Case Study: Leadership Commitment to Change Safety Culture

By Scott Schweyer

safety cultureThe Challenge:

A large organization wanted to change their high accident frequency and severity rates to be best in class for their industry.

The Process:

  • Assess the current safety culture, including attitudes and beliefs
  • Understanding current Leadership approaches and what they focus on, particularly front-line leaders
  • Learn the current systems and practices used while working
  • Review the training that has been conducted for developing competence
  • Review the forms and documents for reporting and how often they’re used
  • Understand the method of accident investigation, teaching lessons learned and the follow up
  • Interview team leaders and managers; conducting focus groups with employees about issues surrounding higher rates

Outcome of the Assessment

The assessment uncovered a fairly comprehensive list of items that would contribute to a lower view of their safety culture. The attitude and belief that production was much more important was by far the most glaring concern. Team members didn’t feel they could take the time that was required of them to perform their tasks safely and if they did there would likely be some kind of performance discussion.

The Solution:

When we conducted the senior manager workshop where we discussed the assessment report and planned the projects and actions to build a safety culture, we believed the management team would see the plan they developed to change the safety culture through to completion. By the nature of the projects and timelines given, it was pretty clear it would take some time to reach best-in-class for their industry.

After working on the plan for a while we went to the first management review meeting to discuss what had been accomplished. At that meeting it was obvious the team was tense, and eventually they said the change was taking a lot of effort and they didn’t see the frequency and severity rates decreasing fast enough. The senior team had neglected to say in the planning meetings that they had promised their shareholder to be best-in-class for severity rates and frequency rates for their industry within a year.

We agreed the current plan to address the safety culture would take longer than a year to have the level of impact they were looking for, particularly since some of the first parts of the plan were meant to address leadership approaches and the practices that seemed to put production first over safe production. We believed these items laid a solid foundation for all the other changes. It was mutually decided to not continue the project together.

They decided to change the broader safety culture plan and target the incidents that happened the most over the last year. This activity was in the plan but it wasn’t considered to be the primary action to change the safety culture. They held a series of ‘marketing’ and communication campaigns with staff about the most common types of incidents. They hoped targeting those incidents would create enough awareness to reduce their frequency and severity rate quick enough to satisfy their shareholders.

The Results

In almost every safety culture initiative we have been part of, building awareness about the most common issues is required, but it is not the only action to change the whole culture.

Although this organization started with the right intent to assess and understand what was contributing to their current safety culture, they felt they could quickly change without taking all the necessary steps. Changing safety culture takes time, energy and a real passion from everyone involved, but particularly by senior leaders leading by example to work on changing the foundation of how the organization runs.

It may sound like this case was a failure, but during our debrief of the project we came to understand that we had incorrectly assumed they had the passion for the overall culture change. We missed checking that everyone at the senior management level had the willingness to commit to the effort and the time it would take. Knowing what to do did not translate into a willingness to do it and in the end, the desire to get the result quickly outweighed the desire to really change the safety culture.

Safe work cultures do everything they can to ensure production never comes before ensuring everyone goes home safe and healthy every day.

We would love to talk with you about how to attain the safest work environment in your organization. Contact us today to find out how we can enhance your organization’s safety culture.

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