How to Build and Lead a Sustainable Safety Culture (Part 2)


What’s one thing you’ve done recently to promote a safety culture?

Think about that question long and hard before answering. Is it that you’ve taken steps to reinforce a safety policy that has been neglected? Is it that you’ve conducted some safety observations and done some corrective actions around that? Is it that you’ve engaged your workers in some remedial training on safe work practices, policies and procedures?

If your answer was something along these lines, then let me suggest that you may be doing a great job in promoting compliance, but you may not have graduated yet to promoting a safety culture. That’s not to say safety compliance is opposed to safety culture. In fact, safety culture assumes safety compliance is already firmly in place.

One way to communicate to front-line leaders and front-line employees the relationship between compliance and culture is by creating an analogy around a common safety goal that’s embraced by nearly every industrial organization that exists today. Namely, our goal is to send everyone home safe everyday.

We’ve already discussed in past video blogs how to tie safety as a core value to other core values they already hold. And we saw there that this is easily done once we recognize the common core values people tend to embrace for themselves—their families, their spouses, their kids, their grandkids, their friends—in a word, their relationships with the people they love, who love them, and who depend on them to make the right decisions everyday.

Let’s put that into a picture. Imagine a walking path that leads toward home. Your goal everyday is to make it home—to get back to the real world of the relationships we value most. But what if along the way you encounter an obstacle that prevents you from getting there safely. Let’s say the road is washed out due to a flood, and the path is uncrossable. What are some ways you could overcome that obstacle to continue on to the destination?

You could get a long pole and pole vault to the other side. The problem with that is, you don’t know for sure just how deep that water is. And you wouldn’t know until you’ve committed to that course of action. Obviously that’s not going to be the best solution here.

Or, you could climb down the wall of the embankment, swim to the other side—or perhaps take a boat to the other side—then scale the wall on the opposite side to reach the top and continue along the path. The problem here is all three of those actions are risky. The bank’s walls are high, and you could fall on the way down or on the way up on the other side–not to mention the water looks pretty rough for swimming or even for boating across.

The third option is to lay a plank across the span of the two sides that would allow you to walk across. You may be able to get across this way; but walking across a single plank would obviously be risky. You could easily fall through no fault of our own.

So, let’s add a few more planks. This is a safer scenario, and we may be able to get across this way; but there’s still a problem with it. If the  planks are wet, or a strong gust of wind kicks up, you could still slip or lose your balance and fall over the edge.

So, let’s add some guardrails to the mix. Will this do the trick? Yes, the infrastructure is now in place to allow you to walk across safely so that you can continue down your path toward home.

Think of this bridge as our compliance to a safety regulation. The regulation is put in place (much like the bridge) to create a safe working condition, so that under normal conditions if you comply with the regulation, you  can be reasonable sure you’re not going to get hurt; and you can continue along the path home to get back to those you love.

The regulation guards you against the changing conditions. But there’s one thing it can’t guard you against. It can’t guard you against yourself. It can’t guard you against your behaviors. It can’t guard you against the decisions you make. The bridge (or any other compliance regulation) can keep you safe if you walk across it. But it can’t prevent you from hopping on top of one of the rails and attempting to walk across it in an unsafe way. So, while compliance regulations are absolutely essential for creating a safe condition, they’re entirely powerless to prevent a worker from engaging in foolish behaviors and from making foolish decisions.

There, in a nutshell, is the relationship between compliance and culture. And that is why compliance is never enough. Compliance is the foundation, but our goal must always be to move beyond compliance in our safety focus, in our way of thinking about safety, in our way of leading safety, and in our way of communicating safety in our endeavor to create a true values-based safety culture.

We’ll continue with part 3 of our series on building a leading a safety culture in our next Vlog installment. In the meantime, 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.