Safety Culture Myths and Misconceptions
Surely, no one would deny that safety in the workplace is important, but the picture of what it means to be safe isn’t identical across organizations. While some are constantly striving for continued improvement, others fall victim to complacency.
This complacency is born out of the belief in a number of myths and misconceptions around safety culture. There’s often a false sense of what it takes to drive changes and what it means to have a strong safety culture, so businesses may settle for the status quo.
The following are a few of the common myths and misconceptions that may keep businesses from investing in safety and moving from complacency to a culture of safety.
Myth #1: Safety is Too Expensive
While it’s true that there may be some costs associated with implementing new safety programs, processes, and procedures, the ROI of safety is far-reaching. The influence of a strong safety culture is often overlooked and underestimated in regards to the impact it can have on a business’s bottom line.
Businesses who invest in safety and have positive safety cultures tout high worker engagement leading to higher productivity, better employee retention, and a reduction in injuries, incidents, and the associated costs. When considering the cost of a lost work day and other direct and indirect costs associated with workplace injuries and incidents, it’s easy to see how business can benefit from investing in safety. In fact, studies have shown that every dollar invested in safety programs and processes provides a return of approximately $4 to $6 in reduced costs.
Profitability and productivity are not mutually exclusive to investing in safety. They all act in harmony. An investment in safety acts as a complement to a business’s productivity and profitability.
Myth #2: Safety Gear = Safety
Safety gear, or personal protective equipment (PPE), is very often an essential element of safety programs, but the simple availability of PPE does not eliminate risk, guarantee safety, or indicate the existence of a strong safety culture.
There are a number of reasons that PPE, by itself, is not enough. Safety gear is protective, not preventative. Even when provided, PPE can have expiration dates that may be overlooked or dismissed, which can limit or eliminate its ability to protect. Additionally, improper fit and improper use hinder the effectiveness of PPE. Employees need to be properly trained on PPE usage, and businesses should ensure that PPE is maintained and in working order at all times.
Employee behavior is a critical element in the effectiveness of PPE. Employees must still engage in safe behaviors on the job. Employee behavior is guided by the level of employee engagement – a more accurate indicator of safety culture.
If employees have concerns about the PPE they are provided and/or feel the business doesn’t take safety seriously, they’re more likely to adopt a similar mindset. This has the potential to foster carelessness and can lead to critical errors.
Myth #3: Training Signifies a Strong Safety Culture
For some businesses, the provision of toolbox talks and other forms of training is equated with a strong safety culture. But training itself is not an indication of the existence of safety culture. In an ideal world, employees would retain all information from training and would be able to put that training into practice. Unfortunately, the reality is that this just isn’t feasible. Training is essential, but training alone is not an indicator of strong culture.
Businesses must consider a number of factors – how much training is being provided, how is that training being delivered, is too much information being provided at once, is there follow up needed, etc. By assuming that employees are retaining all information provided in training, businesses may be putting their people at risk. In businesses where there is not a strong culture of safety, employees may not feel empowered to speak up when they have not received adequate training or when they feel they need additional training. They may fear getting in trouble or even that their requests will simply fall on deaf ears.
The true indicator of positive safety culture is when businesses can identify and empower safety leaders who can support and cross-train other employees. Furthermore, employees should be allowed and encouraged to request additional training, bring to light risk issues, and provide feedback on process improvements, knowing that those insights will be heard, considered, and used to guide continued improvements to safety culture.
Myth #4: Inspections and Audits Will Unveil All Risks
Inspections and audits serve more as in-the-moment snapshots of performance and may not capture the full spectrum of ongoing issues. Inspections and audits, by nature, are meant to identify risks – what’s wrong, what’s missing, etc.
These tools may identify visible issues with the environment and/or equipment; however, they cannot identify the underlying causal factors for those issues. Additionally, inspections and audits can be subject to reactivity, a change in behavior when the person completing the inspection or audit approaches, which can limit the accuracy of the tool. Furthermore these tools often align with OSHA regulations and guidelines which represent only the minimum a business can do to keep its employees safe, which is not characteristic of safety culture.
Inspections and audits are important but are not solely indicative of safety culture. A quality, thorough inspection system is important as just one facet of a larger safety culture.
Myth #5: OSHA Compliance is Good Enough
OSHA provides essential guidance, and it’s true that it’s important to be compliant with these guidelines. But simple compliance is not enough. Focusing solely on compliance-level performance is a major disservice to any business…and its employees.
OSHA regulations serve as the bare minimum of what businesses can and should do to keep their employees safe. The issue with compliance is that it is reactive. Most regulatory guidelines are established out of the occurrence of an injury or incident.
From an employee engagement standpoint, a culture of simple compliance can send the message that safety isn’t priority. Employees who don’t feel a sense of commitment to safety from their organization often follow suit and place safety on the back burner. When safety serves as an afterthought, the results can be devastating.
By moving to a more proactive approach and being outspoken about the commitment to making safety the top priority, businesses can begin to establish commitment and engagement from their workforce and move beyond compliance toward an all-encompassing safety culture.
Compliance is necessary and serves as a foundation and starting point for building a strong safety culture, but it’s not good enough. When it comes to safety, “good enough” is never enough.
Myth #6: Safety Culture Should be Managed From the Top Down
For any safety program and safety culture to be successful there must be buy-in and guidance from management. Managers must demonstrate commitment to safety by showing, not just saying, that safety is top priority. Management’s role in safety is typically more practical and involves things such as program planning, resource allocation, etc. But it doesn’t end there.
Successful safety culture involves sharing the responsibility for safety. Although management does indeed play a role, it is equally important to identify and empower safety leaders across all levels of the organization. Achieving a positive safety culture is an organization-wide effort that requires commitment and action from everyone. Harnessing the power of safety leadership in the workplace means empowering employees at all levels to play a role and advocate for safety.
While safety leaders have the responsibility to raise and escalate issues and advocate for continued and improved safety in the workplace, management must commit to keeping the lines of communication open and should remain open to feedback from employees in order to inform change and guide the development and sustainment of safety culture.
Managers and safety leaders don’t have to be one and the same. Manager’s aren’t solely responsible for safety culture. Everyone has a role to play. In fact, the engagement of the entire workforce is critical to shaping a safety culture that is strong and sustainable.
By learning the facts, dispelling the myths, and committing to building a strong culture of safety, businesses can unlock a whole new world of opportunity.