If safety is a condition of employment, what about the gray areas where no rules or procedures apply? Are those conditions of employment too? If a worker fails to go above and beyond the basics of safety, is that grounds for dismissal? The way you answer these questions reflects strategic thinking that can have a great impact on the level of safety excellence your organization can reach.

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There is a great deal of emphasis on safety culture these days, but very little understanding of what it is and how to improve it. Many define culture as what happens in the absence of managerial or supervisory control, i.e. "what people do when you are not looking." If this is true, then culture is what happens during the lack of command and control. It could be argued that the goal is self-discipline that continues when controls are not present. But it also could be defined as what happens when workers exercise discretion rather than adhere to control.

So, is there a simple, one-dimensional answer to the question of whether safety is mandatory or discretionary? If you think there is, I would suggest that your answer (and the strategic thinking behind it) likely would become a self-imposed limitation to the level of safety excellence you can achieve. On the other hand, if you are still straddling the fence on your answer, you may be gaining perspective on the complexity of this issue. When you consider some kinds of safety situations in which workers are called on to make workplace decisions, the answer seems simple. In other situations, the answer is not so black and white.

I would like to suggest that the best answer to this question is "yes!" Safety is both mandatory and discretionary depending on the issue. This is not to suggest that every issue is both, but that every issue is either one or the other. Matters of compliance with laws, regulations, company policies and the like are, and should be, mandatory. They should be conditions of employment and should have a low tolerance for non-conformance.

This necessarily does not mean a "one-strike" policy that ignores the human propensity for making occasional "honest" mistakes. But it does mean that levels of performance for these safety issues constantly are reinforced and continuously communicated. Willful, flagrant or repeated violations should be dealt with severely, consistently and in a timely manner. Training for both new employees and ongoing training for existing employees should address these issues and ensure that everyone knows the mandates and how to comply with them.