Corporate Safety Culture: A Determinant of Program Effectiveness

By Dennis Ryan, CRSP

Defining Corporate Safety Culture

A company’s culture can be a critical determinant of its long-term success with production, service, quality and even health and safety. As a Health and Safety Professional, if you have been banging your head in frustration because the program just isn’t coming together, you may be one of many victims of a weak or negative corporate safety culture. If that is the case, you have a tiger by the tail and you better deal with it or move on to more fertile ground.

What is corporate safety culture? By definition, culture is the moral, social and behavioural norms of an organization, based on the beliefs, attitudes and perceptions of its employees. Culture is what the employees perceive the organization really wants and it may differ considerably from what has been stated in writing. The culture dictates whether employees follow the procedures when the boss is not around. It dictates whether the new employee carries out their work according to what has been taught or to what is the company accepted norm.

Culture determines whether or not there is a “them versus us” adversarial relationship between management and workers. Culture determines whether the corporation cares for its employees or employees care for the corporation. Corporate culture affects health and safety and all other aspects of the business. It determines whether your company will be a leader in health and safety or a laggard.

Understanding Corporate Culture

The power of a strong corporate culture can be illustrated by this example. Recently, I carried out a health and safety assessment of a large company in the oil and gas industry. I questioned a new employee about following procedures, wearing personal protective equipment, etc. He admitted that, as a long-term employee of another company situated just down the road, it had been his practice to not wear all the personal protective equipment and take shortcuts with certain procedures. When asked why he had now changed his behaviour, he responded, “because that’s just the way we do things around here”. Here is an example of an employee that had literally been absorbed by the strong positive culture of the organization.

Health and Safety Professionals that view this softer side of health and safety as too “touchy feely” to deal with do themselves and their company a disservice. Culture is an essential ingredient to the recipe of attaining health and safety leadership status.

Picture the health and safety management system as a wagon wheel. The spokes of the wheel represent the safety program elements, such as accident investigation, emergency preparedness and hazard management. The elements provide the basic structure of the system. The rim of the wheel helps to hold all the spokes in place but its primary purpose is to provide the round shape so that the wheel can move smoothly. The rim represents the factors that help incorporate the program elements into a system, such as measurement, accountability, planning, organizing, etc. The hub of the wheel is the focal point of the wheel structure and without it the wheel would simply not hold together. The hub represents the corporate safety culture. It is the focal point that determines the success of all health and safety efforts. A health and safety management system will simply not hold up in an environment where the corporate culture is weak. A strong positive culture is a requirement of any company striving to attain leadership status in health and safety. Strange as it may sound, this is one area many Health and Safety Professionals fear to tread.

Using Perception Surveys

A perception survey is a useful instrument in measuring corporate safety culture. Many years of research have determined that perception surveys are a better predictor of safety performance than any other method of measurement practiced in industry today. The reason for this is perhaps because a large sample of employees is asked to respond anonymously on their perception of how things really are. Typically, perception surveys ask employees to respond to key aspects of culture such as their perception of trust, credibility, communication, participation, leadership, caring, authority, corporate loyalty, satisfaction, etc. Responses are then analyzed and action plans for improvement are put into place.

Like auditing, the perception survey should not be a one-time event; it is part of the continuous improvement process. The first survey/assessment yields data for tailoring the design of the change process. Subsequent assessments help to confirm that change has occurred and set the stage for continuous improvement. Like any other process, implementing only part of it can be disastrous. If only the portion of the process is carried out, employees will view the exercise like all those other corporate “feel good” surveys that have failed in the past. Here is a basic overview of the perception survey process:

  1. Form a perception survey work group consisting of management and employee representation.
  2. Agree on the survey design, content and method of delivery.(Outside expertise may be required to assist in the design).
  3. Announce and promote the survey.
  4. Administer the survey. Employee participation must be anonymous.
  5. Analyze the results (a database is cost effective). Determine what aspects of the program employees perceive are, or are not, working. Identify the difference in perception between workers and management. The goal here is alignment between the two.
  6. Publicize the results.
  7. Assemble work groups for problem solving.
  8. Develop an action plan.
  9. Monitor action on the plan and note the cultural changes.
Measuring Culture Change

How does one know when the culture has changed? Change has occurred when individual values, attitudes and behaviours are more aligned or consistent with those of the organization

Changes to watch for:

  • increased participation at safety meetings
  • employees demonstrating more caring for themselves and others through the use of personal protective equipment both on and off the job
  • an increase in receptivity and acceptance of feedback regarding safety procedures and behaviours
  • an increase in employee willingness to provide feedback to co-workers and to initiate ideas regarding improving safety performance.
  • an increase in reporting of observed hazards and incidents.
  • employees working safely even when the boss is not around.

The above are all qualities that are consistent with health and safety leaders that have a strong corporate safety culture.

Moving Forward
Increasingly, more companies are using perception surveys as a means of measuring the status of their health and safety management system. They are finding the missing pieces that have prevented their health and safety program from moving forward. Many of these pieces are related to the corporate safety culture.

The culture of an organization is determined by management opinions, actions and behaviour, (i.e. what management does, pays attention to, ignores, and how they respond to organizational crisis). It affects why employees behave the way that they do. As health and safety professionals, we need to understand the reasons why people work safely or take risks at work. We need to create a work environment that supports people working safely.

Improved health and safety is like a springboard to improvements in many other necessary aspects of the business such as quality, service and production. As professionals, our job is to not only pull the health and safety program elements together but help create a work environment that allows them work. Our job is to help the organization make the changes necessary to attain health and safety leadership status.

Dennis Ryan, CRSP, is President of Compass Health and Safety, a consulting company specializing in Management System OH&S audits, employee perception surveys and management safety training. He also instructs part-time in the University of Alberta’s Occupational Health and Safety Certificate program.

Dennis can be reached at