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.