Every year, safety accidents cost companies billions of dollars in lost productivity, injury expenses, operational repairs and more. It’s been suggested that the best approach to deal with these costs is to foster a strong safety culture from the top to the bottom of the organization.

Safety culture is a much-discussed notion these days, but what does it really mean?

An organization’s safety culture occurs when employees at every level contribute to the goal to safeguard everyone against safety and health hazards. In other words, it’s the business’ line of attack for safety in the workplace.

This collection of shared standards and practices needs to come from the top down. To have a flourishing, safe work environment, frontline workers must feel enthusiastic about staying safe as their managers do about keeping them safe.

Truth is that every organization has a safety culture. The question is: how much does that culture really value safety? A weak safety culture, for example, talks a good talk about employee safety, but when push comes to shove, it most likely prioritizes cost cutting, production speed or most everything else above safety in the workplace. When you’re faced with a second-rate or a totally deficient safety culture, don’t give up. Look instead to well-established points of view to enhance safety culture in your workplace.

Why is safety culture so critical?

Your organization’s safety culture is crucial because it has an effect on the likelihood of accidents, injuries and deaths from taking place. A research study from the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) found that “Employees’ perceptions of and attitudes toward safety are independently associated with individual safety performance and well-being.”

One of the most prominent attributes of a poor safety culture is a disconnect between how various stakeholders in the company handle safety. If only top management or only frontline employees observe safe practices in the workplace, this denotes that not everyone is on the same page. And the result of this disconnect is inconsistent safety habits which result in accidents.

So, what exactly involves a sound safety culture in the workplace?

Tips for improving safety culture

Irrespective of your approach to safety, communications are vital. But talking about safety isn’t sufficient on its own. Only actions will eventually decide how others will tackle safety. Cutting corners, overlooking maintenance and applauding productivity are just some of the ways that management may inadvertently endorse a poor safety culture.

To begin creating an effective safety culture, most professionals in the field tells us:

  • Require accountability. Through her studies of medical errors, medical ethicist Virginia Sharpe has come up with two types of accountabilities. Backward-looking accountability centers on mistakes after the fact in an attempt to ascribe blame. While understanding the situation that led to an accident is vital, Sharpe advocates a clear-cut focus on what she calls “forward-looking accountability.” This looks at the circumstances and mistakes that triggered an accident but emphasizes a clearer focus on future prevention.

In other words, if your accountability looks backward, you’re concerned with punishment. If it’s forward looking, you’re centered on preventing the same accident from being repeated.


  • Communicate, communicate, communicate. This keeps safety top of the mind and boosts management’s dedication to a safety culture as a deliberate business objective and core value.

Employees are outstanding resources for discovering more about the company’s present safety culture and matters that need upgrading. Whether through one-on-one dealings or group brainstorms, you need to be sure you’re receiving your employees’ input on how to improve. Companies with the preeminent safety operations attach importance to and employ the input of their frontline workers.

  • Let employees take ownership. You want employees to applaud the idea and enhance the safety culture, so it’s essential to assign them responsibilities in the method. This will not only validate the confidence you have in them but will also demonstrate how your company prizes their input. Make them aware of any changes before they occur and allow them to get absorbed in the process.

A good rule of thumb is to enable employees to execute and keep an eye on safety programs by creating safety committees. Allow these committees to take the responsibility in coming up with safe work practices, taking charge in safety training and running safety audits.

  • Make the most of technology. Technology has marched into every region of our lives and for good reasons. Apply technology to boost a safety culture by empowering employees to send and receive information.

Mobile devices and apps can also be beneficial when it comes to expanding a safety culture by allowing every employee to take part in safety programs. For example, employees working in manufacturing can utilize their devices to observe and transmit reports concerning incidents, take photos, look over and share feedback in real time.

  • Make safety an endless process rather than a regulatory prerequisite. Of course, safety is a compliance obligation but if you want your employees to take part in ensuring that the safety culture is boosted, you shouldn’t make it a compliance requirement but a continuous course of improvement.

You should think about the improvement your company has realized for the past five years linked to workplace safety. Work on strategies and plans to enhance these results in a given period, e.g., three to five years from now.

  • Put into place a safety incident reporting system. The system should include incidents such as near misses, injuries and property damage. For every incident, you need to include action items to help prevent the incident from happening again. If you don’t track these action items, however, your system will not be successful. Be certain you track your actions and ensure they are carried out asap.
  • Acknowledge your top performers. Recognize group or individual safety successes consistently. This is one of the simplest ways to build a strong safety culture. Remember, whatever you constantly talk about will set the tone for workplace priorities. If employees witness how you show appreciation and reward a safety mindset, they’ll begin to be more mindful and upbeat during the day. Don’t focus on employees’ injuries which are lagging indicators, but rather applaud safety accomplishments.

We could go on and on with any number of suggestions, but let’s take a different approach at this juncture. We’ve found in our reading that certain mind-sets are particularly pervasive and persuasive in organizations that struggle to improve their safety outcomes. By identifying these mind-sets and harnessing approaches to overcome them, companies can achieve sustained change.

Mind-set #1: “If I report an incident, I’ll be punished.”

At one company, in excess of 60 percent of employees noted concern about the results of reporting an injury. Regrettably, this state of affairs is all too common. In efforts to keep employees from injury, a company institutes safety regulations and sanctions for unsafe acts. However, one unintentional result is that employees can end up underreporting important incidents in fear of being punished.

We’ve found that two measures can help undo this mind-set. First, including the workforce in deciding how violations are handled can help employees recognize penalties as proper. Second is to fashion an environment wherein employees are immediately rewarded or acknowledged for performing safe behaviors and reporting incidents or near misses. This promotes reporting and gets people talking about not only hazardous actions to stay away from but also preferred behaviors.

Mind-set #2: “Injuries are part of the job.”

An evaluation of a materials manufacturer’s safety culture disclosed that the company had an excessive tolerance for risk. Some operators declared that 100 percent safety was unachievable, and that risk was simply part of the job. A maintenance person described how he weathered cuts and bruises on the job repeatedly but didn’t report them as he believed them to be normal.

In focus groups at another firm, workers said they were taken aback at the huge gap between what they were told in orientation and what really occurred on the job. Others had come to accept this inconsistency, informing new employees to “forget the safety stuff you learned, or we’ll never get anything done out here.”

This acquired acceptance has to do with the belief that various risks simply can’t be diminished. This mind-set is quite familiar – even in organizations where management says they have signed up for “zero” safety incidents.

Through further research, it’s been discovered that organizations that make genuine improvements in removing this mind-set work to align leadership and employees on what it means to maintain a zero-incident goal. For example, a metals producer, having accepted a zero goal, set the stretch but doable targets for reducing injuries and expanded the set of safety regulations to involve positive indicators such as the number and quality of field interactions.  

Mind-set #3: “Safe means less productive.”

An operator at a steel plant was adding alloys to a molten metal ladle. He was asked, “How do you know you’re doing it right?” He replied, “It depends. I have a metallurgic procedure in the blue binder and a safety procedure in the gray binder.” The operator, however, used neither.

This points out that safety and productivity are often identified as antagonists. Most employees come to work to “get things done” and feel gratified when they hit their targets. If management doesn’t demonstrate that safety is the main concern, employees may assume that it’s okay to focus on productivity to the detriment of safety.

One apparent way to prevent this issue from arising is for management to create clear safety standards that take current procedures into account while still incorporating crucial safety and productivity standards. When these conflicting processes aren’t integrated, employees can end up dealing with opposing requirements as they try to do their work, as in the case of the two binders mentioned above.

In the case of the two binders, a continuous-improvement team conducted a workshop with operators, metallurgists and safety specialists to come up with a standard procedure which was displayed in an easy-to-follow format.

Mind-set #4: “Safety is someone else’s job.”

At a chemical manufacturer, hand injuries accounted for 50 percent of all severe injuries. When management made plans for operators to wear protective gloves, the number of injuries dropped only a tad. It turned out that many operators chose not to wear the gloves since made it harder to perform certain tasks.

When operators informed their field managers that the gloves made their jobs more difficult, mangers abandoned their obligation to safety and shifted it to the safety personnel, who had made the rules.

In organizations that struggle to improve their safety performance, the absence of employee empowerment is often the reason. To boost employee empowerment, organizations can choose a “managed safety” approach (as opposed to “regulated safety”). This is where management can rely on employees to use their own common sense in cases when clear-cut observance with safety rules either wouldn’t be sufficient or could present risk.

To overcome disempowerment, it’s also imperative for management to offer a positive reaction to employees that take it upon themselves to improve safety.


Mind-set #5: “Cultural change takes time.”

Many managers presume it takes years for a culture to develop. Even those managers devoted to change often have low expectancies about the speed of improvement, while those indifferent engage in a passive resistance, i.e., they simply wait things out.

In either case, the results are identical: a failure to recruit vital influencers, furnish momentum and produce the early wins essential for effective transformations of the safety culture.

Final thoughts

Producing a self-sufficient and robust safety culture isn’t as easy as people may believe and it’s also not something to be realized instantly.

It takes time, resources and nonstop communication. However, by sticking to the tips presented and overcoming the mind-sets that restrict participation, companies can create a viable safety culture that fosters employees’ participation and constant improvement across the company.