, and celebrate successes. Publicizing results is important to sustaining efforts and keeping everyone motivated. All employees need to be updated throughout the process. Progress reports during normal meetings and allowing time for comments opens communications. Everyone needs to have a voice; otherwise, they will be reluctant to buy in. A system can be as simple as using current meetings, a bulletin board, and a comment box.

While it is always nice to know what the bottom-line performance is regarding accident rates, overemphasizing these rates and using them to drive the system only drives accident reporting under the table. It’s all too easy to manipulate accident rates, which will only result in risk issues remaining unresolved and a probability more serious events will occur in the future.

Making your efforts known and celebrating successes keeps everyone motivated and updated throughout the process.

  1. Define safety responsibilities. Safety and health must be viewed as everyone’s responsibility. How the company deals with competing pressures and priorities, such as production vs. safety and health, needs to be clearly spelled out. Do this for each level within your company. This should include policies, goals, and plans for the company’s safety culture.

One option to assist management with building a safety culture is to appoint someone in charge of safety. This person is responsible for understanding what it will take to build a safety culture—current hazards, areas for improvement, and necessary employee training for improved safety practices. This person may also gather incident reports and conduct accident investigations. In many companies, this person may be a safety manager but could also be a human resources representative, a shift manager, or facility manager.

  1. Develop a system of accountability. Create a process that holds everyone at all levels of the company accountable for being visibly involved, especially managers and supervisors. They are the leaders for positive change. Everyone must play by the same rules and be held accountable for their areas of responsibility. Signs of a strong safety culture are when the individuals hold themselves accountable.
  2. Provide multiple options. Provide a variety of different ways for employees to choose to bring their concerns or issues forward. And as employees welcome the chance to express their concerns in whatever way they choose, there should be a chain of command then to make sure supervisors are held accountable for being responsive to employees reporting their concerns.
  3. Report, report, report. Educate employees how important it is to report injuries, incidents requiring first aid, and any near-misses. Prepare for an increase in accidents and incidents if currently there is under-reporting. Give employees an easy way to report what they see; for example, taking and sending photos using a smartphone.
  4. Reconsider the investigation system. Evaluating the system whereby incidents are investigated is critical to make sure investigations are conducted effectively. An effective system should help get to the root causes of accidents and incidents. If not, it’s time to consider and discuss where improvements may be needed.
  5. Build trust. When things start to change in the workplace, it’s important to keep the water calm. Building trust will help everyone work together to see improvements. Trusting is a critical part of accepting change and management needs to know this is the bigger picture, outside of all the details. Trust will occur as different levels within the company work together and begin to see success.
  6. Offer training. Initial trainingshould include management and safety committee members, and a representative number of employees. This gives you a core group of people to draw upon as resources and also gets key personnel onboard with needed changes.

Awareness training and a kick-off for all employees should be next. It’s not enough for a part of the company to be involved and know about the efforts to change the safety culture—everyone in the company needs to know and be involved. Seek buy-in for any new procedures and programs.

  1. Establish a steering committee. The committee could be comprised of management, employees, and safety staff. The purpose of this group is to facilitate, support, and direct the change processes. This will provide overall guidance and direction and avoid duplication of efforts. To be effective, the group must have the authority to get things done.


Organizations with a safety culture show a deep concern for employee well-being, and it is reflected in all levels of the company.

The practice of anonymous observation is mostly eliminated and replaced with management taking the time to walk around their facility and jobsites to monitor and positively reinforce company values for good and bad incidents.

Rewards and incentives can still be in place if they are awarded for the right reasons, such as reporting incidents, including near-misses. But within a safety culture, knowledge coming from all areas will improve and promote safety at all levels.

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Alexandra Walsh is the vice president of Association Vision, a Washington, D.C.–area communications company. She has extensive experience in management positions with a range of organizations.

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