Building a safety culture

Nov 26, 2023

Working within a safety-conscious culture contributes to the health and well-being of both employees and the organization.

Safety is a word that conjures images of employees wearing hard hats, safety glasses, and other personal protective equipment. While human instinct keeps us safe, relying on instinct is not enough. Ideally, no one gets hurt and everyone goes home unscathed. That’s where the “safety gets me home” mindset comes into play. 

Safety is not a reflex; it’s a learned behavior. It must move beyond instinct and become an embedded behavioral attitude. As individuals begin this journey, an organization will shift into a collective mindset – creating a safety culture.

This transition never happens randomly or by accident. It follows a process of change and growth. As a company expands its safety consciousness, distinct actions and behaviors will characterize each stage and reinforce the development of a safety culture.

Working within a safety-conscious culture contributes to the health and well-being of both employees and the organization. But how does a company build a culture of safety? The driving force for prioritizing safety starts with an employee getting injured, resulting in lost workdays and increased workers’ compensation insurance costs. In this stage, the company is reacting to costs, which have a negative effect on the bottom-line.

As management looks for ways to lower these costs, a new awareness of safety emerges. Safety professionals agree there is a method to expanding the scope of awareness – one that cultivates a safer workplace. One such approach has been developed by safety professional, Berlin Bradley. In it, he identifies the four stages of safety behavior that lead to a change in company culture: 

  • Reactive. The reactive stage is grounded in instinct. Behavioral theorist, Abraham Maslow identified safety as the second level of the “hierarchy of needs.” Humans instinctively know we need to protect ourselves from harm. But relying on this instinct as the foundation for a safety culture is not enough. Instinct alone does not provide the motivation necessary for maintaining a safe working environment.
    Other factors can compromise an individual’s basic instinct to work safely, including distractions and deadlines. When these are addressed, awareness will emerge, but it inevitably results in ongoing expenses related to accidents. Embracing the next stage is essential for effectively mitigating this problem. 
  • Dependent. The second stage of the Bradley Curve covers rules and policies. In this stage, management establishes rules and employees are expected to follow them. When the rules are broken, punishment ensues. Safety management that relies on discipline for poor performance does not change the unsafe behavior. While safety policies may have an initial effect, the long-term goal of zero accidents will be stifled. From my experience, “fear of punishment” does not change human behavior. Even if the company expands its safety department to enforce compliance, it’s unlikely to secure the buy-in necessary to create a safe workplace. 
  • Independent. During this stage, behavioral change occurs as employees understand safety’s wider picture. The focus is on the importance to work safely. Awareness of a safe work environment increases when we realize that we are responsible for our own well-being. Employees are not only encouraged to report hazards, but to also take corrective actions for their safety and others.
    Behavior changes as the employee understands their role in accident prevention. Management drives home the mindset by welcoming participation in hazard assessments and showing the employee that their well-being matters to the company. This establishes a culture of safety and well-being.
  • Interdependent. A mindset of shared responsibilities pervades the organization, whereas safety is understood as a companywide value. Awareness becomes the norm as managers, staff and administrators are in one accord. In this stage, employees understand their duty to look out for each other and prioritize the common good of all; management reinforces their concern for the employee’s well-being and “zero harm” to every employee; and safety becomes a way of life.
    At Bowman, interdependence is a shared safety responsibility reinforced by company-designed safety training. This commitment is reinforced with weekly “toolbox safety talks” that management participates in with employees. Employees are encouraged to share a “safety moment” that uncovers real work experiences.
    When a coworker shares a first-hand hazard experience, those listening can learn from each other. This environment fosters a greater willingness to stop work and reduces their inclination to take unnecessary risks, especially when they witness management’s genuine concern for their well-being and safety. This participatory culture empowers employees to function at optimal productivity.

The four stages of safety in action. In our approach to promoting a safety culture, we employ a tiered structure that starts with CORE field safety training and defensive driving for all field employees, establishing a baseline for an interdependent safety culture from day one. 

The second tier is weekly participation in safety calls, mandatory for all field employee and management. These weekly calls reinforce the message of accident prevention, hazard identification, safety awareness, and personal responsibility. 

In the third tier, we implement documented job hazard analysis for every job. Identifying jobsite hazards and discussing ways to eliminate risks before starting a job is essential to recognizing a culture of safety and well-being. Our fourth tier is one of empowerment, health, and well-being – a work environment for which everyone has responsibility and all have a role in its maintenance. 

Earl Bennett is safety director at Bowman. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.