How To Create A Safe Company Culture


Words: Steve Hansen
Photo: Brazos Masonry Inc.

Like strong profitability year after year, safety is a demonstration of good habits, and good habits are built step by step. A company with a strong safety culture is not good fortune—it’s good leadership. Creating a safe company culture requires two components: full buy-in from management and recognizing employees for safe work.

Both components are supported by a company program that promotes safety. “First and foremost, the most important aspect of creating a safety culture has the management fully engaged and always talking about safety,” Bruce MacKinnon told Masonry. MacKinnon is Regional Health and Safety Manager for AGF Access Group, Inc.

A Safety Focus Is Constant

Employees must hear the safety message constantly, according to MacKinnon. In order to build a safe company culture, management mustn’t be afraid of overdoing the message. When employees gather, senior management such as the CEO and President should continue to hype the safety message and thank employees for their efforts. 

This is more than simply hitting goals or targets; this is about a day-to-day culture where every employee regards safety as non-negotiable. Safety is the top priority no matter what else is happening, and management reinforces that message. In a genuinely safe company culture, safety trumps even productivity.

How Do You Change the Culture? Start With the Supervisors

In the article, “The Safety Culture in Masonry,” Zach Everett, Corporate Safety Director of Brazos Masonry, says field supervisors are “the pivotal point of true culture transformation.” 

You may try to start with the employees, but it won’t work. In order for the culture to truly transform into a safe culture, the supervisors must buy-in and reinforce the crew’s culture. 

“When someone attempts an unsafe act, we want everyone on the job to stop and stare at him like a cow looking at a new gate,” Everett wrote. At that point, the supervisor and/or co-workers would intervene to explain that safety is always a focus and they don’t tolerate unsafe acts. Doing so creates a safe culture, and that’s the time to show the employee how to perform the job safely.

If the supervisors are lax about safety themselves but hard-nosed toward the crew, they will see the hypocrisy and resist embracing the safety culture. Supervisors who constantly talk about, demonstrate, and enforce “extreme safety” are a mandatory element of a safe culture.

Leading by Example

“Another thing that's critical is the idea of leading by example,” MacKinnon added. “I've seen supervisors walk out on the shop floor and yell at a worker for not wearing their safety glasses. Meanwhile, the supervisor is not wearing his glasses.” This is management “walking the walk” and setting an example of what’s expected. Supervisors and managers and everyone on up must exemplify the behavior they expect from employees.

Overcoming Resistance

Some employees may resist safety protocols, thinking them unnecessary or, worse—unmanly. When you meet resistance from employees, which often stems from “macho” attitudes, you can simply remind them it’s not just their safety on the line. What about their families? What about their co-workers and their co-workers’ families? One injury can end a career and create conditions for poverty and even bankruptcy. 

Those arguments change the perception of safety from a management edict and OSHA infractions and fines to each employee’s responsibility to work as safely as possible, even in high-risk jobs. “Let's look at safety from the human side and the moral side, and that also helps in a safety culture message,” MacKinnon said.

Recognition is Crucial

Another critical part of the safety program is the recognition of employees for effectively adopting the plan. In a safe company culture, an employee will correct a safety issue immediately and report it directly to a supervisor for correction. Supervisors and management must recognize these efforts, MacKinnon explained. “That is one of the most critical aspects, those senior managers walking on the shop floor, or in the field in a construction site, talking about safety, thanking people for working safely and doing things safely,” he continued.

The company can also recognize employees in various ways, such as in the company newsletter, with “safety champion” shirts, on bulletin boards, and so on. Recognition of this nature plays to employees’ pride in doing a good job. “It's important that we're talking about safety every single day with everybody. That's how safety culture is created,” MacKinnon added. 

Starting A Safety Program

Starting and building a company safety program is generally straightforward, but not easy. “You develop the program that works best for you,” MacKinnon noted. “It's all about openly talking about safety and getting workers actively engaged in safety. That's how we create a safety culture.” 

MacKinnon said he would get all employees actively involved by asking them what they would do to create a safe company culture. He would then implement those ideas whenever possible and reward employees for following and strengthening the program. Incentive programs can help the effort, but employees must also face negative consequences for unsafe acts.

Incentive Programs Can Be Useful

Employees may respond well to incentive programs compared to penalties, but the plans must be designed and implemented wisely. Employees who go the extra mile, for example, may deserve recognition. Simply adhering to standards or policy, in contrast, doesn’t earn additional credit. Over-rewarding is problematic, MacKinnon said, as some employees will fabricate their safe actions just for the reward.

However, if the company achieves a goal, then it can be useful as an incentive. For example, if the company or a division goes 100 days with no injuries, everyone is rewarded with a pizza party, gift card, etc. These programs require everyone on the team to follow safe work habits and then everyone benefits accordingly. 

Those company-sponsored pizza parties or other perks are yet another opportunity for upper management to highlight the company’s safety culture and address the fact that safety is the real reward.

How To Handle Infractions

At some point, supervisors must address a safety issue with an employee. All employees must understand that management won’t tolerate unsafe acts. That doesn’t always mean an automatic penalty, though. Safety-based observation, MacKinnon said, can demonstrate to an employee the safe process for any task.

With safety-based observation, the supervisor or co-worker simply observes the employee performing the job tasks and provides corrections right then and there. The supervisor checks to see if the employee is wearing all the required personal protective equipment, uses the safety belt or other protective gear, uses a safe-lifting technique, asks for help when necessary, and doesn’t try to work too quickly or cut corners in any way. It’s a straightforward way to catch an unsafe act, correct it, and reinforce it. Simply imposing penalties can lead to employees not reporting safety issues, which exacerbates the problem. 

That said, persistently unsafe employees may need to be penalized with suspension, unpaid time off, loss of bonus, termination, and so on. In particular, veteran employees must be expected to follow all safety rules and even set an example for the whole team. Ignorance may be a legitimate excuse for a new employee, but not for an experienced one. Use the carrot when possible and the stick when necessary.

“My job as a safety manager is not to go out and suspend employees, but to guide and teach and train people,” MacKinnon said. A good company safety program works best with an emphasis on training and reinforcing safe work habits, not as a “hammer” where management is looking to penalize employees.

Good Catch Programs

In place of the “hammer” of penalties or so-called “near miss” programs, “good catch” programs encourage employees to be proactive in handling a safety issue immediately, rather than expecting someone else to take care of it. Suppose a rug is turned up and is a trip hazard, for example. In that case, any employee can correct it and notify the supervisor, who recognizes the employee’s effort and monitors the rug in the future. It appears to be a minor detail until someone needlessly trips and is injured from a preventable injury. 

The term “good catch” is a way to use a positive tone with safety communication, rather than harping about what’s wrong. It’s also another opportunity to talk to employees and get them talking with each other about safety and working together to build and maintain a safe work culture. It must be a team effort and it must be a constant effort. “Building a safe culture in the masonry industry is not a goal, but a journey,” Everett wrote.

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