www.safetyandhealthmagazine.com/articles/21001-safety-leadership-move-your-organization-toward-a-just-culture
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Safety Leadership: Move your organization toward a just culture

March 28, 2021

Editor’s Note: Achieving and sustaining an injury-free workplace demands strong leadership. In this monthly column, experts from global consulting firm DEKRA share their point of view on what leaders need to know to guide their organizations to safety excellence.

Who would you rather have: an employee who wants to do their job safely without fear of injury because it’s the right thing to do, or one who is doing things safely only because they’re afraid of being reprimanded by their boss?

Obviously, the answer is the former. For any organization to consider itself world class in safety, it must first want to have employees who truly believe leaders are working for them, not against them, in an effort to make them successful. In the safety world, we consider this culture a “just culture.” 

A just culture is an atmosphere of trust in which people are encouraged, even rewarded, for providing essential safety-related information – but in which they are also clear about where the line is drawn between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. To most people in the safety industry, a just culture focuses on rules that save lives. But in reality, a just culture supports employees being successful in balance with the organization being successful.

In other words, if the organization is reckless about culture, everything falls apart. Individual workers shouldn’t be held accountable for system failings over which they have no control. Employees tend to arrive at work genuinely wanting to follow the rules and return home safely. If they get hurt on the job, it tends to result from a systemwide failure that has been ignored or was not recognized. 

Only pursuing a just culture is not enough. Organizations need to broaden their definition of culture so that it recognizes how its systems, processes, environment and leadership are interconnected in creating a safe work environment. This is a more holistic approach that encompasses the tenets of just culture with the ultimate goal of high reliability.

There are many ways to define a just culture. For our purposes, we think of it involving a learning organization. In safety, this is desirable in how it affects exposure control and keeps people safe, because you can’t do those things if the organization isn’t suitable for learning. A learning organization is in pursuit of high reliability in safety for three central reasons: to ensure every person in the organization goes home safe, control costs and satisfy customers.

To get started, organizations need to first focus on serious injury and fatality prevention, as well as human performance. This is the only mechanism that will move the organization forward culturally and, if done properly, will show that all levels of leadership are invested in saving lives and reducing injuries. For leadership, the goal is to make sure critical exposures are dealt with and learn how to engage employees so they can make better decisions in reducing exposure. 

Here are areas leadership can look at first to guide their organization toward a just culture:

Systems and processes. Leadership can serve as the eyes and ears in learning more about steps frontline workers and managers may not be taking that could result in risk exposure. This is because redundancy may make workers naturally blind to those risks over time. Therefore, leaders can help identify exposure in the system or process instead of blaming the worker when things go wrong. 

Equipment and technology. Leadership can enable alerts in controls that can prompt workers to slow down and examine their behavior. Or it can focus on checklists that force workers to pause during their routine. 

Interactions. Any methods that leadership can adopt to get people to think are helpful in reducing exposure. That includes asking the right questions, such as, “How can I support you?” or “Can you walk me through the steps of your process?” Consistent feedback also is valuable. Leaders who show that they care are leaders who workers tend to trust more. If workers feel that leadership has a genuine concern for their safety, they will share that value in everything they do. 

A just culture is possible only if leadership moves the organization into one of overall learning. It starts with leaders. Employees need to see that effort. Until employees truly believe that leadership is playing a role in making them successful, safety will remain stagnant. Focusing on human behavior and SIF prevention are things that leadership can do to create a learning organization. Once leaders do, they will see a cultural shift on all levels. 

And remember, this holistic approach is something that needs to be driven by leaders but ultimately benefits everyone.  

This article represents the views of the authors and should not be construed as a National Safety Council endorsement.

Rajni Walia, Ph.D., a vice president at DEKRA (dekra.us), is a senior leader within the Brain-Centric Reliability team. She has more than a decade of experience leading performance management and organizational assessment and development.