Here’s a question that can say a lot about your company’s safety culture: 

If one of your company’s top executives (e.g., CEO, VP, GM) walked onto the shop floor or out in the field, and he/she was not wearing required PPE, would employees say something? Would your employees feel 100 percent comfortable approaching that executive and asking him or her to wear appropriate PPE?

I encourage you to think about that question and ask employees about it. You might be surprised by how people respond to that question. If the answer is “No” or “I think so,” your organization probably has some room for improvement in terms of its safety culture.

These days, people are talking about safety culture and what they are doing to improve it, or are talking about creating a strong safety culture. After all, safety culture is a critical indicator of risk and employee safety.

There are many ways to define what it is, but one of the best ways to think about a safety culture is: “How we do things around here regarding safety.” It is hard to pin down, but a safety culture is deeply ingrained in an organization; it is based on shared assumptions, beliefs and values; and it influences how much risk is present in any aspect of the organization.

We currently are working with a client’s manufacturing facility, and in my one-on-one conversations with the leadership team, I was told that the average hourly employee at this site easily would tell a co-worker on the shop floor to wear their safety glasses, which are required PPE. However, they said, many hourly employees would not dare say this to the plant manager. They simply would not feel comfortable doing that because of his position.

I have to say, I was somewhat surprised. This was the same site that espoused how important safety was, and how all leaders must be accountable for safety.

When I shared this with the plant manager, he was not that surprised. Although he was disappointed to hear it, the leadership team had been struggling to communicate to employees that it really is okay to approach others about safe behavior, regardless of who they are in the company. While they were making great strides in terms of putting safety first in daily work tasks, and managing risks more proactively, there still was a gap in terms of what leaders wanted employees to say and what employees felt empowered to say.

Worker Empowerment Sign of Strong Safety Culture

Many of you likely work for organizations where this is not an issue. If so, that’s great – congratulations! However, many companies out there still struggle to create a culture where employees feel confident and comfortable approaching a senior leader on safe behavior.

Empowering employees to do so is a key characteristic of organizations with strong, mature safety cultures, and it is linked to important safety outcomes. If a team member on the shop floor can give feedback on safe behavior to a company VP, then they likely will give feedback to co-workers and visitors, and that’s how it should be.

So what are some things you can do as a leader to convince employees that it really is okay to speak up and someone that he/she is working unsafely? Here are a few:

Measure the current state of safety culture. First, it’s important to identify the starting point. By measuring aspects of the current safety culture, you can get a good sense of how people feel about a certain issue. Safety perception surveys are a great way to measure this type of information from large groups of employees in a consistent and quantifiable manner.

Rich, qualitative information also can be gathered through informal talks, one-on-one conversations with employees or in small focus groups. All of these mediums can be used to systematically ask employees whether they feel comfortable approaching others about safe behaviors.

Communicate safety message at all levels. Once you identify the current state, you need to tell people that it’s okay, and desired, for them to give feedback about safety. It’s easy to assume that employees will know something because they heard it in their orientation or their training. But for them to truly know that it’s okay to say something to a senior leader, they need to hear it and see it from leadership.

Leaders should reassure employees during everyday events such as toolbox talks, safety briefings, walk-throughs and informal conversations that they can approach anyone, regardless of that person’s position, if he or she is working in an at-risk manner.

Be approachable. If you want people to approach you about safety, then you should make sure that you are approachable! Unfortunately, there are supervisors who appear to be combative or intimidating. This often leads to an unwillingness on the part of their employees to voice safety concerns, and this is a shame. If you are unsure about how approachable you are, take action to get honest feedback on how others see you. 

Find out how you and management are perceived by workers. Ask trusted others to tell you how open they perceive you to be to feedback and ask them to share how others perceive you. Measurement tools such as 360-degree feedback surveys can tell leaders a lot about how they are perceived by their co-workers and subordinates. There also are various personality assessments that provide valuable information on traits that impact your communication style, leadership approach and feedback preferences. By knowing your traits and understanding how others perceive you, you can take simple steps to ensure you are more approachable when it comes to safety concerns and behaviors.

There are many ways in which an organization can develop a safety culture that encourages people to raise safety concerns and approach others candidly, regardless of who they are. These are just three simple steps that can help an organization get started on the path towards this desired state, or to sustain it over time.

About the author: Esteban Tristan, Ph.D., is the safety practice manager and a senior consultant at Select International. He manages the development and implementation of all safety solutions and services, which address some of the critical challenges faced by organizations today in workplace safety.