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Safety Culture: So Much Controversy!

October 21st, 2013

In my column in OH&S Magazine, an article of mine was published March, 2013 titled, Stop Trying to Create a Safety Culture. -

It created a lot of buzz, which increased significantly when I posted it recently to the groups I belong to in LinkedIn. There is a word limit in the group comments, so to reply to some great feedback and discussion, I’ve organized my thoughts here.

Do I think we should stop creating safety culture? Yes. Safety Culture, or what we call it at least, already exists, good, bad, or indifferent. You only create the culture when you are first gathering people together from different backgrounds (e.g., experiences, employers, communities) and start aligning them to accomplish something. Only then (when the business opens the doors) are you focusing on the creation of a culture. Even that statement could be disagreed with, in that cultural influences were already imposed on people. Perhaps creation starts in the home? Perhaps culture of safety starts with the responsibility of the parents as their children enter the working world – that could be an interesting discussion!

The business culture is created after people have grown accustom to working together. Could the safety/production/quality/leadership elements be better? Sure, always. If someone thinks otherwise, they are breathing their own exhaust. The only way we advance is to believe there will always be a better way. I have yet to find a company that only and only improvement in “safety culture” would only benefit safety. (Safety culture: Just a term used to provide understanding and structure to, A. Bring focus and B. Provide bookends to manage within.) If there are opportunities for the aspects, characterizes and capabilities that shape safety to be improved, there are always opportunities for these to enhance all aspects of business performance.

What of multiple or subculture? I do believe there will be subcultures within cultures in mid to large size organizations and very disorganized smaller firms. I also believe that that a bit of autonomy is healthy, as long as it contributes to organizational vision and goals. However, I do not agree with the benefit of multiple safety cultures, unless the company-dictated safety culture is ineffective. I’d have to do research, there was a study I read about 5-7 years ago, that said every time you speak to your direct supervisor, your blood pressure increases. Now, how does that create alignment in all aspects of culture if there are medical reactions when an individual speaks with different levels of the business?

What I do think is counterproductive is to completely discount the term and how it is used as commonplace in today’s business. I hear and see people saying that it shouldn’t be used. In my opinion, these people are out of touch with today’s senior executive. Telling them they are wrong, will turn them off to a new way of thinking. Of course it will take new information and experiences to help those who own the overall culture to see the realities of safety culture. But, just nay-saying without a comprehensive alternative is just spreading pointless negativity. For example, there were several in the safety field (whom are Psychologists) that several years back, strongly discouraged and disliked the use of the term habit; It wasn’t scientific enough! Habit is a common term that provides great understanding and helps serve as a vehicle for important messages about safety.

Terry Mathis and I took a well, thought-out risk with our book published earlier this year by WILEY, when using the term Safety Culture in the title. The book is more about company culture and how to strengthen it overall (to improve safety), but we realize that if we want to influence those responsible for it (business execs), we have to provide it in a manner that might appeal to those that are serious about improving safety performance and culture. Keep in mind, it was not a self-published book so the goal was not to become a best-seller for profit. We were honored when it did on Amazon, and the best feedback we received from execs was they saw how it could be used in all aspects of business culture. – Exactly our goal: provide ideas for internally-led improvement.

If we are unwilling to accept new common terms and learn how to work with them to advance thinking, behavior, processes and results we are working against ourselves and the new generations, their habits, points of view and language. Heck, I’m still trying to understand twerking… (Side Note: I wrote this in MS Word as connectivity is limited where I am writing this from, and word didn’t recognize twerking!)

- Shawn M. Galloway

Shawn M. Galloway is the President of ProAct Safety and the coauthor of two books, his latest published Feb 2013 by Wiley is STEPS to Safety Culture Excellence. As an internationally recognized safety excellence expert, he has helped hundreds of organizations within every major industry to achieve and sustain excellence in performance and culture.  He has been listed in this year’s National Safety Council Top 40 Rising Stars, EHS Today Magazine’s 50 People Who Most Influenced EHS and ISHN Magazine’s POWER 101 – Leaders of the EHS World and again in the recent, elite list of Up and Coming Thought Leaders. In addition to the books, Shawn has authored over 300 podcasts, 100 articles and 80 videos on the subject of safety excellence in culture and performance.

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