WORKPLACE HEALTH & SAFETY
Building a Strong Safety Culture
UL developed processes and systems to help companies build a strong safety culture that can continuously improve towards peak health and safety performance.
WHY BUILDING A STRONG SAFETY CULTURE MATTERS
Building a safety culture can help a business maximize productivity and reduce its injury and illness costs by 20 – 40%.1 This is a critical consideration at a time when companies are increasing their investments in occupational health and safety management to address their workforce issues. However, investment in new systems, by itself, is not sufficient to drive continuous improvement in workplace health and safety. Adopting and embracing a strong safety culture can improve both well-being and productivity.
Every company wants to keep its workers safe by minimizing workplace injuries, illnesses and deaths. In the U.S., 12 workers die on the job every day, and every year, more than 4.1 million workers suffer a serious job-related injury or illness.2 The direct costs of these incidents to businesses include increased workers’ compensation premiums, potential legal expenses associated with litigation and increased regulatory penalties and compliance costs.3 Today, U.S. businesses spend $250 billion per year on costs associated with occupational injuries and illnesses.4 There are also important indirect costs, which include diminished productivity, decreased worker morale and damage to a company’s reputation.5 Together, these costs and the related consequences point to the fact that, in addition to health and safety programs, there is a need to establish a powerful safety culture to enhance employee well-being and directly involve employees in optimizing an organization’s performance.
WHAT DID UL DO?
UL realized that while health and safety management systems are essential tools to help organizations, the most effective way to improve performance is by helping companies develop a strong safety culture. This insight derives from our experience over more than a decade working with businesses to optimize their occupational health and safety performance. We found that the strongest-performing companies tended to institutionalize health and safety practices as part of their cultures. These organizations incorporate health and safety into their culture-building activities and regularly measure the strength of their culture. The top-performing companies also drive health and safety into their values and into the assumptions, norms and everyday behaviors of their employees.6
Building on our initial insight, we found that a strong culture not only contributes to improving safety but is the difference between achieving acceptable compliance and best-in-class safety outcomes. Some of our key findings include:
- Solid compliance and risk management processes can produce disappointing or inconsistent outcomes if cultural issues are not adequately addressed. Over the last few years, many health and safety professionals have begun implementing processes to gather and analyze observational data to make incident-prevention efforts more proactive. This is an important advance, but if companies don’t have a culture that encourages early reporting throughout the workforce, some of the most valuable data will not make it into those processes.
- Developing a risk severity index supported by carefully tracked metrics represents a significant accomplishment for a company. But if the index is not seen, understood and used by upper management, the company’s ability to turn that information into lasting improvements may be limited by a lack of support and conflicting top-level goals and messages to the workforce.
- Employing the best governance processes can’t cover every situation and decision, so a strong culture is needed to ensure that workers and managers do “the right thing” outside such processes.7
Our findings about the importance of culture led us to create a new and innovative approach to working with companies to help them become top performers in occupational health and safety management. UL’s unique focus encompasses worksite conditions, employee behaviors, processes and management systems. We have found that establishing a safety culture can enable a company to achieve long-term, continuously improving results.8
Our culture-building methodology begins with working with companies to establish health- and safety-promoting processes and systems. Processes provide structure and guidance for the workforce while simultaneously solidifying how professionals track and measure health and safety outcomes.9 The right management system defines values, goals and strategies to better align diverse processes and functions while also providing benchmarks to gauge progress and guide corrections.10
As part of our unique culture orientation, we help businesses incorporate early reporting and learning as key elements of their safety culture. Often, early reporting may start with narrowly avoided incidents (i.e., near misses) and evolve to include other types of observations from all members of the workforce once a safety culture is established. Our research has found that more observers generally equates to better performance because companies acquire significant, deeper information on a larger number of events rather than only those recorded as having already happened, and the best way to increase the observer pool is to make safety a core cultural component of the organization. Analyzing patterns in potentially hazardous near-incidents can help identify their causes and contributing factors. This enhanced learning allows corrective actions to be taken before another incident occurs and helps ensure that workplace conditions and employee behaviors can be adapted to evolving circumstances.11
To facilitate employee engagement and help solidify the safety culture, UL developed a system that is integrated cross-functionally and a software that includes intuitive dashboards modeled after social media networks. This allows employees to easily and anonymously report unsafe conditions and near-miss incidents. We also help companies determine what will be measured and how, using our deep base of cross-industry experience. UL then helps businesses maximize the insights and information provided by the involvement of their employees, from generating initial data to setting clear corrective actions with accountability tracking to ensure that critical tasks are completed on time to achieve meaningful results. This leverages the company’s safety culture and helps further strengthen it by making employee contributions a valuable input.12
At UL, we are working to arm companies with integrated processes and systems in which culture permeates every activity and helps drive a consistent, upward progression toward peak safety and health performance. In a strong safety culture, workers engage in safety-conscious behaviors on their own, everyone helps identify potential areas for improvement and participates in enhancing safety processes, and safety management systems become more effective. Ultimately, helping companies build a strong safety culture also helps them get the most return: improved worker productivity, employee engagement and staff safety.