How to Build and Lead a Sustainable Safety Culture (Part 1)


In our recent blog and vlog series on safety culture, we talked about how to promote safety as a core value instead of a high priority, and we looked at why it’s important to view safety in that way. Remember, if a principle or ideal is imposed upon me externally, I’m not likely to embrace it as my own. I may comply with it under normal circumstances; but it doesn’t command my full commitment because it never quite makes it beyond the level of external priority.  And because of that there’s really nothing inherent in that ideal or principle to motivate me to comply with it if there is pressure to comply with a competing priority.

But if, instead, I “catch” it, and I thereby embrace it as my own, it then becomes internalized and part of my make-up–it becomes a value and belief that I hold. Then, when I’m in a situation that forces me to choose between safety and some other high-urgent priority, since they are no longer in the same category (one is a priority and the other is a belief), I now have something that provides internal motivation to do the right thing.

But how exactly do we get people to embrace safety as their own core value? We’ve already talked about a numbers ways to do this. We know, for instance, we need to tie it to other core values and beliefs they already hold, and we have to make the connection for them. We have to change the way we communicate, the way we coach and the way we lead safety. But what else is required?

In this series, I’m going to show you just how to pull all those pieces together to help you build and lead a culture of sustainable safety culture.  And I’ll start by showing you an overview of a multi-step process that I myself typically use when I work with a client to improve their safety culture.

Let’s assume for the sake of this scenario that we’ve already conducted the necessary pre-assessments, interviews, gap analysis, etc.  And let’s assume we now have a good picture of their safety climate and the issues they’re facing. What do we do next?

Although I tailor this to each client I work with, the process I use is built and executed on the same four basic principles.  In short, the program or process must be:

  1. Values-based: we must impart a new way of thinking about safety, and we must provide a venue that is conducive to a paradigm shift in what we think and believe about safety.

  2. Performance-based: we must develop real competencies in those whom we have entrusted to lead safety in their areas (this goes well beyond training).

  3. Outcomes-based: we must have a clearly defined overarching goal and a proven avenue to reach it.

  4. Sustainability-based: we must build capability into the program stewards so that they can continue running the program long after we’re gone.

So what does the process actually look like? The process template we use includes five main areas of focus:

  1. Safety Leadership Training (target is operations, production, engineering, EHS and corporate leadership)

  2. Process Stewardship Training (target is EHS, safety committee members, anyone responsible for leading safety)

  3. Field Coaching Development (target is operations in partnership with EHS)

  4. Corporate Integration (it’s not a true culture unless the entire organization is included)

  5. Ownership hand-off (here’s where we officially pass the mantle to the program stewards)

These are the high-level components. There are other things that we may or may not include in this process, depending on the implementation. And bear in mind there are other things that we always do in the background to ensure success, such as change management and working with executive leadership. But we’ll save that for another series.

In the meantime, starting with our next video blog we’ll begin addressing each one of these in detail to show you what it looks like and how it’s executed. Until then, please enjoy our video blog below; and be sure all your safety initiatives are built-in, not bolted on.

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About the Author

Eric Svendsen
Eric Svendsen, Ph.D., is Principal and lead change agent for safetyBUILT-IN, a safety-leadership learning and development organization. He has over 20 years experience in creating and executing outcomes-based leadership development and culture change initiatives aligned to organizational goals, and he personally led the safety-culture initiatives of a number of client organizations that resulted in “best ever safety performance” years for those companies.