Safety Culture Components

Safety professionals expend extraordinary effort attempting to identify factors affecting the accident (incident) rate. Their consensus suggests a variety


Safety professionals expend extraordinary effort attempting to identify factors affecting the accident (incident) rate. Their consensus suggests a variety of issues commonly described as the company culture or plant social/work environment Û a convenient term that means Îwe really don’t know for sure what reduces the incident rateÌ.

One certainty, however, is that a strong safety culture yields better results than a deficient one. Extensive study over the years has verified that a variety of caring events must occur to ensure an effective safety program. Defining elements of a strong safety culture include management that is concerned about workforce well-being and a caring attitude on the part of supervisors. While the old safety adage it starts at the top hints at the importance of caring, ÎitÌ remains undefined.

Acknowledging the importance of a culture conducive to safety helps explain why a company avidly can pursue OSHA compliance to the last detail and yet obtain poor incident rates. That dilemma absolutely frustrates some company presidents who fail to understand the difference between safety culture and compliance. While adherence to OSHA regulations is generally helpful in avoiding or minimizing accidents, a substantial incident rate reduction will not be achieved without the care required to sustain a strong safety culture. Safety professionals are discovering that caring for employee well-being Û ‘Pollyanna’ as it may sound Û provides the motivation for taking action to implement safety in the workplace. Genuine concern, therefore, is the largest single factor contributing to the achievement of a low accident rate.

The unanswered question is how a person becomes mature, responsible, and caring. The workplace is not designed to foster these attributes, nor can it afford the time and training to cultivate the professional or interpersonal skills necessary to instill these qualities in managers. A time may come in the future when such qualities are weighed more heavily in the interviewing process and a method established to evaluate and quantify desirable attributes.

Nonetheless, a key indicator in the identification of a caring culture is some level of personal accountability that extends to areas of responsibility. The accompanying chart contrasts responsibilities as found in strong versus weak safety cultures.

Caring Û or active caring, as it is more accurately described, since the attitude is of little value without the action Û also requires maturity. A hallmark of maturity is assuming responsibility for oneself in addition to finding solutions, as opposed to compounding problems by choosing to ignore them.

An employee-incentive program that provides knick-knacks for not getting hurt is based on the premise that the worker is the problem and that he or she can be motivated by awarding a prize. Offering employees recognition for achieving a strong safety score on a workplace audit as part of an incentive program provides stronger motivation, but still places employee behavior at the heart of the issue. The behavioral program movement rests on the conviction that if you can get employees to monitor the workplace themselves, they will see what should be done. Perpetuating a view that regards the employee as the problem, such an approach aims to train the employee to work safely. In the end, behavioral programs typically yield short-term results despite their high cost.

By contrast, the stronger safety culture is one in which company management, and not the employee, fulfills the following functions:

  • Processes are continually evaluated to make the job easier and more comfortable.
  • Demand pressures are not passed on to supervisors, who are required to expedite the production process by any means.
  • Individual employee success, self-esteem, a sense of belonging, and well-being are considered essential to the company’s success.
  • Pay rates are competitive; employees receive training for promotions; and, promotions occur from within.
  • Personnel are carefully hired by skilled interviewers.
  • Employees are held responsible for, and recognized for, the quality of their work.

Yet, the safety culture is influenced by variables other than company management responsibility. One recognized model defines the basic quadrants affecting the culture as illustrated below.

An often overlooked component of the safety culture is the part played by promotion over subordinates, offering the unspoken and unwritten ÎbenefitsÌ of freedom to manage underlings in any style the new manager deems appropriate. Long overdue are restrictions on supervisory or management styles that serve to limit damaging effects on employees by excluding autocracy, bullying, self-serving decision making, and self-promotion at the expense of coworkers. Though the severity of its impact has not yet been quantified, management abuse is nearly always associated with high incident rates. Future safety programs will likely include management skills requirements.

The experience and testimony of safety professionals, then, invariably point to the importance of establishing a strong safety culture as the primary means to achieve significant incident rate reduction. Accordingly, the single most powerful impact on safety in the workplace is that of active caring about the well-being of employees.


Responsibilities Characteristics
Stronger Safety is line management owned and driven. Upper management takes responsibility for the incident rate. Ô Incidents are intolerable and excuses unacceptable.
Ô Root cause analysis results reach higher in the company.
Ô Safety is considered a reflection of effective management.
Ô Procedures and processes are carefully reviewed for safety.
Safety responsibility is not understood, i.e., it is typically perceived as a staff responsibility. Though safety is deemed everyone’s job, the employee is held responsible, and the safety department is accountable for the incident rate. Ô Incidents are excused and fault based.
Ô Incident investigations identify the employee or local internal processes as needing improvement.
Ô An unrealistic concern for time and money influences people to abandon safe work practices to complete a job as quickly and cheaply as possible (a pattern usually denied in the culture).
Ô OSHA-identified violations are the only safety problems recognized by management, and even they are contested internally before a remedy is applied.
Ô A panoply of safety programs, banners, posters, and slogans exhorts the employee to work safely.
Ô Safety problems are recognized, but remain unresolved due to unwillingness or inability.
Ô Line and staff authority conflicts are commonplace.
Ô Programs and campaigns are short lived.
Ô Only results are measured.
Ô Line accountability is lacking.
Weaker Safety responsibility is unacknowledged, neither recognized nor rejected. Safety is perceived as a burden. Safety is the employee’s responsibility. Ô Incidents are explained as accidents happen.
Ô Incident investigations, if conducted, identify the employee as the cause.
Ô Management style is frequently autocratic.
Ô Company culture is task oriented, and production is often compromised.
Ô Communications are fear based.
Ô Make-do problem-solving strategies are implemented.
Ô Minimal employee involvement or interaction is encouraged.
Ô Adversarial work environment prevails.



  • Knowledge
  • Skills
  • Abilities
  • Intelligence
  • Motive
  • Personality
  • Attitude
  • Morals


  • Autocratic vs. empowered
  • Level of caring
  • Process vs. goal orientation
  • Commitment level
  • Actual expectations
  • Ability to listen and participate


  • Equipment
  • Tools and machines
  • Housekeeping
  • Workplace comfort (ergonomics)
  • Workplace stress (heat/cold, noise)


  • Style and effectiveness of safety meeting
  • Style and effectiveness of safety training
  • Quality and focus of inspections
  • Rules and policies
  • Quality of safety equipment
  • Safety techniques and procedures
  • Hiring procedures
  • Indoctrination