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Creating a Culture of Safety: Do You Care Enough? - Ephektiv

07 Dec 2015

Creating a Culture of Safety: Do You Care Enough?

Linemen at work


By Martin Marquardt, Co-owner and President 

Sometimes culture can mean the difference between life and death in a business setting.

In the 2013-14 calendar year more than 4,500 people died on the job in the United States (OSHA). Twelve people a day leave home for work and do not return to their families at the end of the day.

In our experience, the underlying culture of a business is a significant causal factor in employee safety. Culture, in this sense, is “the way we do things around here,” the way we approach our work and treat each other.

Our organization has been primarily focused on this area for the last 15 years. In addition to the overall improvement of organizational performance, we have focused specifically on safety culture as it pertains to the safe operation of nuclear power plants the personal safety of the people who work there, and the safety of physical workers in utilities. (Physical workers are those whose work requires physical exertion to perform tasks, similar to construction workers.)

A few years back we partnered with an industry-sponsored organization to explore the correlation between culture and the safe operation of nuclear power plants. We looked at long-term high performers, middle performers and lower performers across the nuclear industry. (It should be noted that all nuclear plants are subject to meeting or exceeding an ever-increasing set of standards for safe operation.)

We found a striking correlation: how leaders treated employees played into long-term top safety performance almost across the board.

This led us to do some similar work in the electric utility industry, where mistakes or accidents can have fatal or debilitating consequences to employees, and where we have been involved in root cause analysis of fatalities and cases of severe injury to employees. In all of these cases the underlying culture played a significant role in informing the choices of the victim and his peers and leaders.

What’s the problem?

There is a common theme in all of these cases that relates to a strong “machismo” culture at play among the workers. Having a culture where your “manliness” is called into play or a culture where you must prove yourself through overexertion or risk taking is deadly. No amount of procedures, training, observation or rewards will overcome this underlying force.

The differentiating factor

But there is a flip side.

As we conducted assessments of the low-performing organizations relative to safety, we continued to come across work crews that had been together for well over 15 years without any type of safety related incident. How was this possible? What was different about these crews? They had access to the same procedures, training and safety programs as others in their organizations, and yet they had stellar safety records.

Were they just lucky?

Actually, luck was not the differentiating factor. What we consistently found within these crews was a high level of sincere caring for each other. They simply cared so much for each other that they would not let each other get hurt, and they created a safe haven for their members to perform their best work. Interestingly enough, they went so far as to reject or eject crewmembers that did not demonstrate this same level or care toward their fellow crewmembers.

We began to think that the level of caring must somehow be a significant differentiating factor.

Data supports it

So we considered the results from the benchmarking of top quartile safety organizations. As a part of their efforts to improve safety, many of our clients have benchmarked the safest organizations in their industries to better understand what the top performers do right in order to uncover what they can do better. But they often return confused about what they have found. The benchmarked organizations are found to have no better training, procedures, tools or safety programs than the poor performers, and in some cases their programs are not as strong. However, the best companies have one thing in common: they have been early adopters of tools that make work easier and safer.

The conclusion? This adoption of new tools happens because there is already a high level of caring in place at the top performers. The employees and management at these organizations care for each other and they want to do everything they can to ensure a safe, effective working environment. The tools are just an expression of this. Caring can be seen in behaviors and felt, but is hard to quantify and fit into a technical review of safety.

To validate our findings and thinking, we orchestrated an Appreciative Inquiry process with over 450 physical workers exploring what factors were in place when they worked at their safest level. When we combined the output from this process we discovered something else: “caring” emerged as the overwhelming number one factor that contributed to safe work.

As we examined the data more closely and continued to interview employees we concluded that “caring” is a primary causal factor in workplace safety and results in greater use of human performance tools along with other positive behaviors such as teamwork and peer-to-peer coaching.

It’s about respect

As stated earlier, we found a strong correlation between how leaders were expected to treat employees and long-term excellent levels of safety at the nuclear power plants we worked with. The attributes that reflected how leaders treated employees can be summed up as a high level of caring and respect for the employees. These leaders treated their employees as more important than anything else and in no way discounted the importance of safe operation of the asset.

And safety is just part of it. We have also found other interesting correlations between the degree of “caring” for employees and teamwork, productivity, sharing of knowledge and innovation.

It should come as no surprise that creating a culture of caring results in excellent safety and significant contribution to the bottom line. And yet, we continuously encounter leaders who are surprised and wonder out loud if it is really that simple. Well, it is that simple, if caring for others is one of your primary personal values.

It is almost impossible if it is not a primary value.

Luckily, leaders can engage in an authentic examination of their values and make this shift with concerted effort. From a place of authentic caring a senior leader can then launch an effort to shift the culture across the organization. With strong sponsorship and resolve we have seen this type of leader successfully lead a shift to a caring culture that results in excellent safety performance and improved organizational performance.

When creating a culture of workplace safety, the question for leaders and front-line workers alike, then, becomes: “do you care enough?” Do you lead from an authentic value of caring? Where in the hierarchy of your values does “caring” fall out?


Appreciative Inquiry Findings

The word cloud below the next page represents the frequency of responses to the Appreciative Inquiry process into what promotes safe work.







Kevin Smith
Kevin Smith

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