5 Steps to Building a Safety Culture in the Workplace

We are all born with instincts – those “gut reactions” that tell us what is right or wrong, safe or dangerous, good or bad. They’re vital to our survival and help us navigate through life. Even though this is a natural reaction produced without any effort, these feelings can be ignored. In a high-stress situation, we may overlook the safest option in favor of a quicker alternative. Sometimes this results in an unsafe situation for ourselves or those around us. This becomes especially dangerous in the workplace.

Have you ever caught yourself speeding on the way to work because you were late? We may accelerate faster, switch lanes with less hesitancy, or roll through stop signs because we believe it will get us there faster.

Have you ever skipped grabbing your safety glasses while using a saw? Maybe the job was quick and stopping to get your safety glasses seemed like an inconvenience.

It’s easy enough to recognize when we put ourselves in an unsafe situation, but what about when you see another individual, a coworker, in an unsafe situation? If you see a coworker using a ladder improperly, your body may send a signal saying, “Stop!” – but you may choose to ignore it. It may be because you’re heading to a meeting and feel there’s no time to stop to say something. Or maybe you feel it’s not your place to say something.

Creating an environment where employees at all levels feel equally comfortable stopping each other when observing an unsafe behavior is the foundation for building a strong safety culture.  It’s important to speak up when an unsafe situation is noted. Employees should feel comfortable and permitted to discuss safety issues with coworkers. At the same time, employees working safely should be recognized and encouraged. Positive reinforcement is just as important as constructive criticism.

Giving and receiving this constructive criticism isn’t always easy. Follow these 5 steps to help employees become more comfortable with speaking up about safety:

  1. Involve management in the conversation. Leadership’s commitment to safety is the first step towards getting employees committed to safety, and the presence (or lack thereof) of commitment shows. Management should demonstrate their dedication to safety through their actions and messages.
  2. Start a buzz. Get employees talking about safety topics. This can range from ladder safety to placing a wet floor sign at the water fountain when there’s a puddle to clean up. Informing employees about safety topics that relate to their workplace will encourage conversation.
  3. Have an open door policy. The average employee spends at least 40 hours per week at work, and they tend to have a pretty good idea about the hazards they face daily. Encourage employees to bring these topics to management. Empower employees to give suggestions on how to fix safety issues. Praise employees when they make recommendations and follow through with suggestions.
  4. Ensure blame is not placed for near misses or accidents. If an employee feels they will be punished or blamed for an accident or near miss, they are not likely to report it to management. Sometimes employees engage in unsafe behavior because they feel it’s necessary to get the job done on time. Work together to uncover these issues and establish accountability for making important changes.
  5. Teach employees how to have the conversation. Giving and receiving constructive criticism can be uncomfortable. Though the intention isn’t to offend, we may become defensive when another individual tells us we should do a task differently. Training employees on how to have these conversations can help them understand that the intention isn’t to criticize; it’s simply a group effort to finish the day safely.

When an organization has a strong safety culture, employees are given the authority to stop work that they view as unsafe and discuss with their coworkers a safer way to complete the job. There’s a continuous safety conversation happening within these organizations, coming from all levels of employment. Safety becomes a regular part of everyone’s day.

Building and maintaining a strong safety culture is not an easy task and it’s not something that happens overnight. The more it is practiced, the more it becomes engrained in your organization. Set realistic goals for your organization, and celebrate milestones along the way. Make a continuous effort and safety will no longer be seen as an inconvenience, but “the way we do things.”

For more safety solutions, browse through our risk control library.

-Sarah Neudeck


Sarah graduated from the University of Wisconsin - Whitewater with a degree in Occupational and Environmental Safety and Health. She began her career working in the safety departments for various metalworking and office facilities. Sarah is also a member of the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE).

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