Thursday, March 31, 2016

Is a “safety culture” assessment right for your organization?

Safety culture is a popular term in occupational health and safety articles.  There is no one universally accepted definition but the US OSHA describes Safety cultures this way:

Safety cultures consist of shared beliefs, practices, and attitudes that exist at an establishment.  Culture is the atmosphere created by those beliefs, attitudes, etc., which shape our behavior.  An organizations safety culture is the result of a number of factors such as:§  Management and employee norms, assumptions and beliefs;
§  Management and employee attitudes;
§  Values, myths, stories;
§  Policies and procedures;
§  Supervisor priorities, responsibilities and accountability;
§  Production and bottom line pressures vs. quality issues;
§  Actions or lack of action to correct unsafe behaviors;
§  Employee training and motivation; and
Employee involvement or "buy-in”
Safety culture is often summarized as “The way we do things around here”.  

However you define it, a safety culture can only exist in a social context, in a community of individuals (specifically employees and management) organized around a work objective.  Safety culture in any particular organization at any given time is dependent on that context.  If the context is relatively stable then the safety culture is likely stable over time (absent interventions or events that disrupt the status quo).  

Building a strong safety culture can make workplaces safer by extinguishing behaviours that put workers at risk, increasing adherence to safe work procedures, eliminating hazards, etc. 

An “assessment” is an examination process by means of a structured (formalized) instrument such as a survey or audit (including interviews).  An assessment has a result or conclusion often expressed as a score against specific areas examined.  The formalized nature of an assessment instrument ensures the components or criteria are applied consistently.  Effective assessments measure what they purport to examine in an objective way; they are highly replicable and consistent (regardless of who administers and scores the assessment) and comparable (over time and between similar populations). 

With or without a formal safety culture assessment, your organization has a safety culture.  You likely have a good idea what your organizational safety culture is.  The question is simply this:  Is a formal safety culture or safety climate (a closely related concept) assessment useful to your organization?  The answer is not always an automatic “yes”.

It is currently fashionable to promote safety culture or climate through various assessments.  The WorkSafe New Zealand “Safety Culture Snapshot  Survey” and the Nordic Occupational Safety Climate Questionnaire (NOSACQ)  are two such examples.  At the end of the assessment, management and employees have a measure of the organizational safety culture at the point the assessment took place.  Each assessment is very specific to a particular time, organizational structure, and labour force composition.  This specificity, often to a single work location and work group at a point in time, is both an advantage and limitation of formal safety culture assessments. 

If you have a stable work organization doing similar work with a relatively constant workforce and management team in a medium to large enterprise, then the assessment may be valid and useful as a baseline and to measure improvements over time.   If your organization is smaller, has a labour force that is subject to frequent changes (layoffs, temporary hires, turnovers, changing work teams, etc.) a safety culture assessment will still get a measure of the safety culture at a point in time but the validity of comparisons over time may be difficult to prove and its utility as an instrument for improvement less valuable than more targeted or direct alternative initiatives at improving workplace safety.   

An organization that decides to undergo a safety culture assessment does so for a reason.  Sometimes that reason is sincerely based on a genuine interest in improvement of workplace safety.  If an organization already has a pretty good idea about the state of its safety culture, the formal assessment can be an expensive and time-consuming effort to tell you what you already know.  If an organization is very unsure of its safety culture, then an assessment can play an important role in identifying opportunities for improvement and defining a baseline for future measurement. 

Unfortunately, many organizations engage in safety culture assessments for political reasons or to meet some external pressure or particular criterion in a certification process.  Some see a safety culture survey as a quick fix (its not).  Worse yet, organizations that could benefit most from safety culture assessments—the ones with the least organizational self-knowledge of or commitment to fostering excellence in safety culture—are unlikely to engage in safety culture assessments. 

For the right operation and the right reasons formal safety culture assessments are valuable.  However, safety culture surveys and audits aren’t always the best way to improve workplace health and safety.  Other initiatives that focus on safety training, improving safety mindedness, or updating the safeguards, barriers, and work processes that protect workers (and others in the workplace) from harm can have a more immediate and larger impact on safety for similar costs.

There is a potential trap in using safety culture assessments as the basis for organizational change.  The assessment is narrow, applying to the management and employees of an organization in one context: the workplace.  Safety culture assessments do not typically encompass safety attitudes and beliefs beyond the workplace; nor do these audits or surveys typically reach into the community, shareholder base, customer population or supply chain to include the views of these powerful influencers of workplace safety and health. 

Each safety culture assessment tool is also very specific.  The components of safety culture assessed, the questions asked and the way the results are presented or reported is unique to the assessment tool used.  The choice of assessment tool should be an intentional, informed decision that takes into account the reasons for doing the safety culture assessment and the plans for how you plan to use the results.  If the plan includes multiple assessments over time (to gauge the impact of interventions aimed at changing the safety culture over time, for example), then the initial selection of the safety culture assessment tool is critical;  using different assessment instruments may yield very different results.

Administering a safety culture assessment does not automatically lead to building a strong safety culture.  At best, safety culture assessments are indirect means to improving workplace safety and health.  The outcome of the safety culture assessments are measures across several dimensions.  The measures may identify areas of relative strength and weakness in the safety culture.  What you do with that information does not automatically flow from the results.  The assessment may provide and impetus for improvement or change but that is not the same thing as making the workplace safer.  Even if the audit or survey reveals areas that would be amenable to improvement, someone still has to prioritize the opportunities and win budgetary/operational support to invest in them. If there is no will to act on the results of a safety culture assessment, there is little value in doing one.

Safety culture assessments are not costless.  Even if a safety culture assessment instrument is “free”, the time and effort costs can be significant.  Could an equivalent effort have a bigger impact?  Quite possibly; there is, after all, an “opportunity cost” for any assessment.  Alternatives such as introducing wellness programs, supporting initiatives to increase individual “safety mindedness”,  investing in safety training, and acting on “near miss” reports may all increase workplace safety for the equivalent cost/effort investment.   

Safety culture is not the sole determinant of workplace health and safety.   No safety culture assessment is a panacea.  If you think your injury rate will drop just because you engage in a safety culture survey or audit, think again.  The safety culture assessment can provide a starting point but the real work begins after that.   

For the right organization, the right reasons and the right plan, a safety culture assessment can be a great starting place for improving safety.  For others, an equivalent investment in more direct action may be a more effective way to improve both workplace safety and safety culture. 

Ten questions to ask before a safety culture assessment:
  1.       Why do we want to measure our safety culture?
  2.       What expectations will be created by conducting a safety culture assessment?
  3.              What alternative time-effort investments could achieve this purpose?
  4.               Is a safety culture assessment likely to tell us something we don’t already know?
  5.               Which safety culture assessment tool should we use?
  6.                Who will be included in the process?
  7.                 How much will the assessment cost (including the cost of the instrument as well as the time and effort to administer, analyze and report the results)?
  8.                How, when and with whom will the results presented or shared (internally and externally)?
  9.               How will the results be used?
  10.                 Is this assessment intended to be a one-time assessment or part of a series of assessments over time?