Whether we choose to recognize it or not, every company has a safety culture that continuously changes, and even rebrands itself from time to time. The concept of a safety culture can be divided into broad and narrow aspects. The broad aspects derive from the definition of a safety culture, while the narrow aspects are relevant to the physical, institutional, behavioral and spiritual cultures. Rebranding towards an advanced, sustainable safety culture requires a delicate balance between these aspects.
As seen in the June 2020 Edition of the Journal of Protective Coatings and Linings (JPCL) and on PaintSquare.com
When one or more of the narrow aspects are left out of the rebranding process, the safety culture weakens, potentially leading to a work-related injury or illness. Many organizations do not recognize the full cost of a work-related injury or illness, but focus rather on the direct cost that is commonly referred to as “the tip of the iceberg.” The total cost, including contractual value required to recover from the loss, is not considered.
The total costs add up to a significant figure that will get the attention of any management team. In many cases, the corrective action needed to prevent reoccurrence of the loss requires management’s commitment to the rebranding of the organization’s safety culture. This article discusses the process of the rebranding of a safety culture, including leaderiship and accountability.
CULTURE AND SAFETY
Culture can be defined as the set of shared attitudes, values, goals and practices that characterize a particular group, society, institution or organization. Through culture, people and groups define themselves, conform to a set of shared values and contribute to society. Thus, culture includes many societal aspects such as language, customs, values, norms, mores, rules, tools, technologies, products, organizations and institutions.
In the world of safety science, a safety culture can simply be defined as how exposed employees behave when they are not being supervised. For example, are the employee’s behaviors in compliance with personal protective equipment requirements? Do they actively seek to identify hazards and are they working in compliance with the company’s health and safety program?
When rebranding a safety culture, we attempt to answer why the employees make the decisions that they do. While working to answer this question, one must consider how the organization reacts to a work-related illness or injury. That is, does the organization realize the true cost of a work-related incident? Does the organization practice accountability? And are the organization’s leaders committed to the rebranding and how are they demonstrating their commitment?
Management commitment starts with developing a vision and a strategic plan that drives the rebranding toward bringing that vision to life. The vision consists of what the rebranded safety culture will look like. The strategic plan consists of clearly defined, measurable, and achievable definitions of success in alignment with the vision; for example:
We will know we’ve been successful when we have:
- Developed and implemented a “safety dashboard” that is readily available, company-wide;
- Defined and communicated position-specific safety responsibilities; and
- Verified employee comprehension of their responsibilities.
The commitment continues by supporting the initiatives and participating in the culture. This is accomplished by starting every company meeting with a safety discussion, reviewing and discussing current safety statistics and the status of the definitions of success during quarterly update meetings, and by wearing the required PPE while in the shop or field. Coaching and providing feedback on the rebranding process to all levels of management and leaders is a necessary part of management commitment.
Another integral part of management commitment is to recognize and reward behaviors that are in alignment with the vision, while carefully considering group rewards for milestones, such as the number of accident-free workdays, while recognizing that this can result in under-reporting of incidents. Sharing these behaviors with members of the organization provides real-life examples of what the rebranded culture will look like.
Finally, management needs to understand the adverse impacts of a weak safety culture and the full cost of a work-related injury or illness, then disseminates this information to all levels of the organization. Management commitment and their message is delivered through front-line leaders who have been taught to teach, coach and mentor via an established leadership development program.
Removing obstacles, identifying and encouraging company leaders, setting and communicating expectations and following up are management responsibilities. Identifying and developing leaders are fundamental aspects of managing the safety rebranding process. Leaders exist at all levels of every company, even though they may not hold a supervisory or managerial position or listed on organizational charts; they are the individuals that naturally attract followers.
Leadership is one life influencing another. Resilience, emotional intelligence, drive and personal investment are personality traits of a leader. They are driven to achieve beyond personal and company expectations, and they possess a high degree of interest in company goals and are engaged in plans and strategy. They communicate well, express feelings clearly and directly, and the thoughts of a leader are not dominated by fear or other negative emotions.
Once a company identifies its leaders, it is the responsibility of management to educate and encourage those leaders. Goal setting, improving soft skills and ways to identify and cultivate new leaders are elements of leader training. Leaders are trained to set measurable and achievable goals that are in alignment with the company’s overall vision and to develop a process of achieving those goals. Soft skills are non-technical abilities such as character traits and personal attributes that play an essential role in a company.
Simply put, it is hard to lead people that do not like you. Leaders are trained to make eye contact and acknowledge everyone’s presence, have an awareness of personal body language, know how to coach, give and receive feedback, manage time, effectively delegate and use both formal and conversational speech. Another element of leader training is identifying and cultivating new leaders. Leaders are part of the long-term sustainability of a company, which is why it is essential to have today’s leaders committed to building tomorrow’s.
Encouragement begins with “transparency leaders.” No matter what their position, a company needs a steady stream of information about the company, markets and customers to make the right decisions. Transparency creates trust between the leaders and management, ultimately permeating trust to the individuals following the leaders. Challenging leaders to step out of their comfort zone, awarding decision-making authority and planning are responsibilities of management. Planning is accomplished by working with the leaders to develop a clarity and focus document that lists and defines each of the leader’s roles, a description of the role and clearly defined definitions of success.
For example, the role of a student could be described as follows: “As a student, I foster continuous development and improvement in the knowledge and skills required for career development and personal fulfillment.” An example of a definition of success is, “I will be considered successful when I have explored the types and requirements of SSPC PCCP certification to determine the return on investment.” Progress on the definition of success for each role can be monitored monthly using a tracking plan.
Establishing expectations for leaders, including company safety performance, is one of the most critical aspects of the rebranding process. It starts with management identifying gaps within the culture, then setting standard habits, behaviors and actions. Expectations are made clear throughout the company and are articulated verbally or using the written word. The goals and expectations should be documented to gain clarity, and an action plan should be developed and disseminated to the leaders. Follow-up is the responsibility of management. Efforts made to solicit continuing and updated ideas for improvement from the leaders of the company elevates the feeling of empowerment within the leaders, and trust and respect between management and the leaders.
The rebranding process relies heavily on the commitment of the organization’s leaders. The organization’s leadership team consists of front-line leaders, mid-level managers and foreman/crew leaders. Front-line leader commitment consists of “walking the walk” and “talking the talk” by identifying and sharing observations of employees actively displaying the preferred behaviors of the rebranded culture. This provides all employees with examples of how the rebranded culture looks.
These individuals are also responsible for supporting and communicating the company vision, strategic plan, management’s commitment to safety and the true cost of work-related injuries and illnesses. The front-line leaders accept total accountability, encouraging and coaching their subordinates to make the same commitment, while practicing open and respectful communication with members of management.
We seem to live in a society where members have abandoned personal accountability, while the attitude of the society reflects accordingly. Someone or something is always to blame, and it seems the person making the poor decision is never at fault—in fact, they often feel as though they are the victim. If we do not take ownership of our decision, how can we ever change or improve our behaviors?
Taking ownership of these decisions and owning the circumstances leads to personal and organizational improvement. Practicing accountability starts with identifying and correcting “below the line” behaviors. Developing leaders that are trained to set expectations, communicate them effectively and verify conformance greatly enhances employee trust. Defined expectations and positive communication lead to accountability that reduces “below the line” behaviors such as denial, stating “it’s not my job,” finger-pointing, confusion or needing to be told what to do, covering your tail, and not acting but instead just waiting to see how things turn out. “Below the line” behaviors can be appealing to those that believe making excuses is easier than accepting responsibility. However, some may not recognize that they exhibit “below the line” behavior or a “victim attitude.”
Understanding the importance of “above the line” behaviors is critical to the cultural rebranding process. The Oz Principle: Getting Results Through Individual and Organizational Accountability, by Roger Connors, Tom Smith and Craig HIckman defines “above the line” behavior as “see it, own it, solve it and do it.” The combination of these eight simple words is the driving factor behind the rebranding process. “See it” means that we acknowledge the problem, get the perspectives of others, offer and ask for feedback, be realistic and consider the facts and, most importantly, admit when we are wrong or make a mistake. Someone that “owns it” takes responsibility, is personally invested, participates, acts on feedback and works in alignment with the organization. “Solve it” means asking, “What else can I do?”, testing assumptions and redefining boundaries. “Do it” means we act, clarify responsibilities, proactively report progress or roadblocks, measure the progress and accept total accountability.
A good example is developing a safety council or a standing safety committee within a company. Create a charter, communicate council member responsibilities and give the employees on the safety council “special status.” They represent the employees in their department and spend more time with these employees than management does. They bring concerns to the council to discuss, resolve and make recommendations for implementation. The members of the council communicate within their department, sharing the commitment of management and changes the company is implementing on the employee’s behalf, all to create a safer working environment. Empower council members and communicate expectations that each employee is personally responsible for their safety, as well as the safety of others, including visitors.
Joint accountability means that you are responsible for addressing your concerns with others directly, rather than addressing the issues with their supervisor or other leaders. It also means that you share the responsibility of a situation, including the consequences it creates. Joint accountability is not pointing out how someone contributed to an issue, nor is it telling them what they can do to resolve the issue. It is merely letting them know that they are not practicing accountability, but rather displaying “below the line” behaviors. The individual displaying the “below the line” behaviors would respond by working to correct them.
CONSEQUENCES OF A WEAK SAFETY CULTURE
Adverse impacts of a weak safety culture include both emotional and economic factors. The emotional aspect impacts both the employee and the employer. When a company fails to address an employee’s safety concern, or does not seek their input while addressing safety concerns or a process change that leads to an employee getting injured, the employee may be negatively impacted emotionally. This can lead to feelings of decreased self-worth and loss of dignity and identity, creating anxiety, anger and frustration. The stress resulting from an injury, such as job loss and accessing benefits, can lead to depression and have the potential to cause marital issues and added stress on family and friends. The employer must often deal with decreased employee morale, and with employees continuously second-guessing themselves, not knowing if their actions will lead to injury.
A company with a strong safety culture that addresses employee concerns, provides a safe and healthy work environment and promotes open and respectful safety communication between all levels of the organization will experience positive emotional impacts, such as in increase in morale and productivity. Employees trusting their leaders to make good decisions that keep them safe and working is paramount, and often translates to employees watching out for one another and keeping each other safe.
Both employees and employers are negatively impacted by a weak safety culture that results in increased work-related injuries. When an employee suffers from a work-related injury or illness and is not able to return to work, the employee experiences a negative economic impact. Each state operates a Bureau of Worker’s Compensation that sets compensation rates for work-related injuries that occur within that state. For example, an employee that incurs a lost time work-related injury in Pennsylvania receives compensation at a rate of 66.6% of the previous 52-week average. To qualify for compensation, the employee must miss seven days of work; therefore, if the employee returns after six days, they do not receive compensation, losing a week of wages.
Consider an employee who is paid $1,000 a week, incurs an injury and is unable to return to work for many months. The employee will only be paid $662.30 per week, netting a decrease of over $1,350.00 in monthly income. This reduction can lead to many financial hardships from loss of health benefits, bankruptcy, cashing in retirements savings and depleting dependent college funds. This negative economic impact to the employee erodes trust and confidence in management leadership and the organization. Rumors and second-hand stories about the incident and resulting hardship create fear and negatively impact morale and production of other employees.
A company’s most valuable asset is its employees. When these assets are not available due to a work-related injury or illness, the employer suffers from a decrease in productivity leading to a decrease in revenue. Further, companies often use a pre-qualification process prior to inviting vendors to bid and prior to awarding contracts to vendors. The process frequently includes the review of safety ratings such as the Experience Modification Rate and Total Recordable Incident Rate. A weak safety culture that leads to an increase in work-related injuries or illnesses escalates these rates, causing the employer to be less competitive in the markets they serve. While escalated EMR and TRIR has the potential to decrease revenue, the weak safety culture increases worker’s compensation premiums. The economic impact on the employer requires a true understanding of the revenue needed to offset an incurred loss due to a work-related injury or illness on the bottom line.
Consider an employer with an annual revenue of $10 million that incurs an incident. The Worker Compensation Loss Run Report identifies an incurred cost of $60,000. The incurred cost covers all medical expenses and lost wage payments. At first glance, a $60,000 loss on $10 million in revenue (0.6%) may not be considered significant. Let’s take a deeper dive into this scenario considering that the company maintains 6% operating income, relative to revenue or $6 out of every $100 in revenue makes it to the bank. For the current calendar year, the employer is expecting to have $600,000 operating income, based on $10 million in revenue.
To realize the full cost of the incident, the direct costs, indirect costs (combined generates the total cost) and the revenue replacement required to offset the loss at the bottom line must be considered. The direct cost is recognized on the previously mentioned Loss Run Report. The indirect costs include those associated with investigating the claim, processing the claim, replacing the injured worker and loss of production, to mention a few.
A major U.S. worker’s compensation insurance carrier uses a multiplier of 4 to estimate these indirect costs. The revenue required to offset the cost of the incident is calculated by dividing the total cost (direct + indirect costs) by the operating income (as a percentage of annual revenue). The calculation for this mock incident is shown as follows:
The true total cost of the incident is $300,000, which is half of operating income, with $5 million in revenue required to recover from the loss, which is half of the annual revenue—a significant loss.
The rebranding of a safety culture is a significant investment that requires a strong commitment from all individuals in the organization, including management and leaders. Management commits to the process by identifying and encouraging leaders and setting expectations within the organization, then communicates the expectations and follows up on implementation. Management continues its commitment by identifying and training organizational leaders. Simply put, leaders “walk the walk,” “talk the talk,” and practice accountability. All individuals of the organization show their commitment by practicing accountability and by embracing self-responsibility with transparency and open respectful communication that provides a conduit between exposed employees and management.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Christopher Peightal is the Corporate Health and Safety Officer and the Environmental Health and Safety Department Manager for KTA-Tator, Inc. His internal responsibilities include managing development and compliance with corporate safety and health programs, reducing internal accident rates through consulting support and training of all KTA employees, developing content for online training and acting as a safety and health resource for over 150 coatings and steel field inspectors. For external clients, his duties include developing a wide variety of safety- and health-related training courses and programs. Peightal is a Certified Safety Professional with 10 years of safety-related experience in the construction industry, and is a member of the American Society of Safety Professionals.
Joseph Singerhouse is the Director of Safety, Training and Leader Development with Vulcan Painters, Inc. His responsibilities include development and compliance of corporate safety and health programs, reducing incident rates through training and support of all Vulcan employees. He has over 26 years of safety-related experience in the U.S. Army as an Infantryman/Paratrooper, where he identified safety hazards, conducted safety audits, performed investigations and root cause analyses, provided methods of mitigation and served as a Drill Instructor and Pre-Ranger Instructor. He is a member of the American Society of Safety Engineers and SSPC and is pursuing his Certified Safety Professional certification.