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Building a Successful Safety Culture

In industry, business, and government workplace safety programs are based on one of three principles: Regulatory Compliance, Monetary Savings, or Ethics. Those whose programs are based on regulatory compliance are concerned with avoiding fines and citations and base their safety decisions solely upon existing safety regulations. Those whose programs are based on monetary savings are concerned with reducing their cost from employee injury, illness, and death. Those whose programs are based on ethics are concerned with doing whatever is necessary to provide a safe workplace.

Regulatory Compliance
Many employers feel that regulatory compliance and workplace safety are the same thing. Most of the world’s workplace safety regulatory agencies make it clear that their regulations are only minimum requirements.

Violating a legal regulation and violating a moral or ethical principle are not the same thing. In fact, reducing ethics to little more than compliance may lead to more non-compliance than if ethics were the guiding light for workplace safety. “Compliance” means not transgressing the limits defined by law. Business and society need regulations and laws along with enforcement. Compliance is a good thing, but compliance is not ethics and compliance does not guarantee a safe workplace.

An exclusive focus on laws and regulations restricts our attention to the edges of the playing field. Cross this line and you are busted. But if you play the game by always working as close to the edges as possible, you are likely to stumble or sneak across the forbidden limit. Ethical principles of workplace safety sometimes do spell out “law-like” boundary conditions through written policies and procedures, but these are based not on what is legal, but on what is right. Ethical boundaries are usually drawn well back from those legal edges we might otherwise trespass.

The ethics question is “what is right, good, and moral?” and that usually exceeds minimum regulatory requirements. A true facility safety culture can not be established on a foundation of regulatory compliance alone.

Monetary Savings
One safety manager who advocates using monetary savings as a foundation for workplace safety programs writes: “We were not hired because our companies were altruistic about providing an environment where employees did not get hurt. We were not hired because our companies were enamored with safety. However, we were hired because it makes good business sense. We were hired to reduce the costs of worker’s compensation, the medical costs resulting from injuries, and the costs of potential OSHA citations.”

Many employers do genuinely care about the safety of their employees and see workplace safety as an ethical responsibility not a cash center. The cost of injuries is a viable consideration and an excellent tool for a safety manager to use in justifying expenditures for workplace safety. But a safety program based solely upon saving the employer money is sorely misguided. The writer of the above needs to accept his/her responsibility to educate their employer to the fact that safety is much more than just money, it is an ethical responsibility. A true safety culture can not be established in your facility on a foundation of saving money alone.

At its core, ethics holds up a positive vision of what is right and what is good. It defines what is worth pursuing as a guiding star for our decisions and actions. Organizations that base their workplace safety on ethics will spend their energy articulating and pursuing positive principles, values, and virtues. Observing regulatory boundaries and reducing expenses from injuries are important, but they are secondary to the pursuit of the right and good.

We salute those in the business of regulatory compliance for their substantial contribution to workplace safety. We thank those who gave us the tactic of using monetary savings to help justify our safety budgets. But we affirm the higher purpose of our ethical and moral responsibility to be driven by what is right and proper to protect employees from death, injury, and illness in the workplace. This is the only foundation upon which a true safety culture can be established in any workplace.

Beyond a Systems Approach

A systems approach to workplace safety provides a means for us to determine specific needs of our workplace and our employees as opposed to regulations that are designed in a broad and general fashion. Systems thinking complements our natural tendency to break things down into manageable parts. Systems thinking explores expansionistic thinking, an approach that first considers the context of a problem before breaking it down into its component parts. A systems approach to workplace safety will include comprehensive workplace safety audits and thereby meet and exceed government safety regulations. The systems approach provides a site specific approach to workplace safety but not a comprehensive approach. A systems approach to workplace safety does not provide a comprehensive approach to workplace safety because it does not address the additional hazards or weaknesses created by the system itself. The law of unintended consequences in the system itself can be seen as a an example of looking beyond the commonly accepted bounds of a “Systems Approach” to workplace safety. Therefore, the creation of a comprehensive safety culture within an organization requires that we step outside of the system, and evaluate the whole.

Behavior Modification

Behavior modification is defined as many different things, depending upon who is defining it. From the standpoint of the creation of a comprehensive safety culture within an organization, behavior modification means changing the manner in which the human element of our organization works. This is accomplished largely through effective training but also requires administrative controls. Effective behavior modification within a comprehensive safety culture must apply not just to laborers and operators, but to all human links in the chain that is the “system”.

-Ed Sterrett
Central Florida Safety Academy

Categories: Safety
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