Why Your Culture of Safety Might Not Be So Safe

Safety Comes First! Businessman protected with umbrella from ice flowAs much as we all want to work in an environment that is safe, many of us don’t get that opportunity. Twelve people die every day in their places of work in the U.S. When it comes to workplace injuries, 3 out of every 100 employees will suffer a work related injury. In Canada, in 2012, over 245,000 employees reported work-related injuries.

There are all kinds of aspects to safety. It can be the physical environment; it can be the types of tasks we do as part of our work; it can be the feelings we experience during our workday.  Safety is an important element of culture. And since culture drives the success of our people and our organizations, we need to understand where the bar is set on safety in our organization’s culture.

Safety is a foundational need

Maslow developed a theory about human behaviors based on a hierarchy of needs. Our behaviors are directly linked to the level of needs that we are trying to achieve. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs places safety at the second level, following the physical needs of air, water, food, clothing and shelter.  His theory states that safety needs must be met before we can master social needs. In the Barrett model of seven levels of organizational culture, safety is a level 2 value.

If we don’t feel safe we won’t engage fully in relationships.  If you feel teamwork is critical to the success of your organization, your employees won’t engage with each other if they don’t feel safe. If there is an environment of blame and manipulation, where people are bullied or embarrassed, this is an unsafe environment. Where there is a culture of family and trust, people will willingly bring new ideas to the table.

Embedding safety in our organizations

Mandating safety often has the opposite effect. A culture that is focused on zero accidents can easily shift to a culture of fear. When managers are rewarded for zero accidents, they may compromise the reporting in order to meet the targets.  And legislation, while well meaning, is often seen as heavy handed and irrelevant. I remember when the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System was introduced in Canada. Typing corrector fluid or White-Out was classified as hazardous products and we had to create documents and training on how to work with White-Out. This type of exercise quickly diluted the real meaning of the initiative.

Sure there are some occupations where safety is paramount: pharmaceuticals, manufacturing, transportation, and sky diving. Interestingly, it is the health and social services sector that reports the highest number of injuries on the job, accounting for 17% of all injuries. There is a large focus on safety in these environments. However a culture of safety can be driven two ways. It can either be part of a mandated command-and-control culture, or part of an authentic service to other’s culture.

Safety is the bottom line

Back in 1982, Johnson & Johnson’s top product, Tylenol, was tampered with. Cyanide was found in some bottles and seven people died. Under the chairmanship of James Burke, every bottle was recalled and manufacturing was stopped.  Despite the huge financial hit, Burke’s No. 1 priority was to protect people. In fact, the product wasn’t reintroduced until tamper-proof packaging was developed. This new packaging was then adopted by everyone in the industry. As a result of this action J&J was able to claw its way back out of financial disaster.

How are you addressing safety within your culture? Is your workplace physically as safe as it could be? Do your employees feel they are working in a safe and trusted environment? Can you really afford to let safety slip to the back seat? Safety is part of a strong vibrant positive culture that drives success within our organizations. When it comes to a culture of safety, better is always possible.

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