“Safety is our top priority” is a phrase that can be heard in almost any organization today. There are safety programs in place, composed of policies and procedures, that are meant to protect workers and corporations in the event of an incident, and management teams and health and safety professionals are keen to remind us of this in every meeting and training session.
But recently there has been a shift in how the corporate world is implementing safety in the workplace, with many moving away from traditional safety programs, which usually consist of policy binders, manuals and forms, and opting instead to weave safety into their workplace philosophy and culture.
A safety program is a great example of a priority because it is constantly changing based on the needs and requirements of the organization that enforces them, or legislation that governs them. Unfortunately, everyone has their own priorities, which means that a change in management can bring along a change in priorities as well.
Cultures, on the other hand, are deeply ingrained in us. They are a driving force in our thought process as well as in our actions. Much like our backgrounds, heritages and other similarities, culture unites like minded people and allows them to create a community of sorts based on shared values. It is just simply a part of who we are.
Back in 2005, Dennis Sowards and Mike McCullion published an article that explored this shift, and included this table, which illustrates the key differences between safety programs and safety cultures:
How Does Safety Become a Culture?
If a culture is held together by common values and beliefs, then surely safety must be one of those values? Or is it?
Some argue that safety is not a value, but the result of values such as love, honesty, and trust. This would imply that we act safely because we don’t want to cause our loved ones pain, that we are honest about our limitations out of self preservation or fear, and that we trust that our employers and colleagues have our best intentions at heart.
The problem with that is that everyone has a different set of values that drives them to want to be safe or want to keep others safe. But there is one common denominator among people in safety culture environments: everyone sees the value in safety.
In a safety culture, it doesn't so much matter why workers want to be safe. What matters is that everyone is willing to work together to make sure everyone stays safe. If any one person is more focused on productivity and efficiency than in working safely, the system cannot work.
Dominic Cooper explained this concept in 2001 in his paper Treating Safety as a Value.
The concept that safety is a value can simply be viewed as an ethic that guides the way an individual views safety and safety-related behaviour.
In the workplace, it means that safety is not simply viewed as a top priority on par with productivity; rather it is an ethic that guides everything employees do. Safety is never compromised.
Instead of telling workers why they should want to be safe, safety cultures allows them to use their own values as their motivation, which will then become a collective goal and value that unites employers and employees.
So, Should Safety be a Core Value?
Whether or not you consider safety a value personally, safety should be part of every companies list of core values.
It is nearly impossible for an organization to create a set of values that are personal to every individual employee, nor would it make sense to do so. Safety is the end game, the desired result that is valued not only by workers, but also by their families, friends, and communities outside of the workplace. It sums up all the different reasons that any one worker might want to be safe, and help others be safe, on the job. It sums up the common goal.
If your organization already has a safety program, it already has the foundation for a safety culture. At the end of the day, the same guiding principals are at play, just taken to the next level. But it starts at the top. A safety culture needs a management team who buys in completely and will set a positive example for everyone else. It needs a Health and Safety team who is dedicated to continuous improvement and will listen to workers' concerns. And it takes workers who are willing to work together to make sure everyone is doing their part to keep each other safe.