How to build and improve a safety culture


ulture is more than a document collecting dust or a regular event in the calendar when you shout your team a box of doughnuts. It’s the way your company lives and breathes, turning business vision and goals into daily decision making. Whether intentional or unintentional, your culture creates workspaces that are either inclusive or exclusive, empowering or oppressing, innovative or by the book.

When it comes to health and safety, culture is also what helps keep your employees safe and helps fulfill your legal obligations as an employer. Researcher Kent Nielsen describes safety culture as “ the aspects or parts of the organizational culture that influence attitudes and behaviors, which have an impact on the level of safety in the organization.”

Building a culture of physical, emotional and cyber safety goes deeper than a mere set of rules. It involves changing attitudes, creating new processes and cultivating safer behaviors. 

Ultimately, a positive safety culture encourages compliance to safety policies and creates an environment of accountability that, in the long run, will keep your business running smoothly. After all, everyone works together better when they’re on the same page.

The question is, where do you begin? Here are some simple and effective ways you can shift the safety culture within your organization to create tangible benefits for your company and your employees.

A yellow hard hat sitting on a desk in an office next to a notebook and wrench.

How to improve safety culture in the workplace 

Start with teams

When you’re faced with hundreds of employees, shifting the culture of safety can seem like an overwhelming task. Starting with individual teams is one of the best ways to create actionable change

Why? Taking a blanket approach can ignore the unique needs and habits of different departments. Some of your teams may work in completely different environments, or face completely different challenges.

Take the time to explore how you can align safety principles with the daily goals and frustrations each specific team faces.

Reward ideal behavior

It’s not uncommon to find yourself starting from a position in which corporate approaches to safety are seen as annoying, time consuming or even irrelevant. These attitudes may be entrenched by specific individuals, past training experiences, or a conflict between training and lived principles.

Negative perceptions are a huge barrier to a positive workplace safety culture and must be tackled. Recognising and rewarding staff who take safety seriously is an important way to instigate change. Make sure you don’t overdo it though, as workers can respond poorly to heavy-handed or patronizing praise.

Lead by example

If your boss was harping on about safety, but you caught them breaking their own rules, how long would it take before you stopped bothering to follow them yourself?

Or if you completed safety training mandated by HR, only for your boss to tell you it’s a waste of time and to cut corners, how disillusioned would you feel?

To truly implement a safety culture, every leader in the business needs to be fully and consistently onboard. Employees are always taking cues for what is and what is not acceptable behavior from their supervisors, so bringing bosses onboard is an essential for success

Once implemented, make sure that leaders are held as accountable to safety policies and procedures as everyone. Consider implementing an anonymous reporting system for employees to report breaches.

Two office workers wearing surgical face masks bump elbows in greeting.

Simplify the reporting process

We’re all time poor these days, so piling on more admin tasks through convoluted reporting processes is counter intuitive. A long and difficult reporting process can become a barrier to safety accountability, because people are discouraged from reporting potential risks and incidents.

Simplifying the reporting process is one of the best ways to incentivise safety accountability and ensure fewer risks ever snowball into dangerous situations.

Structure a system that identifies the near misses

An effective reporting system is crucial when establishing how to improve safety culture in the workplace. 

However, too many companies only focus on reporting incidents. The most effective systems aim to document both the incidents and near misses.

With the benefit of clear data, leaders within the organization can identify patterns of near misses, establish when and where incidents are most likely to occur, and make informed decisions around preventive measures. 

Reporting isn’t punitive, it’s preventive

No one likes making mistakes, and we like it even less when everyone knows about it. Unfortunately, that’s often what can happen when safety breaches need to be reported.

If your reporting system results in harsh punishments or humiliating call outs for even the most innocent of mistakes, your employees will do their best to hide their mistakes.

It’s important to respond calmly and proportionately to safety incidents, particularly for first time offenders and innocent mistakes. Thank employees for their honesty and talk about the opportunity for learning and creating a safer environment.

Cases of repeated offenses and major negligence should not be taken lightly of course, but can be dealt with without drawing unnecessary attention to the individual.  

A male and female in business wear stand in a server room looking at a laptop together.

Equip employees with know-how around risk mitigation

Safe working begins with the knowledge of how to work safely. Often the most problematic and pervasive issues can go undetected for far too long simply because employees might not know what to look out for.

Appropriate training measures around issues such as drug and alcohol awareness can mean employees are able to minimize the associated risks of misuse among colleagues, maintain company principles through understanding what behavior is appropriate and even use safe and healthy strategies for dealing with personal stress and other contributory factors.

Crucial information on risk identification and mitigation empowers your team to pioneer a safer workplace from the ground up.

Identify your safety advocates

Getting everyone on the same page with safety best practice is an essential first step. However, ensuring your team is proactive in putting knowledge into action is what makes culture a living, breathing and dynamic aspect of your company. Safety culture is lived out through daily decision making.

Identifying and engaging with proactive employees will help you to make tangible change in your safety culture. The secret to making safer practices an instinct is through shifting what could be a discussion with management to being an open discussion amongst colleagues.

Over to you

Building and shifting a workplace safety culture is no easy feat, though it is worth the long term investment for your business. A proactive safety culture needs employees to identify risks before they become problems making training is an essential component in a strong safety culture.

The Ultimate Starter Kit for Safety Training
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