Creating a Culture of Workplace Safety

459636707In the late 1980s, Paul O’Neill ascended the position of CEO at Alcoa, a 100-year old aluminum manufacturer. Unlike the standard CEO declaration about his intent to drive profits, O’Neill’s first public comments set a disarming objective: “I intend to make Alcoa the safest company in America.”

Not only was such a statement shocking as an unconventional approach to business priorities, but the bugle on safety was coming from the leader of a company whose industry is filled with hazard potentials. Over the course of O’Neill’s decade-plus tenure as CEO, and in the years since, Alcoa has achieved O’Neill’s initial goal, boasting lost work day rates that are a fraction of the national average. Even more impressive, while establishing a world-class safety culture, Alcoa became one of the most financially successful companies in the world. By adopting the mindset and implementing some of the core practices that O’Neill pioneered, companies of any size and industry can replicate this example for their own organization.

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According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), injured workers cost U.S. employers $1 billion per week in direct workers’ compensation costs alone. This does not even factor in the indirect impacts, such as decreased employee morale, engagement, motivation and productivity. Appreciating the business case for protective policies is a crucial first step for building a strong culture of safety.

Consider that OSHA defines safety culture as the shared beliefs, attitudes and practices that determine the performance of an organization’s safety and health management. Beyond established policies, procedures and training related to safety, a company’s safety culture reflects the value management places on workplace safety and how it affects the daily decisions and actions taken by management and employees alike.

Five Pillars of a Safe Culture
There are a number of ways to assess where your organization is and help build a stronger safety culture.

1. Leadership commitment to safety: Developing a healthy safety culture requires a management team to champion safety as an organizational value. This can be done by ensuring that company leadership establishes proactive safety performance metrics, routinely visit work areas to discuss safety with supervisors and employees, and install policies that allow employees to stop production if safety concerns arise.

2. Employee participation in establishing safety measures: Employee participation in health and safety matters is crucial to achieving their buy-in, especially in organizations where workplace safety has not always been as valued as it should be. Organizations must build resources for employee participation, such as a safety committee or a platform for employees to report potential hazards and safety improvement ideas.

3. Trust between employees and management: Too often, a trust deficit between employees and management is a primary contributor to poor safety culture. To build trust and reinforce a commitment to a strong safety culture, managers should make it a priority to follow through on safety policies and procedures, as well as employee-involvement programs.

4. Effective two-way communication: Even the best safety plans are only effective if they are well-known and understood by all employees. Organizations should communicate safety policies and procedures in a variety of ways.  For example, demonstrate visually through signs or posters, communicate through bulletins and provide point-of-use safety information such as “job breakdown sheets” at workstations, updating them when safety policies, procedures or OSHA rules change.

5. Training workforce on safety measures: To truly develop a safety culture, an organization must ensure its employees are properly trained.  Companies must develop a training matrix for each job or work area to identify required training for each employee.  It is also important to test your employees’ knowledge both at the completion of training and later to evaluate retention and practical application.

When companies take relatively small steps to foster a safe environment, they reap dividends in reduced injury costs, lower turnover, improved morale and increased employee engagement. The reality is the only truly appreciable resource an organization has is its employees.  Buildings, equipment and materials all depreciate over time, but a company’s human capital holds the most potential.  By protecting their most valuable asset – their workforce – organizations can build greater loyalty among employees while also strengthening their bottom line.

MORE: The healthcare occupational safety landscape

Corey Berghoefer

Corey Berghoefer
Corey Berghoefer is vice president of risk management at Randstad.

Corey Berghoefer

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  1. […] of these things matter, and according to The Staffing Stream, they can make a big difference. Corey Berghoefer, vice president of risk management at Randstad, believes they can make a […]

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