Creating Safety Culture Challenges
Developing a sustainable safety culture

What is the first change to improve your organization's safety culture?

The key to a successful organization is to have a culture based on a strongly held and widely shared set of beliefs that are supported by strategy and structure. When an organization has a sustainable safety culture, three things happen: Employees know how top management wants them to respond to any situation, employees believe that the expected response is the proper one, and employees know that they will be rewarded for demonstrating the organization's values.

The safety department has a vital role in perpetuating a strong proactive culture, starting with creating leaders who will share the organization's beliefs and thrive in that culture. Safety also develops orientation, training, and competency development programs that outline and reinforce the organization's core values and ensures that appropriate rewards and recognition go to employees who truly embody the values.

An organization's culture defines the proper way to behave within the organization. This culture consists of shared beliefs and values established by leaders and then communicated and reinforced through various methods, ultimately shaping employee perceptions, behaviors, and understanding. Organizational culture sets the context for everything an enterprise does. Because industries and situations vary significantly, there is not a one-size-fits-all culture template that meets the needs of all organizations.

Conversely, an ineffective culture can bring down the organization and its leadership. Disengaged employees, high turnover, poor customer relations, and lower profits are examples of how the wrong culture can negatively impact the bottom line.

Business Case

If an organization's culture is going to improve the organization's overall safety performance, the culture must provide a strategic competitive advantage, and beliefs and values must be widely shared and firmly upheld. A sustainable safety culture can bring benefits such as enhanced trust and cooperation, fewer disagreements, and more efficient decision-making. Safety culture also provides an informal control mechanism, a strong sense of identification with the organization, and shared understanding among employees about what is important. Employees whose organizations have strongly defined cultures can also justify their behaviors at work because those behaviors fit the culture.

Company leaders play an instrumental role in shaping and sustaining the organizational culture. If the executives themselves do not fit into an organization's culture, they often fail in their jobs or quit due to poor fit. Consequently, when organizations hire C-suite executives, these individuals should have both the requisite skills and the ability to fit into the company culture.

Safety's Role

Safety culture plays a vital role in an organization's success. Therefore, safety leaders and other members of the safety team should foster a high-performance organizational culture.

Safety leaders are responsible for ensuring that culture management is a core focus of their organization's competitive efforts. For safety leaders to influence culture, they need to work with senior management to identify what the organizational culture should look like. Strategic thinking and planning must extend beyond merely meeting business goals and focus more intently on an organization's most valuable asset—its people.

Safety has been described as the "caretaker" of organizational safety culture. In carrying out this essential role, all members of the safety team should help build and manage a sustainable safety culture by:

  • Being a role model for the organization's beliefs.
  • Reinforcing organizational values.
  • Ensuring that organizational ethics are defined, understood, and practiced.
  • Enabling two-way communications and feedback channels.
  • Defining roles, responsibilities, and accountabilities.
  • Providing continuous learning and training.
  • Sustaining reward and recognition systems.
  • Encouraging empowerment and teams. 
  • Recognizing and solving individual and organizational problems and issues.

Creating and Managing Organizational Culture

Organizational safety culture tends to emerge over time, shaped by the organization's leadership and by actions and values perceived to have contributed to earlier successes. Company safety culture can be managed through the cultural awareness of organizational leaders and safety professionals. Managing a safety culture takes focused efforts to sustain elements of the culture that support organizational effectiveness. 


An organization's customs, traditions, rituals, behavioral norms, symbols, and general way of doing things are the visible manifestation of its culture; they are what one sees when walking into the organization. The current organizational safety culture is usually due to factors that have worked well for the organization in the past. 

Founders typically have a significant impact on an organization's early culture. Over time, behavioral norms develop that are consistent with the organization's values. For example, in some organizations, the resolution of non-compliance is hashed out openly and noisily to create widespread consensus, whereas in other places safety disputes are settled hierarchically and quietly behind closed doors.

Though safety culture emerges naturally in most organizations, sustainable safety cultures often begin with a process called "values blueprinting," which involves a candid conversation with leaders from across the organization. Once the safety culture is framed, an organization may establish a values committee that has a direct link to leadership. This group makes sure the desired culture is alive and well. For values blueprinting to work, organizations must first hire people who live the values and have the competency needed to perform the job.

In-effective Safety Culture

Cultures are not a program; they are the interconnectedness that explains why efforts work, don't work, succeed, and fail. Safety cultures need to be considered, leveraged, and managed just as importantly as contractors, projects, and key performance indicators. Organizations are either managing the safety element of the culture or are being managed by it. Stop searching to create a safe culture. You already have one, but is it as effective as it could be?

Organizational safety goals should not be focused on the creation of safety culture, rather on improvement to the existing and ranging cultural foci that already exist in the many influencing groups to which your employees are exposed. Rather than questioning, "Do we have a safety culture?" ask, "Are we managing our safety culture or being managed by it?"

Consider prompting group conversations with some questions. Research and experience have provided extensive validation that beginning cultural evolution starts with questioning the strategy and status quo. Leaders at all levels must move from the desire to create a safety culture to the realization that one already exists. Then, focus on how to strengthen the cultural beliefs, decisions, behaviors, and stories that influence the individual decisions carried out when no one is watching -- the most important part of cultural reality, safety or otherwise.

How to Begin Cultural Evolution

1. What is the necessary focus for evolving or enhancing our existing safety culture?

2. Aside from perception surveys, what data determined the necessary cultural focus? 

3. How wide is the gap between the desired and existing cultural focus? 

 4. Who are the individuals at each level that can help carry the message forward?

5. How will you measure progress, rather than activities and results?

How to improve safety culture?
Six steps to improve safety culture