So much has been written about culture and the importance of creating a healthy safety culture in the workplace. The problem with talking about culture is that, by itself, it is an amorphous thing – vague and unclassifiable. Trying to shape “culture” is like rotating the needle of an automobile speedometer in the hopes of going faster.  Culture is an organizational outcome rather than a single independent variable.

Even more interesting is the root of the word culture: Cult. Many definitions of the word cult are negative and refer to various forms of obsessive idolization. One online definition refers to a cult as as “a relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister.”

On a positive note, part of the Merriam-Webster definition calls the word “great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement or work.” So can we have a positive safety cult at work, and if so, how do we create it?

The answer to the first question is a resounding “Yes!” There are many organizations that have created a positive safety cult in the workplace. One of the most often cited examples is Qantas Airlines, which has not had a fatality in over 64 years. All this while operating over 5,500 flights per week and carrying more than 41 million people per year at 27,000 feet in the air and 500 miles per hour.

Now on to the second question: If positive safety cults do exist, how are they created? If “culture” is an organizational outcome how does one create it or shift it?

If we return to the example of making an automobile go faster, the clue is in the single behavior involved: pressing on the gas pedal. Organizational culture is nothing more than “the collection of most often repeated behaviors in an organization.” To foster a positive and healthy safety cult it is important to identify and reinforce critical behaviors one at a time.

Like culture, behavior is another word that gets bandied about and is often misrepresented by generalizations and labels. Behavior by definition is simply a discrete action that requires muscle movement. Pressing your foot on a gas pedal is a behavior. “Speeding up” is not. So what are some of the key behaviors that underpin a good safety cult? One of the first is rooted in the actions of leaders.

What Bad Safety Leaders Do

Let’s start with the generalization that leaders must “walk the talk” and turn this phrase into observable behavior. To create a positive safety cult, leaders must adhere to the company safety program in their words and in their actions.

On one particular worksite, we found that foremen – the leaders – were one of the most frequently injured segments of the employee population. Upon investigation, we found that when foremen would observe an employee about to do an unsafe act, they would say to them: “Hey, that looks dangerous. I’ve got more experience so you better step back and let me do it!”

On other worksites, we have heard leaders threaten workers to “get a job back on schedule at all costs,” knowing that workers would have to take unsafe shortcuts to do so.

Another critical behavior that gets in the way of a positive safety cult is walking away. A leader who sees another person do an unsafe act and then walks away without stopping the individual and correcting the unsafe behavior actually is reinforcing the unsafe act. Silence is consent.

What Good Safety Leaders Do

We know what bad leaders do, so what do good leaders do? While there are many behaviors that contribute to a safe workplace, one of the most powerful is leaders who commend workers for their safe work practices.

Whether it is as routine as thanking someone for wearing his safety glasses on a hot day or as major as recognizing an entire team for using their stop work authority in an unsafe environment, positive reinforcement from leaders who catch people doing the right things goes a long way to creating a positive safety cult.

About the author: Stephen (Steve) Quesnelle is a founding member of the International Safety Institute. Quesnelle is a senior consultant, executive coach, professional speaker, published author and behaviorist with more than 25 years of leadership development experience. He has a successful track record of utilizing change management and leadership development practices to enhance the performance of organizations in Canada, the United States, Australia and throughout Europe. He can be reached at steveq@insafein.com.