An Organization’s Safety Culture Eithers Evolves or Dies!

[tweetmeme]A few weeks ago I attended a friend’s dinner party, which consisted of several people of whom I had no acquaintance, and as expected the all too familiar ice breaker question of “So, what do you do?” was directed towards me by a very friendly fellow whom I had never met before.  As I entered into my 27/9/3 opening statement (27 word response, spoken in nine seconds, covering three main topics), I learned from crisis management people, who will tell you, that you only have about nine seconds to capture people’s imagination, or attention; after that they have moved on mentally.  The days of the old 30 second elevator speeches are dead and gone!   Anyway, it occurred to me that the concept of safety management and the culture around it means totally different things to different people.  Although the idea of safety is ubiquitous the approaches and results of organizations safety efforts vary widely.

In the commercial airlines industry for example safety is embedded so thoroughly that it often times is difficult to really appreciate its presence until you go to another industry.  In some organizations safety management or culture is simply compliance with regulatory mandates and nothing more, or simply the concept of “do no harm.” 

The culture of safety is often times viewed as a passive well-meaning notion of simply eliminating hazards.  But let’s face it, in most industries we must live with the hazards and find ways to minimize the risks associated with those hazards.  For example the oil and gas industry is wrought with fire and explosion hazards, mining has cave-in hazards and atmospheric hazards that simply can’t be fully eliminated, and construction is inherently dangerous work, so we do what we can to minimize the risks.

Those organizations that effectively manage their risks best are in place to have the fewest injuries, and lowest amount of downtime, the lowest regulatory issues, and therefore are best positioned to maximize their profits!  Those that don’t manage their risks are perceived as dangerous and usually have the highest regulatory penalties, most downtime, highest employee turnover, and are forced to scale down their operations to achieve acceptable levels of safety.

Management of the culture of safety isn’t a passive venture for executives.   There is an evolutionary nature to safety management which most companies go through.  Starting from a pathological state where safety is ignored and the risks associated with the work are hidden and no one really cares to do more than required by law.  However once an accident occurs, then management is reactive to safety.  Demanding to know who was responsible and how this could have happened (never imagining that the fault could be theirs).  This can lead the organization to start a command and control atmosphere, wherein graphs and charts are issued based on things like incident rates, and near misses.  Responsibility for safety failures; sadly is still bottom-up. 

Successful organizations have fought through this process and have evolved to a proactive and generative state of safety, where management seeks out the issues themselves and redirects responsibility from bottom-up to top-down.  Safety is integrated in other processes and meetings aren’t stand alone and something different.  Safety is viewed as equal to production and quality.  Management CARES and KNOWS about the culture of their organization.  These organizations usually have higher profits, better employee loyalty and are more competitive in the market place.  I wonder if you know where your organization is in this evolutionary process ( I bet I know where you’d like to be).



  1. Organizational safety is extremely important – I just have to say that your comment about the 27/9/3 rule captured my attention. I’m going to use that (and take your tips about safety to heart). Thanks for the insight — Glenn

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