A few years ago, I was having dinner with a colleague after completing a HAZOP for a client. As we discussed the PHA, the topic of safety culture came up. What are the hallmarks of a good safety culture, how have we been seeing it wax and wane among clients, and how have we experienced it in our own careers?
Having worked in multiple fields and for multiple companies, I had seen what a difference having a good safety culture could make. One experience that stands out to me (of a poor example) was being told “I will never ask you to do what I would not do myself.” This was a reassuring notion, until I saw the dangerous things they did and that I was asked to perform – for example, working on top of a column without fall protection or locking open a misbehaving valve with vice grips and air disconnected to keep the plant running until the next turnaround. If your safety culture is defined by a standard of unsafe work practices, you have a poor safety culture.
During our dinner conversation I was asked, “Well, how do you define a good safety culture?” I pondered a moment and said, “It is when a business minimizes the hazards to their employees.” Taken aback by my definition, he said, “How is a company supposed to operate if they do not expose their employees to hazards? Everything you do is dangerous!”
My colleague was right. Our day-to-day lives are full of hazards – showing up to work each day is one of them. Actually defining “safety culture” is a difficult task. How do you draw the line between ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’ while taking into account imprecise factors such as ‘culture.’ A company could certainly eliminate all risk to their employees by simply closing-up shop and locking the gates, but that is contrary to operating a business.
Ultimately, I was unable to give a satisfactory definition that night, but I have thought on it many times since then. And while I still do not have a perfect definition, I do believe I have a better one: A good safety culture is when the employees and leadership consider the safety of those affected by their work during all stages of the work and take conscious steps toward increasing the safety throughout the lifecycle.
Here, the goal is not to minimize all risk but instead to increase safety. It is a subtle difference, but an important one. While all work processes possess an inherent amount of risk, there are many ways to increase the safety of those processes.
So how can you increase safety? You can maintain up-to-date procedures and get input from those using them, you can hold regular safety meetings, you can tie performance objectives to safety objectives and reward meeting those objectives, and you can make sure that the employees are involved in developing safe work practices – after all, not only are they the ones being exposed to the risks, but they are the ones that know those risks best. Employee involvement is key to having a good safety culture, but management buy-in is equally important for empowering and providing the necessary resources. Investing in safety is always cheaper than having an accident. And working to build a good safety culture ensures that all are invested in the safety of your organization.