Creating a Culture of Safety Excellence

culture of safety excellence

When Mike Larsson traveled to Utah last May, it was for a happy occasion that many companies will never get the chance to observe.

As MHI member Dematic Corp.’s executive vice president for the Americas, Larsson was on his way to help the company’s Salt Lake City plant—a maker of storage and retrieval systems for manufacturing and distribution operations—celebrate 10 years without a lost-time accident.

“You won’t achieve such an outcome without having an embedded safety culture,” Larsson said. “When we listen to the plant leadership and staff talk about this great achievement, it’s very clear that everyone is taking it upon themselves to contribute to a safe environment and, more importantly, also looking out for each other.”

While we’ve all heard the corporate line—”The safety of our employees is our No. 1 priority”—in this industry safety is more than just a slogan or a poster on the break-room wall. It’s the ultimate byproduct of a complex interplay of people, processes, tools and technology. And for true leaders in workplace safety, it’s also about something less tangible but perhaps even more important: a set of norms, behaviors and expectations—a culture of safety excellence—that has been developed over years or decades until it is completely engrained in a company’s way of doing business.

It’s the X factor that enables employers to rise above the pack and achieve continuous improvement in safety performance leading to an enviable track record on key metrics such as injury rates and lost time for a decade and beyond. And those results translate into greater operating efficiencies, increased productivity, higher margins and even improved customer satisfaction.

To suggest that company culture alone can create a consistently safe workplace would be overreaching. But industry leaders and workplace safety experts agree a company culture that reinforces the safety message and nurtures the right behaviors at every opportunity is the ‘secret sauce’ that elevate safety performance from good to great.

Industry faces new safety challenges

Workplace safety is an especially critical issue today for companies in the material handling, logistics and supply chain industries, where pandemic-driven labor shortages and an explosion in e-commerce have pushed factories, warehouses, distribution centers and third-party logistics providers to their limits. Even the trend toward increased automation that was accelerated by the pandemic poses new safety issues.

Consider these grim numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

  • The United States recorded 4,572 workplace deaths due to preventable injuries in 2019, with the transportation and warehousing sector reporting more on-the-job fatalities than all other occupations except construction.
  • 4.6 million injuries requiring medical attention were recorded across all industries.
  • In all, a worker is injured every seven seconds in the United States, and 98% of injuries are the result of unsafe behavior.

It’s not just an enterprise-level problem, either. Losses to the U.S. economy from preventable workplace deaths and injuries topped $171 billion in 2019—nearly equivalent to the annual contribution to U.S. GDP from the entire material handling industry, which was estimated at $173.2 billion in 2018, according to an Oxford Economics study commissioned by MHI.

Building blocks of workplace safety

Mary Joanne (“Majo”) Thurman, director of environmental health and safety for MHI member Rockwell Automation, said achieving an outstanding safety record over the long haul requires three fundamental prerequisites: compliance, capital and culture.

Compliance means committing to the rigorous risk assessment and hazard control standards of a safety management system such as ISO 45001, along with the religious application of measurement tools to quantify performance on key safety metrics so that leadership and employees can chart a path to improvement.

Capital is necessary to invest in technologies that can enhance workplace safety—and in some cases even influence the culture itself through behavior-based safety observation programs. (Story, page 36.)

Culture is the people part.

“We define culture as employee engagement, ownership of the safety process at the appropriate levels because we want to make sure we’re holding people accountable for things they can influence, and then leadership visibility,” Thurman said. “It’s really looking at how all those things play together so that we can build that culture and the culture of trust.”

“Culture can’t be successful on its own. Compliance can’t be successful on its own, or technology,” Thurman said. “We like to use management systems—plan, do, check, act—as a tool to help bring all those things together. You have to have the foundation of hazard control and risk assessment and compliance and then on top of that build on the culture piece. It takes all of those elements to be successful.”


Defining a culture of safety excellence

As the saying by Lewis Carroll goes, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” The first step on the safety journey is understanding exactly where you’re headed.

Safety excellence expert Shawn Galloway, CEO of Houston-based ProAct Safety Inc., prefers the term “culture of safety excellence” to describe the ultimate goal and said companies need to start by defining what that culture looks like.

“Every company has a safety culture, it just might not be the one you want,” Galloway said.

In its simplest terms, achieving safety excellence boils down to three things, Galloway said: knowing the risks, knowing what steps to take to mitigate the risks, and regularly taking those steps. Companies that focus on the absence of failure—zero injuries, for example—need to step back and start with a strategy focused on identifying what success looks like in observable terms and measuring progress toward it.

“You could have no injuries by suppressing reporting of the injuries, so the absence of failures does not necessarily indicate the presence of success,” Galloway said. “A more strategic approach is to define what you want and develop a plan to get more of it. You can’t coach for results, you have to coach for the performance that leads to the results.”

“Is it an employee that stops anybody—even a leader—from walking into an area to make sure they have all of the correct personal protective equipment on? Is it the employee taking the time to do an effective 360 walk around the vehicle before starting the engine and pulling away? One of the reasons why companies don’t get what they want in safety is that they’re not measuring what they want. They’re measuring what they don’t want.”

All companies with great safety records have three things in common, Galloway said.

  1. A proven ability to get and repeat great results
  2. An ability to precisely identify the factors contributing to those results
  3. Culture—the shared mindset throughout the organization that continuous improvement will always be possible

When it comes to the building blocks of a company’s safety management program, there are also similarities. While the specifics of a company’s safety management program might differ from one industry to the next, safety experts generally align with Thurman’s description of the three critical building blocks of a culture of safety excellence: leadership visibility, employee engagement and empowerment, and accountability.

Leadership’s role in shaping culture

From regular internal communications that reinforce priorities and expectations to modeling the right behaviors and just being visible to employees, leadership has to play a pivotal role in building a culture of safety excellence, say safety experts like Katherine Mendoza, environmental health and safety (EHS) director for the National Safety Council.

“I think the key for modern organizations in this journey is their leadership. A lot of companies rely on managers—not necessarily executive-level leaders—to impact the culture, and I think that manager level is usually important,” Mendoza said. “But if they’re not getting the kind of support that they need from their leadership, or if your CEO is not visible in front of your employees saying this is important, if it doesn’t start at the top, the employees aren’t going to buy it. I think leadership making sure that they have the courage of their convictions and are visible to their employers are two things that are extremely important in building a culture.”

ProAct Safety’s Galloway agrees.

“It’s hypercritical at both the front-line leadership level and at the top of the organization because you set the priority for something based on how often you discuss it,” said Galloway. “If a top executive discusses safety one in every 500 exchanges, then their immediate direct reports might not perceive it to be as important. It needs to be a regular conversation, it needs to be a regular inquiry into how we’re performing, how well we’re performing, because bottom line is people pay attention to what their boss is paying attention to.”

Rockwell Automation ensures leadership visibility by requiring top executives to walk the factory floor and engage employees in safety conversations that go beyond simply talking about recordable rates of injury. The so-called Gemba safety walks—a term taken from the LEAN manufacturing lexicon—are one factor used by Rockwell as part of a “balanced scorecard” management tool that evaluates executive performance on safety as well as financial and other metrics.

The need for leaders to continue communicating the message never diminishes, no matter how strong their company’s safety record.

“I’m always saying, ‘I know it’s strong, but people hear your silence,’” Thurman said about the need to continually reinforce safety measures. “You still need to mention it.”

Engaging and empowering employees

ProAct Safety’s Galloway likes to ask corporate leaders what one thing would improve safety if they could get their employees to do more of it. For Rockwell Automation’s Thurman, it’s making sure employees are engaged and feel empowered to raise concerns in a constructive way.

“It really is about engagement and feeling that trust that if they do share it, that management will understand it and reflect on it and hopefully address the concern. It’s really with that foundation of trust that we’re looking to get better together,” said Thurman.

“Making sure it’s OK for employees to stand up and say something’s not safe, or I’m worried, or this person is not in a safe position is really important,” said Mendoza, noting that creating the environment where an employee feels comfortable exercising stop-work authority is another area where leadership plays an important role in shaping the culture.

Rockwell Automation uses a variety of tools to engage employees at all levels in improving safety performance through bite-sized education and training opportunities. In addition to the Gemba walks for leaders, there are “Safety Warmups” for supervisors and team leads, “Toolbox Conversations” and a “Sustaining Safety” program that focuses a monthlong conversation on a topic—hand injuries, for example—of particular concern for employees. Its “Act like an Owner” initiative challenges employees to not only bring up issues—including potential safety problems—but also suggest ways to fix them.

“All of it really is purposely created to engage employees in the conversation,” Thurman said. “So we have many different tools, because that’s not an easy thing, and each individual likes to be engaged in different ways.”

Technology can also play an important role in employee engagement and ensuring accountability. Rockwell employees use one of the company’s FactoryTalk products to key in safety issues directly from their workstation on the floor, thus enhancing its near-miss and hazard and safety issue reporting process, said Stuart Gock, Rockwell Automation’s manager of health and safety. The system captures information on which employees are involved in reporting issues—or better yet, suggesting safer ways to do things—providing metrics that supervisors can use to reward them.

“One of the things we look for and one of the things we expect is, when I look at a performance review, even for our manufacturing associates on the floor, we expect there to be some positive and negative aspects to how we hold them accountable for safety,” Gock said. “If they provided a number of suggestions or reports, they get rewarded positively and we measure those things when we do our assessments to see how we are supporting all of these tools and technologies we use.”

Incentives as a culture-building tool?

Rewarding employees for positive behaviors that illustrate engagement and accountability can strengthen a company’s culture of safety excellence, but safety experts frown on rewarding employees for simply not getting hurt and OSHA guidelines also discourage and, in some cases, prohibit such incentives.

“When you build incentives around not reporting things, you get the bad behaviors, or accident avoidance,” Gock said. “You’re recognizing a guy that might have absolutely horrible safety behavior but because he didn’t have an injury his picture’s up on a bulletin board as having gone 100 days without an injury. Everybody in the plant knows that’s the worst safety driver in the plant.”

“Incentives are tricky,” the NSC’s Mendoza agreed. “The huge caveat is you have to incentivize the right thing. You cannot incentivize having zero injuries, or not having an injury period. You have to incentivize something that is proactive. And that’s what’s going to allow your organization to avoid not reporting and encourage reporting or identification of things that will be ultimately preventative.”

“I’m not a fan of incentivizing behavior for safety,” said ProAct Safety’s Galloway. “I’ve seen too many times where budget gets cut and so does the behavior then, because we have replaced intrinsic motivation for extrinsic. Once that external motivator goes away, often so does the behavior.”

When you know safety is baked in

Mendoza agrees with Rockwell Automation’s Gock that efforts to incentivize safety are most useful in moving organizations with a lower-maturity culture of safety further along the continuum. One way companies know that their culture of safety excellence has truly matured is when incentives are no longer necessary.

“Once you have an organization that is highly effective at identifying risk and preventing injuries, there becomes a moment in their journey where they no longer need to incentivize those acts,” Mendoza said. “It is a core piece of their culture and it is just an expectation, it’s a part of the job.”

In addition to seeing consistent improvement in lagging and leading metrics over an extended period of time and positive feedback on employee perception surveys, another good indicator of a mature culture of safety is when employees show they are as concerned for the safety of their co-workers as they are for their own.

“You’re going to see employees taking action for other employees. It’s not about the manager enforcing some of those safety procedures, you’re going to see employees caring about other employees,” Mendoza said. “That concept where it’s not just about me, it’s about all of us is a sign of a higher-maturity organization.”

Getting the people part right

Companies that think they can spend their way to safety—either on technology or large EHS teams—are likely to fall short if they haven’t taken the time to develop that kind of culture.

Mendoza, who serves as director of the NSC’s Campbell Institute and oversees the annual Campbell Award for excellence in safety management, cites 2016 award winner USG Corporation, the Chicago-based leader in gypsum wallboard production, as a prime example of a company that got the culture piece right despite a relatively lean EHS team.

“Many companies that win the award have large EHS teams,” Mendoza said. “One of the most impressive things about USG is that at the time of the award the company had five corporate people who were responsible for the entire organization’s safety systems. The way that they were able to be so successful is that they made it an expectation of each employee to use the system, to manage the system. Plant managers were directly responsible for the management of the system and various employees throughout each site were as well, so they were able to distribute the responsibility to an extent that it was very literally just a part of someone’s job. We were all very happily surprised by the success that they had.”

Notably, two of USG’s plants—in Galena Park, TX, and Red Wing, MN—have worked 30 years without a lost-time incident, and the company’s overall 2020 lost-time incident rate was an impressive 96% better than the industry average.

Christopher Griffin, president and CEO of USG, said that his company’s culture of safety excellence is a team effort.

“The most important piece of our safety culture is shared responsibility—every member of our team knows they are responsible not just for themselves, but for keeping each other safe,” Griffin said. “From our earliest days almost 120 years ago, safety has been a ‘team sport’ and something we engrain in every employee from their first day at USG. Our employees, no matter their role, level or tenure, are empowered and expected to speak up to ensure we’re working safely.”