Organizational Culture and Safety Performance

By Mansdorf, Zack | Occupational Hazards, May 1999 | Go to article overview

Organizational Culture and Safety Performance

Mansdorf, Zack, Occupational Hazards

Does your corporate culture promote safety? How can you make safety part of the corporate culture?

An organizational culture that supports safety is essential for the prevention of injuries and illness. Management systems and programs can provide an effective safety framework; however, it ultimately is the worker's perception of the value of safety to himself and the importance of safety to the organization that governs safety performance.

Simply put, for true performance, you need both the underlying systems and an organizational culture that supports them. This is often called "safety culture."

What is a safety culture? "Culture" is defined in my version of Webster's Dictionary as "the concepts, habits, skills, arts, instruments, institutions, etc., of a given people." This definition also can be applied to how organizations and the people who make up organizations feel about safety. The British Health and Safety Executive has one of the better definitions, which was derived from its work in the safety of nuclear installations. Paraphrasing, it defines safety culture as the product of the individual and group values, attitudes, competencies and patterns of behavior that determine the commitment to, and the style and proficiency of, an organization's health and safety programs. Safety culture is "the way we do things around here," and reflects how we collectively value safety.

Organizational culture is learned quickly by those joining an organization, and is supported by the [organization's] survivors. It is learned by observing the successes and failures of their peers and others in the work environment, from written and unwritten organizational rules and through their own job experiences. Once established, it can be difficult to change corporate culture, since one aspect of essentially all cultures is that they resist change. This has been dramatically demonstrated by the failure of recent large merger attempts in which the two partnering companies had vastly different organizational cultures.

The best examples of how safety culture can affect work are the ones that we have all experienced at some time in our careers. As we all know, safe work rules can be destined to failure if management and the workers do not equally support them. For example, a rule requiring the use of safety glasses can be quickly diminished if a senior manager walks around the plant without them. In this case, the organizational or safety culture promotes a sense that the rules do not really matter.

A situation in which the supervisor and fellow workers look the other way "in order to get the job done," is a more subtle, but equally destructive practice that leads to an undesirable safety culture. I recall a serious chemical accident that resulted from the use of an air-powered wrench to unbolt a large pipe flange. The supervisors and workers knew that the work rules required use of a hand wrench in case the pipe was under pressure. Nevertheless, the supervisor looked the other way at the common practice of using prohibited air wrenches, since they were much faster and easier to use. The organizational culture supported this practice by promoting the unwritten message that the faster turnaround was more important than safety.

The Importance of Safety Culture

Just where does safety culture fit in?

New safety concepts, while not quite as quite as prolific as the flavor-of-the-month business management concept guaranteeing fabulous success to any business who uses it, have included a number of novel approaches designed to create incredibly safe workers and workplaces. These have included systems safety (e.g., fault tree, MORT) approaches, the advent of widespread compliance auditing, loss control and integrated risk management approaches, behavior-based safety approaches and ISO-like management systems approaches. The motive driving the search for new approaches is the fact that we have reached a plateau in the downward trend in occupational accidents and illnesses. …

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