It's a Cultural Thing

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The International Safety Equipment Association

Summary Statement

Discusses the importance of having a culture of safety that starts from the top down and provides suggestions on how to create one.
Jan/Feb 2001

As a road construction industry executive, manager or supervisor, you're likely aware of the considerable financial liabilities and other penalties resulting from accidents occurring where work zone safety is faulted. In addition, perhaps you have a personal commitment to worker safety. If either has stimulated a determined organizational push for work zone safety compliance that met with surprisingly limited success, probably the 'culture thing' got you.

Organizational culture, now one of the factors the National Transportation Safety Board, among others, investigates at accident sites, can be simply stated as 'the way things are done around here.' Building a 'culture of safety' is perhaps one of the toughest things a highway construction organization ever will attempt. Sometimes rational, always challenging, cultural change can mean influencing opinion and behavior from top to bottom.

Laboring to make work zone safety an everyday habit in your organization, from the top down, consider these general 'change rules' for your action checklist:

  • It's hard to convince anyone of a 'safety culture shift' without actual, visible top management commitment and funding.
  • Safety has to be a priority with key managers, on par with other 'compensated' priorities, or it gets squeezed out.
  • Culture change means reeducation and reshaping the reward system top to bottom. You don't pick up fresh habits or shed old ones without new knowledge¼and new consequences.
  • Policy, training and organizational action guidelines need to spell out specific safety requirements, in simple terms.
  • Communicate, communicate and communicate about the safety commitment and expected new/continuing behavior.
  • Unionized? Get union leadership into the picture early. Work zone safety is a good place to build/rebuild positive working relationships for the long haul.

Beyond these general guidelines, also consider working from bottom up as a necessity for creating safer work zones. Front-line supervisors, the 'leaders of 10' who are physically in the work zone, are the real trendsetters of culture ¼ 'how things are done around here!' Get these vital change-makers to make it happen in the field by:

  • Communicating and educating as to what is required, why it is critical to the company's welfare, and what is in it for them. Key managers also might consider routinely visiting work zones, discussing/praising safety compliance with front-line supervisors.
  • Holding them accountable.
  • Rewarding for sustained positive action.
  • Creating distinctive work wear which both signifies their supervisory position and models state-of-the-art work zone safety gear.
  • Incorporating working field supervisors into existing safety structures and activities.
  • Creating/reconstituting a supervisory safety council and empowering it to act.
Working safer is working smarter. An organizational culture that pays only lip service to work zone safety increasingly runs the risk of habitual regulatory inspections, jobsite shutdowns and varying degrees of financial and other penalties, plus growing legal staffs to handle what may become routine visits from plaintiff's attorneys ¼ all about as much fun as root-canal procedures.