Five steps for driving safety culture excellence
While regulations, equipment and appropriate training remain vital to bolstering workplace safety, establishing a culture of safety is still the best frontline defense.
- Understand how workplace injuries and fatalities not only exact a human toll, but damage a business’ bottom line.
- Explore ways that leadership can incentivize a culture of safety.
- Discover methods for challenging the way work is currently conducted to promote improvements in safety.
- Worldwide, there are around 340 million occupational accidents and 160 million victims of work-related illnesses annually.
- Overall, the estimated cost through fatalities, injuries and illness is estimated to be in the region of $176 billion to $352 billion per annum in the U.S. alone.
- Human factors and leadership within an organization will always be key drivers of both the importance and success of any safe working practices.
The ILO (International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency) estimates that 2.3 million women and men succumb to work-related accidents or diseases every year, which is the equivalent of over 6,000 deaths per day. Worldwide, there are around 340 million occupational accidents and 160 million victims of work-related illnesses annually. Smarter, safer working culture requires attention to safety culture, equipment, regulations, training and documentation, among other factors.
The cost of poor safety culture does not just harm a business, its employees, and the environment around it; it affects the entire business process and promotes an inability to change.
Human factors are behind such a high proportion of incidents, so what does it take to achieve a true safety culture, and how is the company leadership involved?
By actively committing to safety culture excellence from the top down, companies can gain the advantages of greater productivity and profitability by embracing safety as a way of life and not just a regulatory requirement.
An introduction to industrial safety
Looking at data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there were 5,190 fatal work injuries in 2021, up 8.9% percent from 2020. This meant that a worker died every 101 minutes from an occupational injury, though the overall trend is broadly flat to rising, as Figure 1 shows. However, this shows that nothing is changing, and lessons aren’t being learned.
In considering non-fatal injuries, shown in Figure 2, the numbers are again relatively stable, with 2.7 recordable incidents per one hundred workers, and, of those, 1.7 (63%) resulting in days away from work, job restrictions or transfers.
Once again, this points to a need to challenge the status quo in safety from the top down to drive through change and make an impact on the safety of workforces and contractors by approaching safety in a more intelligent way.
The most frequently cited standards by Federal OSHA in the fiscal year 2021 were falls, respiratory protection, ladders, hazard communication, scaffolding, fall production training, lockout/tagout, eye and face protection, powered industrial trucks and machinery and guarding. See Figure 3.
Overall, the estimated cost through fatalities, injuries and illness is estimated to be in the region of $176 billion to $352 billion per year in the U.S.
Safety culture excellence and control of work
Control of work risks are those associated with work conducted during routine operation of plants and processes or those conducted during maintenance, turnaround or construction across all forms of industry.
The risks themselves will vary, but at its core, Control of Work, which is sometimes known as “permit to work” or the permitting process, consists of three main elements that should always be linked and equally represented to ensure the best possible work safety:
Risk assessment – an analysis of the risks associated with the task being conducted, taking into consideration the conditions and the tools being used
Isolation management – the safe isolation of all forms of energy, power or motion and locking out of devices, known as lockout / tagout (LOTO) processes
Permit to work – The document containing a description of the work and the approvals and associated documents necessary so that final authorization to work can be given. This is issued to the work team before beginning work.
Safe working practices have differing standards of enforcement around the world depending on the country or location where the work is being done. Control of work (CoW) practices may be driven by company, national or international guidelines, standards or regulatory bodies such as OSHA or the UK or European Health and Safety Executive (HSE) as examples.
Failures to control working practices, particularly those related to health and safety are behind many of the major incidents, fatalities and fines seen in high hazard industries.
Human factors and leadership for industrial safety
Human factors and leadership within an organization will always be key drivers of both the importance and success of any safe working practices.
Management system improvements such as ISO 45001 and the increasing levels of controls and fines applied by regulatory bodies such as OSHA are influencing safety, but improvements can be slow to take effect.
ISO 45001 is an international standard for occupational health and safety which is globally used and is applicable to all organizations no matter their size, industry, or type of business. Key within it is section 5.1 Leadership and Commitment:
This states that those who lead an organization must promote risk-based thinking and that top management is required to demonstrate leadership and to promote the importance of safety to be in conformance with the operational health and safety (OH&S) requirements, to be effective in achieving results, and to be continually improving.
To achieve this and to drive safety culture excellence, the leadership of an organization must, as Figure 4 shows, act as role models, ensure safety is a key topic, establish the conditions for safety, support tools for improvement, and continue to challenge status quo.
The path to continuous cultural improvement means leaders throughout the organization must be encouraged to challenge existing ways of working to drive towards a consistent aim of zero harm.
Methods used to challenge the status quo include:
Ensuring that accountability is built right through the culture
Workshops to engage teams in the processes of safety and build workforce positivity
Leadership having a passion and commitment to the momentum gained
Sensible metrics to reinforce compliance and to understand the need for consistency
A willingness to listen and make use of worker’s past experiences and knowledge
A willingness to spend appropriately to ensure the process works.
The main safety benefit of challenging the status quo is the drive towards the goal of no incidents or accidents that it engenders, but many other benefits can also be derived from the resulting consistency in culture and the fundamental way of working that comes from the overall effort.
Support, encouragement and tools help the safety culture
In summary, the path to continuous safety improvement to ensure an effective safety culture is only possible with the active support and encouragement of effective leadership within an organization, and with an emphasis on the human factors that underly current ways of working.
This is only possible if the emphasis is on driving cultural safety improvement (Figure 5) as opposed to short-term key performance indicator (KPI) goals that may change regularly.
How can you challenge the status quo within your organization to improve safety outcomes?