Improving workplace safety may demand a culture change

Workplace safety cultureLike a successful reliability program, an effective workplace safety initiative requires getting the entire team on board. Workplace safety issues only abate when everyone understands and actively supports a zero-incidents goal.

The difference between improving safety (or reliability) or continuing to experience problems comes down to culture. Safety expert Chuck Pettinger of Fortive-owned Predictive Solutions explains why in his September 2020 webinar, “Building a culture of safety beyond a pandemic.” Watch the on-demand webinar.

Pettinger approaches safety from a cultural perspective because culture underlies everything that happens in the plant. Too often, he says, safety practices only change when something tragic happens, and even then, the changes usually aren’t intrinsic enough to affect root behaviors.

Complacency leads to incidents, which in turn cause reactive, short-term behavior. To make the plant safe, dig down into the vision and mission guiding plant operations, and start making changes there.

Can you define “plant culture”?

According to Pettinger, plant culture is:

  • Employees’ fundamental ideologies and assumptions.
  • Influenced by symbolical events and artifacts.
  • More stable than plant climate/environment, with strong roots in the organization’s history.
  • Resistant to manipulation.
  • A more profound phenomenon that reflects core values and underlying ideologies and assumptions.


You can often find the roots of a plant’s culture in that organization’s core values. To understand events at the plant environment level, look more in-depth at leadership, behaviors, and value. That’s not to say leadership doesn’t affect culture; in fact, the reverse is true: look at Figure 1. If company leaders don’t focus on values or behaviors, they won’t transform a dangerous safety environment.

Figure 1. Chuck Pettinger says that to assess a safety culture, keep digging past environment, leadership, and behaviors to the core values at the root of the organization.
Figure 1. Chuck Pettinger says that to assess a safety culture, keep digging past environment, leadership, and behaviors to the core values at the root of the organization.

Put another way, safety culture is “the product of individual and group values, attitudes, perceptions, competencies, and patterns of behavior that determine the commitment to and the style and proficiency of, an organization’s health and safety management,” states the UK Health and Safety Commission.

Pettinger, who holds a doctorate in psychology, discusses in the webinar how a culture of safety can be measured through cultural proxies or leading indicators. Identify conditions or behaviors that represent “good” culture and measure those incidents to get a sense of how healthy the culture is, he says. Creating that list of proxies can be done as a team exercise. Involve all departments and levels and ask what an “evolved” safety culture would look like, from its processes, systems, rules, and training to its values, behaviors, leadership, and environment.

So, how do you create a culture of safety?

For a plant culture to support safety, Pettinger says all three things in Figure 2 below have to happen: People relate to each other on a personal level, they trust each other, and they actively care about each other.

Figure 2. To create a safety culture, make it personal, increase trust, and actively care for one another.
Figure 2. To create a safety culture, make it personal, increase trust, and actively care for one another.


A less-personalized work environment may seem more efficient, but it may also emphasize accountability at the expense of personal responsibility. Pettinger reminds us that both qualities are valuable. Accountability sets the stage for desired behaviors while personal responsibility equates to a deeper level of ownership.

Similarly, “active” caring moves beyond only caring to acting upon what you care about. You may notice that someone is precariously standing on the top rung of a ladder, but to actively engage, you need to stop what you’re doing and hold the ladder for the person or, better yet, help them by getting a taller ladder for the job.

Trust may look different depending on what role you have in the organization. As Pettinger defines it, trust is the firm reliance on the integrity, ability, or character of a person or thing. But, do we trust a person’s intentions or their behaviors?

Managers establish trust by carrying their intentions through to their behaviors, or “walking the talk.” For team members, trust is more dependent on their intentions. Team members use each other’s actions to evaluate their real intent, and out of that, trust is strengthened or reduced.

What can leaders do to change safety culture?

Apply the trust, active caring, and personalization formula to leadership. “Leadership,” Pettinger says, inspires others to feel responsible for their behaviors, while “management” only holds people accountable for them.

Supervisors need to both lead and manage to impact the culture. To accomplish this, they must be engaged at the plant-floor level.

View Pettinger’s webinar for examples of what engaged leadership looks like and how to tell when it is making a difference in the safety culture.

Consider measuring safety not just at the incident level but at the root cause level – much like reliability maintenance. Take a look at the cultural pulse metrics Pettinger recommends and consider how to change many of the ways you reach employees — from leadership styles to organizational core values.

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