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The Culture of Safety – Fit In or Stand Out

Paul Meli October 25, 2013 0

workplace safety cultureCulture is sometimes used to describe the way we do the things we do.  I have always been fascinated by how one perceives the safety culture of a workforce or of a business, and how it is a reflection of the makeup of an entire operation.  So let me share what culture means to me.  First, let’s look at the definition of “culture.”  According to Merriam Webster’s dictionary, culture is defined as “the beliefs, customs, arts, etc., of a particular society, group, place, or time; a particular society that has its own beliefs, ways of life, art, etc.; a way of thinking, behaving, or working that exists in a place or organization (such as a business).”  The latter definition is the one I particularly like to use in describing workplace cultures from a safety perspective.

I also see culture as a natural part of what we are and what we do.  Our culture helps define who we are and what we will be.  It runs so deep into the fabric of our existence that we feel like fish out if water when we shift from one culture to another.  A great example of this is evident when we travel across the country or around the world.  We either “fit in or stand out.”  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve experienced different cultures where I fit in or stand out naturally.

Now let’s look at safety and culture.  As I mentioned before, you either fit in or stand out.  Fitting in to the safety culture means you get it, you do it smartly, you know the risks, and you are properly trained. On the other hand, you stand out if you do not work safely, disregard safe work practices, or just do not know enough about what you are doing to fully grasp the risks involved.  Our challenge as safety and health professionals is to make everyone “fit in,” while minimizing those who “stand out” by shaping the culture, which is a greater challenge than we realize.

In general, we are all very safe at what we do.  We fit in nicely.  There are some, however, who still stand out because of their way of understanding risks.  They can stand on top of an A-frame ladder and do not consider the risk of getting hurt, because they do this frequently and they haven’t been injured before.  They use tools without receiving proper training, because they claim to know how to use such tools by simply watching someone else use them.  They don’t wear a dust mask while working with products containing silica, because no one told them that they could get sick—and besides, they are not sick today, so why do they need that mask?  There are many examples like these, and if you are a safety and health professional, you know how many more examples there are.

So how do we help them “fit in” without disrupting their culture?  Simple: address the habit.  The Merriam Webster’s dictionary defines a habit as “a usual way of behaving; something that a person does often in a regular and repeated way.”  In my opinion, a habit is a better way of describing the things we do or not do.  For me, habit is the key in establishing a culture.  Habits can form in one of two ways—good habits or bad habits.  I also see a habit as a type of micro-culture in an otherwise good culture.  So, I focus on correcting bad habits, not trying to change the culture.

Then the next question is “how do I correct bad habits?”  This too is simple:  by engagement. Engagement means to be there, at that moment, to observe these risks.  Engagement also means to help guide them to a higher level of understanding—through continuous re-enforcement of the right way of doing their work with reasoning that they can understand.  Treat them like intelligent individuals who are willing to learn a better way.  And most importantly, be there when they are calling out for help when they do “stand out.”

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