Building a Climate for Culture Change: 3 Key Concepts for Your Safety Evolution


An organization is a complex set of dynamically intertwined and interconnected elements (inputs, processes, outputs, feedback loops and environment) in which it operates.  These elements are continuously changing, interacting, ebbing and flowing (Katz & Kahn, 1978).

Many safety initiatives fail to reach their potential because they are introduced and left to fend for themselves. Without the forethought to plan for sustaining new initiatives in this complex web of interconnectivity, companies often miss this valuable opportunity to make tremendous differences in peoples’ lives. When EHS professionals plan for their organizations’ safety evolution, they first need to build the climate for culture change.

Safety Climate vs Safety Culture

Organizational culture is a socially created construct. As a construct, culture is not easily quantified or measured. However, culture functions as a “control mechanism,” informally reinforcing or inhibiting some patterns of organizational assumptions or behaviors. These patterns of assumptions are so basic, so pervasive and so completely accepted as “the truth,” that no one thinks about or remembers them. They become “the way we have always done things around here.” (Schein, 2000)

Organizational climate, on the other hand, is what people see and report happening to them in organizational situations (Schneider, 2000). Safety climate focuses on the situation and on the perceptions of what the organization is like in terms of practices, policies, procedures, routines and rewards.

Climate describes “what” happens, whereas culture explains “why” people do the things they do. Thus, changing culture is more of a long-term process, where impacting climate can happen relatively quickly. Giving people year-end bonuses may influence the short-term climate, but fail to impact the long-term culture.

So, to create safety culture change, organizations first must positively influence their climate to ensure a long-term impact. With this clarification, to produce lasting change, EHS professionals need to focus on climate elements of new initiatives that will in the short-term influence the characteristics that need changing while at the same time, reinforce safety cultural norms that are maintaining the beneficial assumptions and behaviors that are keeping people safe.

3 Keys for Creating a Safety Evolution

Very seldom is a safety culture completely broken. Most of the time, companies either organizationally are complacent (few injuries, incidents, property damage, etc.) or have latent deficiencies and “drifted” but have not experienced any indicators. In either case, this is an ideal time to attempt organizational change, instead of waiting for someone to get hurt and risk looking reactive.

There are many methods for creating and sustaining organizational change (see Kotter, 1996, for one example). To create a safety step-change, however, there are three keys to ensure long-term success:

1) Make safety personal – Too often, organizations dehumanize safety by focusing on numbers or the recordable rate. The OSHA recordable rate, for instance, is one frequently used method of assessing safety performance. Whereas this recordable rate is an indicator, for high-performing organizations, it is an inadequate means for assessing safety culture because there are far too few instances to truly get a picture of performance.

Many companies only focus on injury statistics and not on safety statistics. To impact the safety climate, organizations never should quote the recordable rate to their employees. This reduces their experiences to numbers and minimizes the impact on the people with whom we work.

Furthermore, as we get closer to zero injuries, and the more the organization emphasizes these numbers, the more likely employees are to feel pressure to not report their injuries to avoid spoiling a perfect record. Achieving a safety milestone such as a zero recordable rate may positively influence the safety climate, but may negatively impact the culture if employees feel they must hide their injuries to receive recognition.

Safety is about people. To create the next safety step-change, organizations need to make safety personal again. When someone gets hurt, has a near miss, identifies property damage or makes a mistake, organizations have to respond in such a way that employees perceive this as a learning event and not an opportunity to shame and blame their coworkers.

This requires a change in our verbal behavior and how we communicate; we must portray these incidents as opportunities for system/process improvements. Using a one-on-one safety coaching, for instance, leaders should focus on the impact to the employee, their welfare, family, and livelihood, and not discuss if this would be considered a recordable incident. For organizations to move to the next level of safety performance, a focus on achievement-oriented safety statistics is essential.

2) Use safety analytics – As we move closer to cultures where injuries are rare occurrences, companies need to focus on achievement-oriented safety statistics to assess progress. This leading-indicator mentality has been the hot topic in safety for decades. However, few organizations know what to do with their leading indicators once they obtain them.

Counting the frequency and quality of leading indicators will not change the climate around safety.

To make lasting change, organizations need to use their safety intelligence to make proactive changes. These proactive changes can strengthen your initiative and thus strengthen your safety climate.

The safety field collects a plethora of safety intelligence, from training records to safety observations. Unfortunately, after an initial assessment, this critical safety analytics often is stored away and goes mostly unused. So, to impact our safety climates, we need to gather all our safety “big data,” put our safety analytics to use and get our leadership teams to become truly engaged in acting upon our valuable safety indicators.

Much of the safety data gathered by organizations comes from some sort of safety audit, inspection or observation. These processes are used to gather intelligence on the effectiveness of safety management systems. However, this information often is not trusted, is misused or is ignored.

Using safety analytics on the audits demonstrates to the organization that its participation in the safety process is needed and valued. Without using it, the collected data negatively can impact the long-term culture and lead to indifference and pencil-whipping.

To improve the climate for using observational data, organizations should develop a data usage plan to ensure safety intelligence is being reviewed, acted upon and communicated. A successful data use plan outlines who is going to get which report, at what frequencies, how they will share the information and what the value-add is for the organization.

The data usage plan should be rolled into a pre-existing leadership meeting, along with a week-look-back/week-look-ahead to help diagnose where the week’s inspections/observations should focus. These safety analytics help drive proactive change, demonstrate that safety gets a seat at the leadership table and help create a climate of continuous learning.

3) Build trust – By following the first two suggestions, the level of trust greatly should improve.

However, in many cultures where the primary focus only is on counting the number of inspections (checking off a box) – and failing to act upon the data is the norm – organizations begin to lose trust in their data. This “venomous cycle” often happens to the cultures that focus more on the numbers and less on the people-side of safety.

If employees do not trust that their safety audits are being reviewed, for instance, they may not put much effort in completing a quality observation. The leaders, in turn, receive safety data they do not trust and are hesitant to act upon it. This inaction leads to further pencil-whipping, more mistrust, and more inaction. To reverse this cycle, organizations need to act upon their safety analytics.

By using a data use plan, organizations can create a “virtuous circle” by acting on the observation intelligence provided and demonstrate the value of the information. This action and follow-up communication creates momentum that can produce a climate of discovery that eventually will lead to a culture of a learning organization.

Once your employees trust that the data they provide will be used to help their coworkers stay safe, the trust in the organizational processes grows and a cultural evolution begins to take shape. This empowering safety step-change can help organizations lay the foundations for decades of improvements, and eventually eliminate death on the job.

Why Do Safety Inspections?

Most companies conduct periodic worksite safety inspections. This process is part of the traditional landscape of a comprehensive health and safety plan. At regular intervals, someone within the organization sets out to critically observe in an effort to identify and rectify hazards. But why are they done? Therein lies the interesting question.

Work site safety inspections can be a vital part of your injury prevention efforts if done well.

safety inspections

“Because we have to.”

Safety is often driven by compliance—either to a regulation or a company policy. Certainly, compliance is a factor and one that is often developed with a specific purpose in mind. OSHA has a clear imperative that employers are required to provide their employees with a place of employment that “is free from recognizable hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious harm to employees.” Worksite inspections serve as the vehicle to record hazards and document abatement.

As the saying goes—if it’s not documented, it didn’t happen. With that in mind, can companies meet the regulatory requirement by simply walking about every once in a while and fix what is found? Perhaps. While this satisfies a basic requirement, simply walking around and checking a box does not necessarily offer assurance that the workplace is free of recognizable hazards and meet the spirit and intent of the purpose the regulation is trying to express.

“Because we care.”

Conducting workplace safety inspections can serve a greater purpose than simply meeting a compliance requirement. In fact, work site safety inspections can be a vital part of your injury prevention efforts if done well. They can help reassure workers that the workplace is safe and help the company demonstrate that it cares.

In order for this to happen, a more robust process is necessary. The best methodology for this process is also one that is time tested and rooted in continuous improvement—the Deming cycle.


Define the purpose and set expectations.


Define an inspection strategy, collect observations, and perform the initial correction.


Periodically review data collected; identify gaps and trends.


Give feedback, develop action plans, and make data-driven decisions.

Let’s break this down by component:


The purpose of conducting work site safety inspections should be more than mere compliance. The purpose should be to prevent injuries. With that in mind, the expectations should be those inspections that detail critical observations of all areas should be conducted at a frequency that allows for sufficient trending of patterns.

With the expanded purpose and expectations, it may become clear that the frequency and breadth of current inspections are insufficient and may need to be expanded in order to meet the new requirements. In addition, a plan must be put in place to actually use the data collected, beyond checking the box and counting the “cards” submitted. Tracking and trending of findings are essential to meet the revised purpose of injury prevention.

Lastly, the planning elements must be communicated to everyone so that the purpose is clear.


The first step in this phase is the development of a comprehensive inspection strategy. This strategy should define who does inspections, when they occur, what is to be observed, and where they are to be done.

  • Who does inspections?
    A study was conducted that shows the probability of having an incident declines as the number and diversity of the people performing inspections increases. In fact, the study shows that having a large number of diverse inspectors doing a few inspections each is better than having a few inspectors doing a large number of inspections each, even if those inspectors are highly trained safety professionals. This inclusion helps to shift the ownership of safety away from the “safety” team and onto the entire organization.
  • When do they occur?
    An inspection is a snapshot in time. As the saying goes, if a tree falls in the woods and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound? The same goes for safety inspections—if work occurs and there is nobody to evaluate it critically for safety, was the work done safely? It is best to schedule inspections to ensure good coverage across many days and shifts, as well as when infrequent work occurs, such as entering a confined space or performing lockout on energized equipment.
  • What is to be observed?
    This involves the task or category of hazard, such as PPE or fall protection. If the purpose is to prevent injuries, as defined in our Plan phase, then it is important to ensure each risk is observed enough to allow for trending and ultimately evaluation of risk. Typically, observers focus on the easier things to see, such as PPE, while the more difficult categories to evaluate, such as fall protection, receive fewer inspections. The fewer the inspections, the harder it is to evaluate risk, which ultimately leads to a diminishing ability to prevent those types of injuries.
  • Where is it to be done?
    Each project or location should be broken up into manageable areas and work groups to ensure each unique entity is observed. Ideally, each observation should be linked to both a location and a work group. In addition, each location and work group should have an expected number of inspections and/or observations within a given time period based on manpower and risk—the more manpower and the higher the risk, the more inspections necessary to ensure a safe working environment.


Collecting data in the previous stage is simply the beginning. Once data has been collected, the next step is to review the data. A data use plan is necessary to ensure that data are reviewed on a frequent and periodic basis and actions are taken to drive improvement. Think of it like this—if I stand on a scale and collect my weight each day and record it, will I lose weight? No! I must take the data, compare it against expectations, and then drive actions that will help improve the risk.

The idea is to look for gaps and trends in the data. A gap is something that is not being done that should be, such as observations in a particular category (e.g., electrical, confined space) or in a particular area. A trend is something that is seen over and over and will continue to repeat until the causal factors for the system are identified and remedied.



The last step in the continuous improvement loop is action. Without it, this is all simply wishful thinking or worse—a lesson in futility.

Action drives accountability. Action can include simple things, such as providing feedback or sharing information on trends that have been seen. It can also involve more complex solutions, such as a revision to the way in which work is performed or a pre-incident investigation based on at-risk trend information. It could even drive utilization of data as evidence in a data-driven decision, such as a request for a large capital expenditure.

Creating a Continuous Improvement Cycle

Too often safety programs have elements that are done because “That’s the way we’ve always done it” or, worse, “Because we have to.” Build into your program elements a noble purpose, and people will do them because they want to. Your inspections and observations allow the continuous improvement cycle to keep going, making your safety program that much better each time and ultimately helping to make sure that the entire workforce goes home safely at the end of the day.