Safety culture

  • Many experts agree a positive safety culture must exhibit key components, including management and employee involvement.
  • Injuries at a worksite do not mean that site has a poor safety culture, and low injury rates are not necessarily evidence of a positive safety culture.
  • While it is a nebulous concept, some experts believe safety culture is measurable.

What is it, and how do you know you have it?

By Kyle W. Morrison, senior associate editor

Twenty-five years ago, the term “safety culture” was not used very frequently. According to a 2002 study, the phrase did not become part of discussions about major incidents and analyses of safety failure until investigations of the 1986 Chernobyl power plant disaster in Ukraine (then the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic) identified a “poor safety culture.” The 2002 study, conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, examined earlier attempts to define safety culture. The paper found growing consensus between researchers on the term’s definition, but noted that disagreements remained. So, what exactly is a “safety culture”? How do you know when you have a good or positive safety culture, as opposed to a bad or negative one? The answers to these questions may, at first, seem obvious, but experts in a wide range of fields disagree on the answers. And some experts even argue about whether or not that disagreement really matters.

“I have my own view of safety culture, how it should be defined. At this point, so do 50 other people,” said Steve Simon, president of Larchmont, NY-based Culture Change Consultants. He suggested the growing use of the term by a variety of people has led to confusion over what safety culture is or, worse yet, a superficial view of safety culture.

For some people, Simon said, safety culture means a company’s upper management values safety or lists safety in the mission statement. Those requirements may indicate a positive safety culture, he noted, but set a bar so low that many companies can meet and achieve a supposed culture of safety. Culture, which he defines as a set of basic assumptions and beliefs about reality, goes beyond that, he said.

“An assumption or a belief does not get passed on because top management goes through a leadership workshop where they learn about safety culture,” Simon said. “It takes years.”

Instead of a formal definition, Simon described safety culture as “everyone does the safe thing whether anyone is watching or not.” He said safety culture is made up of several characteristics, and it is up to individuals at various worksites to use those characteristics to create their own definition of what safety culture means to them. The problem of multiple definitions has more of an effect on academics than the safety professional aiming to create a safer workplace, he said.

At least one academic disagreed with that assertion, to an extent. “If no one details what [safety culture] is, then it’s something different to everyone with different levels of adherence,” said Terry von Thaden, an assistant professor at the Aviation Human Factors Division of U of I’s Institute of Aviation in Savoy, IL. “Defining safety culture gives us something we can point to, rather than a nebulous concept.”

One of the authors of the U of I paper, von Thaden agreed that some safety professionals enact a positive safety culture without knowing its definition, but stressed that defining the term is still important. Doing so provides a foundation for a positive safety culture and ensures each party – from management to line employees – knows what to expect, von Thaden said.

Von Thaden and the other authors of the paper concluded the study with their own definition: “The enduring value and priority placed on worker and public safety by everyone in every group at every level of an organization.”

Necessary components

To date, no complete agreement on a single definition for safety culture has been established, according to von Thaden. That said, many of the definitions that experts provided to Safety+Health magazine touched on similar themes or had shared components. Although some safety professionals suggest safety culture comes from a top-to-bottom approach while others say it is driven by front-line workers, many experts said the involvement of everyone in an organization is necessary.

Terry Miller, National Safety Council surveys manager, described safety culture as collective values and norms an organization has about safety. “Unless everyone feels the same way … then it really isn’t culture,” he said. Miller said every positive safety culture includes management participation or engagement and employee participation and responsibility.

“Everyone in the organization must feel accountable for themselves and their work environment,” said Courtney Billington, vice president of manufacturing and technical operations for Janssen Supply Group LLC in Raritan, NJ. “This ownership will drive the appropriate behaviors that make up the safety culture.”

Another characteristic of a positive safety culture is learning from mistakes, such as the circumstances leading to an injury. “A workplace incident, injury or fatality can have a negative and/or positive impact on safety culture,” von Thaden said. “It can be a catalyst for positive change, or it can drive morale down.”

Miller said injuries and safety culture are correlated. An organization that is not below the industry average for injuries probably does not have a good safety culture, he said. At the same time, low injury and illness rates coupled with low reporting of injuries also suggests a poor safety culture.

“It’s not that they have a low OSHA recordable rate. It’s are they doing the right things?” said Rich Widdowson, global lead for safety at Schneider Electric, which is headquartered in Rueil Malmaison, France. At Schneider Electric, any injury is considered a system failure, and the incidents are examined to see what occurred and how it can be fixed, Widdowson said.

Simon noted that although injuries can make an organization question the effectiveness of its safety culture, a single incident does not necessarily imply an overall poor safety culture.


This brings up another big question about safety culture: Is a positive safety culture truly attainable? Many experts believe so, but stressed it goes beyond simply the act of attainment.

“It’s achievable, but it’s not one you can say you’ve accomplished it and stop. You have to be continuously pursuing it,” Widdowson said.

A positive safety culture has been linked with the goal of zero injuries, but Miller stressed that a positive safety culture is not like a zero-injury goal in that an injury can occur but a positive safety culture still can be maintained.

What produces a positive safety culture at one worksite also can – to a certain degree – be used as a model to create a positive safety culture at another worksite. “The concepts are transferable, but it’s not a one-to-one fixed relationship,” von Thaden said. “Like the human body, each is different, yet we expect similar features in every body.”

Widdowson warned that each workplace has a different organizational structure and a different way of doing things. Safety professionals can use a blueprint to instill a positive safety culture somewhere new, but flexibility is needed in light of a workforce’s education level and way of approaching things.

Echoing that thought, Simon said culture is local. There is nothing wrong with organizations coming up with a detailed definition of what a safety culture is, he said, but it is important for each worksite to assess whether the definitions work for them on a local level.

“You make a culture – you don’t buy a culture,” Simon said.


The pursuit and achievement of a positive safety culture is one thing, but knowing when a culture of safety has been achieved is another. “To truly know the status of a safety culture, you have to measure it,” von Thaden said.

Janssen Supply Group uses employee perception surveys, which provide ongoing feedback on its safety culture, Billington said. Simon said combining perception surveys with injury data can be an important indicator of a positive safety culture, such as when the workforce believes the company cares about employee safety and the company experiences few injuries.

Von Thaden stressed that measuring a safety culture is a scientific exercise and cannot be fully measured with a simple question-and-answer sheet about safety. She recommended using an unbiased third party to measure an organization’s safety culture. However, she also cautioned against “snake oil salesmen” looking to cash in on the growing safety culture trend.

Other, more tangible things – such as inspections and meetings – may be easy to count and track, but they do not necessarily reflect a positive safety culture, according to Miller. “On paper, you can check them off and do them, but if push comes to shove, employees know if management doesn’t back up what they’re saying with actions,” he said.

For Widdowson, knowing if a location has a good safety culture is something that goes beyond measuring various aspects. It is in the observations – of the housekeeping, the management of an operation and how they communicate. “You see it. You feel it. You kind of know,” he said.

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