Efforts to decrease crashes and increase workplace safety encompass several areas. Standard interventions employed to reduce crash and injury risk can be grouped within four broad categories: (1) engineering (e.g., onboard safety systems), (2) administrative (e.g., changing job procedures or rotating workers through a particular job), (3) personal protective equipment (e.g., seat belt), and (4) education and training. Although there is general agreement that both management leadership and employee participation are critical to the success in reducing injury and crash risk, until recently, most intervention efforts have relied on “engineering” the risk out of the job. In an attempt to make further improvements, risk managers and safety directors are exploring organizational and psychosocial factors in the workplace to complement other approaches. One of the most prominent factors currently under consideration is that of safety culture or climate.
Safety culture has remained a popular topic in the safety literature since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986; however, the exact definition of safety culture has been widely debated. It would take me several articles to review the various positions on these arguments; I’ll spare you all the academic details. Wiegmann et al. (p. 7) defined safety culture as, “…the enduring value and priority placed on worker and public safety by everyone in every group at every level of an organization. It refers to the extent to which individuals and groups will commit to personal responsibility for safety, act to preserve, enhance and communicate safety concerns, strive to actively learn, adapt and modify (both individual and organizational) behavior based on lessons learned from mistakes, and be rewarded in a manner consistent with these values.” In sum, safety culture refers to the incorporation of beliefs, values, and attitudes that are shared by a group of workers regarding safety or “the way we do safety around here.”
Without delving into specifics, the definition of safety climate overlaps with that of safety culture; however, the distinguishing feature is the temporal state. Whereas safety climate is viewed as something that is situational based and relatively unstable, safety culture is enduring and relatively stable. This is analogous to the distinction in clinical psychology between psychological states and personality traits. Psychological states (e.g., depression or anxiety) are relatively short term, whereas psychological traits (e.g., personality disorders) reflect a stable tendency to respond in a certain manner.
Why should you care about safety culture? Well, the answer to that is easy. The focus on safety culture has great benefits as safety culture is a leading indicator of safety (i.e., it provides evidence of the psychosocial conditions that may encourage or discourage safe behavior). Safety culture predicts employees’ motivation to work safely, which affects employees’ safety behaviors and subsequent experiences of workplace injuries or crashes. It has also been directly associated with increases in safety behaviors and decreases in workplace injuries and crashes. Organizations that foster a positive safety culture have employees who go beyond the call of duty to increase safety. Unfortunately, few studies have been conducted in the transportation sector that have attempted to improve safety culture.
Safety culture also determines how effective your safety management techniques and interventions will be in reducing injuries and crashes. If an organization has a poor safety culture, safety interventions may not be perceived as important by employees, thereby reducing their effectiveness. Why? Employees who work in an organization with a poor safety culture will not value these interventions, not follow the recommended guidelines, find ways to exert control over the intervention (e.g., disable the technology), etc. Thus, one of the first steps in any safety intervention should include an assessment of the organization’s safety culture. Organizations with a poor safety culture should focus on improving the safety culture prior to implementing new safety management techniques or technologies. In the next article I’ll explain how to assess safety culture in your organization and the steps necessary to obtain a positive safety culture.