A safety culture generally is indicative of the broader company culture.

A major food manufacturer recently worked with Bright Side Inc., an Ohio-based behavioral strategy firm that works with organizations on building safety into the culture. One of the manufacturer's plants received a corporate certification for superior discipline and best work processes and practices. However, after a safety assessment, it was revealed that workers weren't reporting all safety incidents because they were concerned it could jeopardize the plant's hard-earned certification. While the safety work processes were strong, there were major variations among workers in how they performed those processes.

To address this, Bright Side and the manufacturer addressed three strategic employee behaviors:

Transparency – Establishing a climate of trust in which employees could speak the truth without hesitation and understand safety is more important than productivity.

Shared leadership and accountability – Engaging employees to be responsible and accountable, not only for their own personal safety but also for others.

Business-, self-rationalization – Changing employees' approach to safety, from robotically following processes to engaging their brains when making safety-related decisions.

"Employees who aren't honest about safety won't likely feel obligated to be honest about other things, which can lead to a culture of mistrust and dishonesty," said Donna Rae Smith, founder and CEO of Bright Side. "Likewise, if workers feel encouraged to disregard ‘official' safety policies and procedures to reduce maintenance time or increase throughput, they'll likely feel just as flexible about other company policies and procedures. They also may believe that the company is more interested in profits than employee wellbeing."

On the other hand, employees who are transparent, accountable and seeking to continually improve with respect to safety will carry those traits into the rest of their work, to the company's benefit. Moreover, employees internalize safe behavior, taking responsibility for not only their own safety, but also that of their co-workers. Committed employees will accept and appreciate feedback from colleagues who they know will help improve their safety.

One of the biggest hurdles to overcome in achieving a strong safety culture is creating a shared and common appreciation for safety among all parties – from top floor to shop floor. Most manufacturers will say safety is a priority. But attitudes and behaviors on the plant floor too often prove such statements to be little more than superficial lip service.

If safety is considered a priority within a company, it competes with other company priorities. For best-in-class manufacturers, safety is more than a priority; it's a core value. When safety is ingrained as a value within a company's culture, neither management nor employees on the plant floor will make exceptions to safety, no matter how big the customer or how urgent an order.

Some preliminary questions to help gauge a manufacturer's safety culture include:

  • Are leaders, teams and employees objective observers?
  • Can employees see what's happening on the plant floor and understand the real or potential impacts on safety?
  • Are safety problems met with excuses or finger-pointing?
  • In meetings or on the plant floor, does everyone speak up or is it frequently the same people?
  • Are safety issues treated honestly and transparently?

A strong safety culture is communicated and demonstrated from the top down. Every employee should know that management is fully on board with a world-class safety culture, and safety even should be integrated into a company's brand and business plans.

PepsiCo provides a strong example of a safety culture in action with the implementation of its Global Environmental, Health and Safety Management System (GEHSMS). The system conforms to ISO 14001, but also sets "global standards for risk areas" across the company.

The PepsiCo EHS policy, implemented under the GEHSMS, includes a proactive "ownership culture" across individual, managerial and organizational levels. The policy, distributed from the CEO and sent across the company's brands, states, "We believe that environmental incidents and occupational injuries and illnesses are preventable, and we aspire to be an incident-free workplace."

Striving for continuous improvement is an integral characteristic for best-in-class performers. After all, manufacturers can't become the best unless they embrace continual improvement.

In the next article we look at the next element of a safety system - compliance.