Coming Out of the Dark: How to Implement and Sustain an Effective Workplace Safety Culture

caveBrian Owens, Risk Management Consultant for Lovitt & Touché visited the Learning Academy and presented his insightful ideas on How to Implement and Sustain an Effective Workplace Safety Culture.

I can’t do his presentation justice, as he is a phenomenal storyteller, but I’ll do my best to summarize it! It all comes down to this – If you do not have a culture that embraces safety and everything it encompasses, your employees will never be on board.

Owens’ use of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” to describe what it’s like to change a workplace culture was spot-on. If you’re not familiar with the philosopher’s analogy, here’s the cliff notes version:

Plato has Socrates describe a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall from objects passing in front of a fire behind them, and give names to these shadows. The shadows are the prisoners’ reality. Socrates explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall are not reality at all, for he can perceive the true form of reality rather than the manufactured reality that is the shadows seen by the prisoners. When the prisoner returns to the cave to tell his story of the wonderful world he has found, the others scoff at him and think he is crazy. Their perception is their reality – meanwhile, there is another even greater reality just outside the cave. The inmates of this place do not even desire to leave their prison; for they know no better life.

Owens was using the allegory to describe what many leaders face – you can try to drag people kicking and screaming towards change, but unless they want to see the change themselves, or they are forced to see how the change will benefit them, they will go back to their own comfortable reality. The change will never “stick”.

Owens presented the daunting task of changing to a culture of safety in several steps, likened to building a structure:

  1. Establish a foundation
  2. Build on the foundation with the components of an effective safety culture
  3. Make the change
  4. Sustain the change

All of these steps, if followed precisely, will lead you on the “Quest for Zero”.

Establishing a Foundation

The foundation starts with Credibility.

Owens relayed a story about finding a retro computer game while helping his sons on the computer. Maybe you’ve heard of it – a Macintosh game called Hard Hat Mack. Your goal is to finish the building Mack is working on by installing and then riveting beams, moving blocks of steel and collecting tools. Two “bad guys” are trying to inhibit Mack’s progress – the “Vandal” and of course, you guessed it… OSHA.

In PC Magazine from August of 1984, the OSHA character was described as “Crew-cut, clip-board and absolutely no sense of humor. Living proof of the banality of evil. The government sends a generous supply of these guys to cite you into oblivion.”

Not exactly how you want to portray the importance of safety, and those who choose to make it their profession!

Without credibility, we have nothing. How do you keep from becoming stale and combatting that stereotype? For starters, you need to be ok with saying the same thing in a different way, over and over again. You have to believe in what you’re saying and emulate what you’re saying, and you will need to embrace challenge and accept criticism.

Build on the Foundation

In order to build on the foundation, you’ll need to first know and understand the company mission and how it interplays with your mission as a safety professional. Then, figure out how to make the two work together. So as a safety professional, your mission is to ensure the development, implementation, compliance and maintenance of a formal program that works to promote occupational safety and health for every employee under your charge (basically, the mission of OSHA). You need to be able to answer the following three questions as they relate to your employees and your safety culture:

  1. How would they know?
  2. Who would have told them?
  3. What does that look like?

To do this, you can use what Owens calls the “Pillars of Occupational Safety and Health”:

Science & Technology (e.g. Gravity = Fall Protection, Chemistry= HazCom, Geology= Trenching)

Compliance (e.g. OSHA, EPA, DOT, NFPA, etc.)

Training – Training will bridge the gap between Science & Technology and Compliance.

Psychology & Philosophy – Instills reasoning, promotes buy-in, combats banality, nurtures consistency and sustainability.

Make the Change

In order to make the change to an effective safety culture, Owens states that there are three pillars that are essential:

Clear Communication – Be careful with your communication. You can give the same instructions to 10 people, and get 10 different interpretations. Get feedback and make sure everyone understands and is on the same page. Allow others to ask questions and be ready to repeat yourself (in different ways) and slow down if necessary. Without communication and clarification, perception is reality.

Pro-Activity – Remember the story of the Grasshopper and the Ants? The ants worked hard all summer to build up their food supply and prepare for winter. Meanwhile, the grasshopper danced around and did nothing to prepare. When winter came, the ants were ready, but the grasshopper was out in the cold, starving to death. In the same way, safety professionals need to be prepared for any situation that may arise and take action before the situation occurs.

What’s more important than safety?

It’s kind of a trick question. You can talk about safety until you’re blue in the face, but the more important piece of the puzzle is having a workplace built on quality and excellence. If you have these things, safety will follow, provided the education is there. If the culture and expectation of excellence is there, most safety issues will disappear, and the issues that remain become much more manageable.

Owens went on to discuss the classic safety pyramid. As you may know, the base of the triangle is “At Risk Behaviors”, on top of that is “Minor Injuries”, then “Major Injuries” and the very tip of the pyramid is “Fatality”. Owens suggests that we turn the pyramid on its head, and instead of reactive steps headed toward a fatality, what if we went 100% proactive, headed towards zero incidents. So picture the pyramid flipped upside down, so now we are starting at the top with Culture as the biggest factor, leading toward Controls (Elimination, Substitution, Engineering, Administrative & PPE), then Hazard Reduction, and the very tip of the pyramid will be Zero Incidents.

Definitely a shift in perspective.


As most people know, but not everyone practices, the buy-in for your safety program needs to come from the top down. It must include integrity on all levels, which means doing the right thing even when no one is looking. Like an archway, if one piece of the structure is missing, the whole unit will crumble. In the same way, if there is no integrity and no buy-in from all employees, your safety program will not be able to sustain itself. Each employee is an integral part of the “structure”.

Sustain the Change

Once the change is in place, and everyone is excited about it and is really buying in to the new culture, how do you sustain that excitement and dedication? As Owens points out, the one thing that we absolutely cannot control, and the single most detrimental factor to the safety culture is Human Behavior. So how do you control the uncontrollable? The answer is simply, you can’t. However, you CAN change the uncontrollable, by shifting perspective. Remind people about what most, if not all of them, are working for… remind them of what is waiting for them at home. Whether it is their wife or husband, kids or other family members who are expecting them to return home safely each night, or hobbies, sports, relaxation time, whatever it may be. The decision making compass should always be pointed to what’s the most important part of life… what’s waiting for you at home.

So is Zero Incidents an attainable goal? Yes, it is! As long as we are willing to make the change and sustain it, and break the stereotypes of that Hard Hat Mack OSHA guy who just wants to get you in trouble.

Owens gave us some really great food for thought and shifted some mindsets in the room. Many thanks go out to him for taking the time to speak to us about such an important topic.

If you would like any more information, please contact Brian Owens ( or your Lovitt & Touché representative.