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How to build a 'safety 1st' corporate culture

When we discuss corporations and their culture, we must keep in mind that they do not work in a vacuum — there is a huge competition globally, and that competition will create the need for continuous improvement. In the past, it was often thought that working in countries with low wages and fewer government regulations would enable companies to produce products at a competitive cost. However, later on, the corporations that started to be leaders in the global market were the ones that valued the quality of their products and services, which was achieved through a safe and healthy workplace for their workforce. Corporations that reached that level can be considered as having a "safety first corporate culture."

Some organizations focus only on the concept zero incidents, or zero injuries, and do not concentrate on the safety culture within the organization. For sure the goal in safety is always to achieve zero injuries, but focusing solely on the term "zero incidents" will make such organizations lose focus on how they can learn from their mistakes and errors.

In the concept of zero incidents, the definition of safety is not to get injured, which will spread a misleading culture that if no one got injured that means everyone is working safe. Instead, the definition of safety should be how to do the job safe so no one gets injured.

Good safety performance should be the main goal, and corporations should not be focusing only on the results, but on the journey it takes to get there.

According to Terry Mathis, CEO of ProAct Safety in The Woodland, Texas, every organization has an organizational-specific culture, which is shaped by the concepts and beliefs that the majority of employees agrees on and share. So, corporate culture is not what the employees do at work every day, but what will drive them to do the work in a certain way. That is why developing a corporate safety culture can benefit any organization and will affect how employees do their work. That corporate safety culture will reflect on decreasing the incident rate while increasing productivity and employee morale.

A strong corporate safety culture can make corporations more profitable and gain a better market share in the long run. On the other hand, the lack of corporate safety culture can cause an increase in the cost of dealing with workplace accidents, medical expenses, workers' compensation costs, legal fines, loss of productivity, low employee morale, and many other factors that can drain the corporation financially and make it not able to compete.

One of the common mistakes that some corporations fall into is building a standalone safety system, which is not integrated fully into everything else in the corporation. That will not help in creating the desired safety first corporate culture, but on the other hand, will help in isolating safety even more and increase the gap between safety and productivity.

When corporations start to take steps towards corporate safety culture, everyone in the corporation should be on board, from the top management to the newly hired employees. Everyone within the organization will have some kind of responsibility when it comes to building a corporate safety culture.

The first step in building a safety first corporate culture is to assess where the corporation stands when it comes to safety. That can be measured in various ways, such as safety perception surveys, audits and interviews with all levels of employees.

The second step will be putting together a plan to build the safety first corporate culture. In the planning stage it will not be helpful for corporations to adopt a ready-made safety system, as every organization is unique, and there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to safety systems.

The third step is implementation. Organizations need to depend on employees during this stage. Every organization has various types of employees, some of those employees are very engaged in safety and they are the top performers. Others are low performers and unengaged when it comes to safety. If upper management treated them all equally in assigning responsibilities, the organization would lose the talented, engaged and high performing employees very easily, and it would be very challenging to build that desired safety first corporate culture. 

According to Eric Svendsen, principal and lead change agent for a safety-leadership learning and development organization in Denver, employees are categorized into three main categories: Category A is the top performers who are acting like owners and can lead the safety culture; Category B is the unengaged employees who are mostly committed, but they just do the bare minimum and cannot lead the culture; and Category C is the totally disengaged employees who are always taking shortcuts, are risk takers and are basically a liability. Management should keep those three categories in mind while assigning responsibilities, so they can get the full support and engagement of all employees.  

It is wise to educate top management about the financial benefits and the moral obligations of having such a safety culture within the organization and get the buy-in from all levels.

Amr Fahmy is the project health and safety manager at CH2M in Calgary. He can be reached at amr.fahmy@ch2m.com.

Amr Fahmy

Amr Fahmy is the project health and safety manager at CH2M in Calgary.
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