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The Importance of Developing a Safety Culture

By: Daniel Rogers, ARM, M.B.A.

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Many organizations develop various policies and procedures regarding workplace health and safety. These policies and procedures are in response to a myriad of local and federal laws that require compliance with legislative initiatives, but they also evolve from a genuine effort on the part of many organizations to provide a safe and healthful work environment.

While intentions are good, in many cases the development of written health and safety programs has done little to contribute to fewer and less severe occupational accidents. Many organizations have what amounts to "paper" safety and loss control programs; in other words, written programs are in place to comply with imposed regulations, but little is done to foster a truly effective safety culture within the organization.

To develop a safety culture, organizations should integrate their written safety and health programs into daily operating procedures that influence employee behavior. Studies have shown that an estimated 80% of workplace accidents are the result of unsafe acts, not unsafe conditions. By focusing on unsafe behaviors, an organization may be able to generate an immediate and tangible reduction in accident frequency and severity. Such an approach entails a shift to a more "proactive" stance toward safety, not the usual "reactive" approach whereby the accident cause was identified, but little was done to change the behaviors that generated the accident.

Case in point: A large national restaurant organization with a high incidence of slip and fall accidents observed that the distribution of these accidents was continuously skewed to the same restaurants, despite the fact that all the restaurants had identical physical environments and safety policies and procedures. The difference in incidence rates was found to be the result of local management; more specifically, management at the restaurants with more favorable incidence rates was found to be more proactive in re-enforcing employee behaviors concerning floor cleaning and immediate clean up of spills. By contrast, management (and by extension the employees) at the other restaurants simply accepted the fact that the floors were slippery and did not even consider it as a safety issue.

The impact of developing a safety culture should not be underestimated. While many policies and procedures look good on paper, if they are not adequately integrated into daily operations and consistently reinforced, then they are likely to be ineffective. Using the foregoing example, the practice of maintaining clean floors at the low incidence restaurants was viewed by the employees as part of standard operating procedures rather than as a separate safety program. Thus a "safety culture" was integrated into normal operating practices with minimal additional perceived burden.

An organization that successfully develops a safety culture can expect to realize immediate and tangible results in reducing workplace accidents and their associated costs, including decreased productivity, employee morale, and increased hiring and training costs. As with all safety programs, a visible commitment by senior management to the program is key to its success. Moreover, this commitment must be communicated throughout every level of the organization.

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