Why would a seasoned safety and health professional make a statement like the title of this article? I am sure that to many safety and health professionals, this sounds like heresy.

Focusing on building a "strong safety culture" will not lead to safety excellence. It may get you to average or even slightly above average, but it won't get you to world class.

In order to achieve world-class safety performance, safety must be integrated into the culture of the enterprise. In other words, safety has to be part of the DNA of the enterprise, not something that is appended to it.

Does an enterprise have a separate HR culture, quality culture, customer service culture, etc., or are these critical elements embodied in the overarching organizational culture? Great enterprises have a single culture that includes all critical elements, including safety and health. (Authors note: When the term "safety" is used it is intended to include occupational health as well.)

There is a myriad of articles in respected publications such as EHS Today that deal with achieving a strong safety culture. By this time, with the evolution of safety moving past the unsafe conditions phase and into the emphasis on behaviors of both management and workers and a management systems approach, one would think the concept of a strong safety culture versus having safety integrated into the overarching culture of the enterprise would be passé, but unfortunately, it is not.

The culture of an enterprise is driven by the values of the enterprise, and the values of an enterprise are driven by the senior leadership of the enterprise. Therefore, safety initially must be embraced as a corporate value before it can be part of the enterprise's culture. The safety and health function of an enterprise can work tirelessly to improve safety performance, but if safety is not considered a critical or strategic value of the enterprise, these efforts will not permeate and influence the enterprise.

Organizational Culture

It is helpful to first develop an understanding of organizational culture. All organizations can be defined by their culture, which is a "system of shared assumptions, values and beliefs, which governs how people behave in an organization" (source unknown). There are numerous definitions for the term organizational culture (OC); however, the one stated above will be used because it represents the sentiment of many of the definitions we explored.

An article presented a very interesting perspective of an OC in the May 2015 issue of the Harvard Business Review. In that article, Michael Watkins stated, "Culture is the organization's immune system." He goes on to say, "Culture is a form of protection that has evolved from situational pressures. It prevents ‘wrong thinking' and ‘wrong people' from entering the organization in the first place. OC functions much like the human immune system in preventing viruses and bacteria from taking hold and damaging the body."

My point, using this analogy, is that safety antibodies must be part of this immune system, i.e., the OC. For example, suppose there is an organization where safety is not integrated into the corporate culture. It has a manager whose department excels in production but has a below average safety record, and he or she is up for promotion. There is a good chance he will get that promotion.

Now, let's look at an organization where safety strongly is integrated into the corporate culture and the same manager has the same productivity and safety performance and is up for promotion. Will he be just as likely to get that promotion? Most likely he will not, since safety is an equal partner in the corporate culture and therefore is not subservient to other key performance indicators (KPI) such as cost, quality, production, customer service, etc.

Driving H&S Excellence

When "peeling the onion," we find six or seven critical characteristics that usually are used to describe OC. One of the common characteristics has to do with the relationship the enterprise has with its people, i.e.: does it truly value the wellbeing of its people?

I was fortunate to have spent most of my professional career with Procter & Gamble (P&G). During that time, P&G's values and culture were embodied by the simple model: people, public trust and profit. What this says about the P&G culture is the employees (people)are what is valued most, then the reputation of the company and the reputation of its brands (public trust) and finally, its financial success (profit).

There is a powerful logic to this model. By valuing its people, P&G was able to install a high-performance work system that included a very high quality of work life of which safety was a significant, integrated component. P&G's business success required the company and all of its brands to have an extremely good reputation wherever they conducted business (public trust). The combination of an empowered workforce and high brand recognition would lead to economic success (profit). Safety and health plays a strategic role in each element of the model but there is no reference to "safety culture." Instead, safety and health is seen as an integral part of the key values that describe the culture of the organization.

People: Safety and health professionals recognize that protecting people both inside and outside the fence line is our primary professional and ethical responsibility. Organizational leaders need to recognize that a truly engaged workforce will deliver much better results than a workforce that is not engaged. A strong safety and health effort is required to provide the quality of work life that leads to an engaged workforce. More will be said about the role transformational leadership plays on employee engagement later.

Public Trust: This is an overarching term embracing the local and global reputation of the enterprise, as well as the reputation of its brands. It includes the concepts of integrity and high ethical standards. Workplace outcomes directly impact this. No CEO wants the enterprise or its brands to have a bad reputation.

Senior management must recognize the critical role that safety and health plays in fostering a strong company reputation and protecting the company against a bad reputation. For example, consider the public and customer relations impact when a company gets a consent decree from the EPA, a huge settlement agreement from OSHA or a breakout of an occupational disease in the workplace. These typically lead to articles in the newspapers or stories carried on national and local TV and radio.

Profit: Just a reminder that even if you work for a non-profit, you are not exempt from this final element since you would consider your budget to be akin to profit, i.e. they both are measured in $$$. Poor safety and health results directly hit the bottom line although the business case for safety and health has been poorly made by the safety profession.

Consider the impact on productivity that a serious safety incident can have. The cost of injuries might not seem like a lot, but when converted to sales equivalent dollars it gets the attention of senior management. A $10,000 incident would require an enterprise operating at a 5 percent profit margin to sell $200,000-worth of products in order to yield $10,000 to pay for the incident.

Another strategic contribution safety and health makes, but that is unrecognized by many, is that it is a technology enabler. Senior management must realize that without safety and health, the company would not be able to handle hazardous chemicals or utilize hazardous processes. Just think about it.