Safety culture is the foundation for change

Standardized requirements accelerate progress on the journey to improving workplace safety.


Companies have focused on eliminating risk and reducing work-related injuries and illness for decades, investing time and resources to develop shared beliefs, practices, and attitudes toward working safely. For many organizations, the idea of safety isn’t just THAT—an idea—it’s a way of doing business. This newfound culture of safety-driven achievements is an evolutionary process that has been in the works for quite some time; it doesn’t happen overnight or by accident.  Image courtesy: Victaulic

Even when a company has made significant progress in establishing a safety culture, the journey is far from over. There will always be changes in work flows, adaptations to new technologies, and the need to onboard and train new workforce who then will need to be familiarized with these new implementations. Improvements, adjustments, and training are vital to sustaining a safety culture over time.

Safety starts with standards 

There is tremendous value in having standardized safety requirements. Established safety criteria that have been validated by a third party have the power to change the face of employee safeguards, making it less subjective and more quantifiable. 

Statistics illustrate the impact of standardizing workplace safety. Before OSHA was created 46 years ago, an estimated 14,000 workers were killed on the job every year. That is more than 38 fatal injuries each day. Today, workplaces are considerably safer, and annual OSHA statistics continue to bear that out. But, while the progress is notable, much work remains to be done. Even one fatal injury is one too many.

Standardizing safety requirements is the foundation in continuing the journey toward a safe and injury-free work environment. The proven successes resulting from standard practices are an indication of the tremendous impact in reducing injuries and accidents. Developing and implementing fundamental guidelines helps to optimize process reliability and quality, thus broadening the likelihood of a safe work space. However, embracing this type of culture that places uniformity at the fore is not without its challenges. 

Confronting change

Before companies can gain traction toward enforcing a systematic safety program, they must reflect on their procedures and actions in order to determine if there are behaviors that could stand in the way of their critical objectives.Image courtesy: Victaulic

Change rarely is an easy progression. There is often a predisposition to go through the motions. Therein lies the problem. Holding on to a corporate culture that was not built on regulated safety objectives is an impediment to adopting standardization into one’s corporate identity. 

Acquisitions pose another challenge. Two companies rarely take the same approach to safety or truly share a similar culture. When a large group of employees is being assimilated, that group often brings with them differing approaches that are inconsistent with corporate policy. 

Even in cases in which a company is dedicated to improving its safety culture, leaders often find it difficult to effect change. It is not unusual for line managers who are used to doing things in a certain way to have difficulty adapting to a uniform set of practices that seem to “disrupt” operations. Making sure the work force is truly interested in meeting standardized safety objectives takes time, patience, communication, and training.

Another situation, and perhaps the most complex to manage, occurs when other processes that directly impact production, profits, and operations have a higher priority than standardized safety issues. In these cases, while safety might not take precedence, time should be spent to determine how standardized safety initiatives can align with the company’s other business objectives.

Laying the groundwork for success

The goal of improved safety processes is worth the time and effort that must be invested in planning, implementing, and executing a systematic approach to achieving that end. A successful plan must include an internal auditing process, consistent and effective communication, and a lean program. Image courtesy: Victaulic

Internal auditing is indispensable, particularly when a company is acclimating to the readjustment across multiple facilities. The most successful auditing programs address OSHA regulatory and compliance requirements as well as the corporate safety plans, policies, and programs.

One of the most useful tools in carrying out a comprehensive internal audit is a checklist that outlines all elements of the safety program. Having a checklist makes it much easier for a company to examine each facility using the same criteria. Most checklists include concepts such as:

  • Training
  • Personal protective equipment (PPE)
  • Maintenance (hoists and lifts)
  • Machine/tool guarding
  • Hazard identification and elimination
  • Employee rights and responsibilities
  • Gas cylinder storage and handling
  • Forklift operations
  • New hire orientation
  • JSA and LOTO development
  • Incident investigation
  • Housekeeping/5S
  • Contractor management
  • Visitor guidelines and emergency preparedness
  • Hazard awareness and hazard communications

Companies with facilities in multiple countries may have to make exceptions for conflicts that may arise between OSHA and in-country regulatory and compliance requirements. Recognizing the potential for this type of issue allows auditors to prepare to address exceptions and to develop a consistent approach to managing inconsistencies. One way to ensure that the audit requirements are consistent and that every facility, regardless of location, is being held to the same standards is to have the audits performed by the same individuals. 

Performing internal reviews not only allows a company to determine whether all its facilities are meeting OSHA requirements, it also opens a window into how safety plans are being implemented and where improvements are needed. An audit shows the true nature of the work and how it is being executed.

When an organization changes its safety program, it is critical that employees at every level understand their role in the program and the reasons behind the change. No conformance tool is more valuable in achieving that objective than effective communication. A successful communication plan clearly articulates expectations, reinforces the corporate safety policy, and provides a vehicle for ensuring conditions are met. 

Monthly conference calls attended by all facility safety leaders help circulate the word to their peers facilitating the change. Using a reporting template to manage these meetings provides consistency as well as a framework for the meeting, keeping participants focused on pertinent information, functioning as a vehicle for addressing noteworthy safety issues, and streamlining reporting for critical metrics.

In addition to monthly meetings, it is important to communicate weekly via email. Emails can help to emphasize the importance of policy changes, reinforce initiatives, and articulate priority tasking for group leaders so continuous progress can be made toward safety goals. Weekly communication acts as a frequent reminder that keeps standardization objectives top of mind.

Face-to-face communication is also part of the equation. Individual site visits, independent of the annual audit, create an environment for discussing issues particular to a facility, sharing ideas about changes in implementation, and facilitating conversations about new initiatives. 

Bringing the group leaders together annually also is important. Holding a yearly summit provides a forum for recognizing top performers and for exchanging information on best practices with the team. These meetings encourage teamwork, synergy, and camaraderie and facilitate the exchange of ideas for improvements, all of which are invaluable to developing a strong organization and a sustainable safety program.

Lean manufacturing is the third component of a successful plan. Simply put, a Lean process continuously identifies and eliminates waste. Lean principles historically have been used to drive process improvement and enhance customer satisfaction, typically addressing such things as:  

  • Standard work flow
  • Quality
  • Equipment
  • Supply chain
  • Teamwork (safety)
  • Housekeeping (5S)

A checklist for each of the functional areas makes it possible to gauge progress as the company works toward achieving its goals. Progressive companies include safety as part of their formal Lean program, making it integral to how performance and success are measured.

The most effective Lean programs have three or more increasing levels of difficulty (often designated as bronze, silver, gold, and platinum) in each functional area to drive continuous improvement. With criteria clearly-defined for each level, workers know where they stand and acknowledge what needs to be done to move to the next level. 

Encouraging teamwork allows an organization to formalize such things as safety training, housekeeping, incident investigation, and contract management as mandatory criteria. When safety is incorporated into the Lean program, it is elevated into the hands of plant leadership and no longer is viewed solely as the responsibility of a plant safety specialist. 

A true change in safety culture has been achieved when an organization reaches the pivotal point at which safety becomes a personal goal for employees and is no longer the sole responsibility of designated safety personnel.

Safety in action

In 2007, Victaulic’s management made the decision to improve the safety culture of the organization and to make safety excellence a corporate objective. To reach this goal, every employee in every facility would have to be involved. 

The program began with basic compliance to regulatory requirements including the proper use of personal protective equipment (PPE), machine guarding, training, and a multitude of program requirements like hazard awareness, heat stress, hearing conservation, and confined space entry.  Efforts went into creating a Safety and Health Management System (SHMS) that addressed all the regulatory requirements as well as the plans, programs, and policies the company planned to execute.

Surprisingly, creating the SHMS was the easy part. The biggest challenge was getting all the facilities into compliance.

Once the SHMS was formalized, the next step was to create a “wall-to-wall” audit checklist for evaluating each activity annually to ensure the company was achieving global standardization and that every location was familiar and compliant with the SHMS. The audit results acted as a scorecard for continuous improvement for each activity. As employees worked to achieve compliance, they were measurably reducing recordable injury rates. More importantly, the audits were instrumental in establishing a strong safety foundation for driving future improvements. 

To share successes and goals, it was important to develop an effective communication plan and to drive safety ownership from leadership/management down to the employees, engaging them in many of the safety processes and programs and empowering them to drive awareness. As the company was making progress toward its safety goals, Victaulic celebrated the successes achieved along the way. Doing so demonstrated continued management support, strengthened the employee-management relationship, bolstered employee morale, and instilled a sense of pride in the collective accomplishments of the global team.

Continuous improvement also brought about a shift in culture. Trust grew between management and the workforce, and employees began to take true ownership of workplace safety. In fact, they began applying their workplace care principles in their personal lives at home with their families. 

The company anticipates more achievements like this as their safety journey continues. By continually assessing strengths and weaknesses to identify areas for improvement and communicating a clear vision, it will be possible to improve all aspects of the work environment and reduce the number of incidents year over year.

Beginning the journey

Before the journey toward standardizing safety can truly begin, an organization must assess current conditions and understand where improvements need to be made. The first step in the process is to uncover the company’s strengths and weaknesses by conducting a gap analysis that highlights areas for enhancement. Once weaknesses are defined and understood, it is then possible to map out where the safety journey should take the company and what milestones will mark success along the way. 

With leadership commitment to a program that emphasizes internal audits, a Lean manufacturing program, and effective communication, companies can establish a solid foundation on which to build a program that will help them achieve their safety standardization goals. The end result is a work environment that is safer, more efficient, and more effectively-managed. 

Creating this type of workplace takes resources, commitment, and time, but it is undeniably well worth the effort.

A Navy veteran, Bill D’Amico is Victaulic’s global director – environmental, health and safety/quality assurance.


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