The Perspective Based Safety Culture – How’s Your Chain Holding Up?

safety

by Brian O. Owens, Risk Control Consultant, Lovitt & Touché

What is culture?  What is behavior?  Defined, culture is said to be “Beliefs and customs shared by a society or group.”  Essentially, culture is uniformed behavior shared among people with like interests.  It appears safe to say then that behavior has a direct impact on culture.  It may also appear safe to say that I’m overstating the obvious, until you look at the definition for behavior.  Behavior is defined as “Actions and mannerisms made by individuals in response to their environment.”  That sounds like cause and effect to me.  If that is true, what I might ask is this – how can a company expect to implement and sustain a safety culture, even one grounded in behavior, without first taking into account what created the behavior in its employees in the first place?

Imagine casting individual links of chain at different places around the world before flying them all in to a central location to then be made into the chain.  Once coupled together, how would you test the continuity and strength of that chain… without putting a load on it?  The truth is you couldn’t.  You have no way of knowing if each link was made as robust as the next, and even if they all contain the same material at acceptable proportions.  You would have to A.) Take them at face value and hope it holds up; or B.) Rely on a strength test as part of a quality assurance/quality control procedure in order to make sure the chain would endure under stress.  While I am plugging the old weakest link in the chain cliché here, take a moment to compare this visual with your common work force.  It consists of people coming in from different locations, different walks of life, different backgrounds, different exposures and influences.  Some have been exposed to healthy occupational methodology, proper training, and correct safety cultural development, thus making them a solid link in the workplace chain, or culture if you will; others, not so much.  It is only after they join the team and are put under a load that their weaknesses are exposed in the form of unsafe behavior, which likely existed before they became an employee.

Over the years, I’ve put some deep thought into breaking down the chain of cultural development from the view point of the individual.  What series of values in what order creates buy-in within a person?  The way I see it, the formula that eventually leads where we want all employees to be looks like this:

Exposure -> Influence -> Perception -> Thought -> Belief -> Behavior -> Culture

You see, something that a lot of really smart people in business forget about their employees is this; they are first, foremost, and always a person.  Every single day before they set foot in the door seeking the job in the first place and long after they leave the same door for the last time, employees are people.  It’s really why we all become employees in the first place.  We seek employment in order to sustain our livelihoods, whatever that may look like.  In other words, being an employee helps us be better at being the people we want and choose to be.  That said, how often do we really acknowledge our employees humanity, and isn’t that where true cultural development begins?

In my experience, most organizations interested in developing a behavior based program jumped in mid-stream, starting with and focusing on behavior.  On the surface that seems fair enough.  Running with that train of thought however, one must assume then that you are starting with a blank slate upon which you can build whatever frame of mind you find applicable for your purposes.  You must also assume human behavior can be controlled in order to procure the desired end result.  Here’s the problem with that – you aren’t starting with a clean slate and you can’t control human behavior.

It is my belief that through exposure and influence, we create the opportunity to provide perspective to our employees in order to enlighten them and help them understand why it is we all need to work safely in the first place.  The true value for cultural buy-in lies not in the OSHA standard, the company safety manual, or the even the clever safety slogan brandished on the wall poster, but rather something they already possess, their own humanity.  If utilized to its full potential, perspective can help form solid links of chain, creating a chain we can all feel completely safe putting under a load.

Brian Owens, Risk Control Consultant with Lovitt & Touché, has over ten years of experience as a health & safety professional in several industries including mining, construction, pipeline, oil & gas, manufacturing and fabrication. His expertise lies in hazard and risk assessment, safety cultural development, behavior based safety, MSHA/OSHA compliance and EHS Management Systems (ISO, OHSAS). Brian is also skilled in the area of workplace safety auditing, safety procedure and policy development, supervisor development, employee training and safety incentive programs.

For more information about how your company can create a perspective-based safety culture, contact Brian Owens at bowens@lovitt-touche.com or reach out to your Lovitt & Touché representative.