Four Keys to Shifting Safety Culture

Boots Web

Twenty years ago, I was a supervisor responsible for production and safety at an aggregates operation, with a clear and simple corporate goal to be the low-cost supplier. We took our marching orders, ran the processing plant hard, and kept our costs low. Safety was on our radar, but it wasn’t in our soul. We went through MSHA refresher training, reported most incidents with little follow-up, and the dashboard of every work truck held dusty stacks of blank near-miss reporting sheets.

A corporate executive visited the site and addressed the employees – just a few feet away from the primary crusher – wearing Italian leather loafers and no safety glasses. He cut his scripted safety talk short when he excused himself to take a very important phone call from a customer. He returned and gave us each a gift card for our safety compliance. I felt disappointed by the message his actions delivered. The miners mocked him as he drove away for not having the knowledge (or respect) to wear the proper PPE. Many used the gift card to buy beer and cigarettes that evening on their way home.

Soon the environment changed. Many would look back and argue that the change was driven by MSHA enforcement and increasing costs due to insurance premiums and loss time accidents. These factors started the conversation, but it took a new executive management team that was committed to safety leadership to recognize that improving the health and wellness of employees was about changing all behaviors. They saw beyond compliance management and set out on a change management program at every level of the company.

I felt honored to help facilitate the safety culture shift as the change cascaded down to the front lines. A few years later another corporate executive visited the site wearing steel-toed boots, prescription safety glasses, a hard hat, and a high visibility vest. He left his mobile phone in the office and walked the operation giving the employees his full attention. I knew that day that our safety culture had shifted, we were on our way to becoming industry leaders.


The measure of the leader is the behavior of the follower

1. Management Commitment – Executive management made a clear commitment. They prioritized safety and didn’t make it compete with financial expectations, customer service, cost-cutting initiatives, and busy schedules. They made safety the first item on the agenda of every meeting. Safety had its own line item on the P&L statement. Management encouraged the investment of time, resources, and money in our safety program. Company leadership also spent an adequate amount of time in the field stressing accountability. If you’re gonna talk the talk, you better walk the walk.

They’ve got to feel safe to be safe #safe2bsafe

2. Employee Empowerment – We created an environment where employees felt comfortable reporting safety issues without fear of discipline or blame. Consequently, employees actively engaged and exhibited a working knowledge of health and safety initiatives. All employees throughout the company felt empowered with the necessary resources and authority to find and fix problems as they saw them.

She sounds like a broken record

3. Communication & Training – We clearly and regularly communicated our commitment to safety to all levels of the organization. The executive management team used safety in every message – even if only in a short note – with creative and consistent language. We made training a condition of employment and focused on leading indicators like written JSA (job site analysis), impactful safety meetings, workplace examinations, and safe act observations.

Gallup Poll: 24% of employees say most memorable recognition comes from CEO 

4. Reward & Recognition – This was our most difficult modification. We eliminated the financial safety incentive program for hourly employees. Safety became a condition of employment. Annual gift cards given out for an improved lost time accident record were traded for safety lunches, team building activities and regular recognition from the executive leadership team. Small rewards and recognition for safe behaviors built our safety culture and served as motivation to continuously improve our health and safety performance.

Are you ready to take your safety culture to the next level? We can start by working with your executive leadership team and your employees on the front line! Let’s connect and chat about how the Q4 Impact team can help your organization!