Does your company’s culture support an effective safety program?
March 9, 2019

How good is your safety program?  Is it as good as your safety record?  Would you answer, “Our safety program is great,” “Our performance is better than the industry average,” or “Let’s not fix something that isn’t broken.”  All organizations, even those with great safety records, may fail to see the point of asking.

If the only time you ask these questions is after a recordable incident, it is too late.

My experience through the analyses of many safety programs has shown that safety performance is not always a true reflection of the organization’s program or culture.  I have seen both good and not so good programs and all too often I have seen the “check the box”, compliance-focused programs.  The programs that cause me the most concern are the ones that overstate their value, allowing organizations to think that they are better than they really are.  These programs appear to be good or even excellent on the surface, they have the required elements installed, they say the right things, meet compliance requirements, and can produce great results.  However, without a strong safety culture behind them, these programs don’t result in the right behaviors, meaningful improvements or effect lasting change and often become very reactive and have little direction when an incident occurs.

Whatever the state of your current program here are six steps that you can take to evolve your safety program and energize your safety leaders to deliver a more proactive safety culture and a meaningful safety program.

1. Evaluate your position on the Safety evolutionary scale
2. De-emphasize lagging indicators
3. Empower people to take immediate corrective actions
4. Leverage the power of “tribal knowledge”
5. Create a collaborative safety culture

Let’s focus on Step 1:

Evaluate your position on the Safety evolutionary scale 

Safety programs have been evolving for more than 20 years.  What was once a rarely discussed topic is now more prominent, with awareness discussions, safety moments and safety time outs occurring frequently at all levels of most organizations.  Over time, safety awareness and performance has improved, resulting in a safer, more trusted work environment.

However, the evolutionary process has not been universal across all industries and organizations.  Some companies are still operating under the basic guidelines of 20 years ago and safety remains a basic compliance activity.  It is unfortunate that there are still some companies that only provide a safety focus to address an immediate incident and then return to “business as usual” once forgotten.   Other companies are doing all they can do to attain the highest level of safety performance, and still, others have plateaued somewhere along the path.  See figure below (based on Patrick Hudson’s Safety Culture Model illustrates the evolutionary scale for safety management).

1. Unsound

No/Minimal Safety program.  At this stage management believes accidents are caused by stupidity, inattention and even willfulness on the part of employees. Little to no formal training exists other than basic compliance.

2. Reactive

Safety is compliance focused.  In this stage, safety becomes a priority after an accident. It can be a temporary stage for otherwise Unsound organizations, or it can evolve into the Developing stage, where an organization begins to put safety processes and systems into operation.

3. Developing

Safety is driving actions. Developing cultures have installed the processes, are taking and beginning to see some benefits and gain traction without the full understanding of why.  At this stage, the organization runs the risk of going through the motions of safety management and without strong leadership can lose interest and fall back to the Reactive stage.

4. Proactive

Maturing Program, engaged workforce. The transition to becoming a proactive organization involves making the processes and systems that are now in operation truly effective. Proactive organizations use their processes and systems to anticipate safety problems before they arise.

5. Committed

Safety Program is ingrained into the culture.  In a Committed culture all the safety elements and trust come to fruition. The leadership of the organization is still driving safety but has created the potential to let those who are the subject matter experts take responsibility and accept it as well.

It is time to take an honest look into your program and walk the floor (“go to Gemba”).  Look at the safety postings and other posted safety communications?  Are they out of date, dusty, and yellowed with age?  Ask questions of your team of how safety is discussed and managed.  Can you have honest and open conversations with your team?  How are incidents handled? Do you see the same incidents repeating within our organization and similar sites?  Has a safety culture truly evolved in your organization?

In my experience of analyzing safety programs, most organizations operate in a compliance mode, drifting between “reactive” and “developing”.  Although they have the necessary underlying safety programs, they are incomplete, minimally installed, and seldom fully understood across the site.  These less-evolved programs often have a lack of direction and support from senior leadership and are easily impacted and suffer from changes in personnel, priorities and other initiatives.  When an incident occurs, it is often managed haphazardly and rapidly escalates to a crisis.  Incidents are minimally investigated, reports are written, and discussions take place to satisfy leadership.  Often incident investigations aren’t fully analyzed for a root cause, corrected for long-term solutions or have their learnings shared with other sites.  Safety team members and management are often viewed as traffic cops where they are expected to assign blame, rather than as engaged, trusted advisers supporting teamwork and lasting solutions.

There is no doubt these organizations can produce satisfactory results, and sometimes very good results, but higher levels of performance are not sustainable until companies achieve a level of “Proactive” or “Committed”.  Companies and their safety leaders must ask those uncomfortable questions and honestly evaluate where they sit on the safety management continuum.  With this knowledge, they can chart a path to evolve their safety program before a catastrophic event occurs.

Where is your organization?  Ask yourself the difficult question, are you doing enough? Knowing where you are and taking the action to correct or improve is the first step in driving a needed safety culture.

Author Bio

Bob Moak has 25 years combine in Management Consulting and EHS. He currently specializes in Operational Excellence and Changes Management in the areas of asset management, energy management, and environment, health and safety (EHS).


(1) Hudson, P. 2000. Saftey Mangement and safety culture: the long, hard and winding road. Conference paper. University of Western Sydney: Sydney.

(2) Flight Safety Australia, Safety in mind: Hudson’s culture ladder, By Staff Writers, Aug 7, 2017