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  • Mark Myers

7 Warning Signs Your Safety Culture is Slipping


Every company’s safety culture will change daily.  This is due to the dynamic nature of employees interacting with one another on missions and tasks. Sometimes this culture improves with good interactions, while other times, culture and norms gradually drift towards unwanted behaviors without realization.  As the company’s safety culture starts to degrade, you may start to experience cultural management problems that can manifest over time.

Since your company may have invested in conducting a safety culture survey, you have a very good reference tool for identifying cultural red flags throughout all dimensions.  Once armed with cultural slip indicators, you can begin creating change management plans to influence better behavior.  For review, six key culture dimensions are comprised of Leadership, Reporting, Justness, Accountability & Trust, Learning, and Safety Citizenship.

Warning Signs of a Weakening Safety Culture

1. Recent events indicate a lack of commitment to established Safety Objectives and Core Values.

Within the leadership dimension, Employees continually look for all indications of how they are being heard, valued, and respected.  Should their inputs from filing safety reports, identifying hazards, completing audits, and submitting safety improvement suggestions are not being reflected in objective measures, leadership accountability points will start draining from any corporate dashboard or scorecard.  Early indicators include recent incidents of willful violations, toxic work behaviors, and lower morale.

This is a relatively easy fix. It’s best to develop these with team input and asking employees what words or values they think summarizes your place of work. If these are positive, then that’s great and they can become your core values. If anything, negative comes out then this is your chance to improve.

2. Your Leadership and Management employees aren’t walking their talk. 

It takes but one event, where leadership presents a “do as I say – not as I do” moment that flies against an established value or norm. Without notice, disheartened employees will either begin to disregard the same value or worse, allow more like toxic behaviors to spread.  Employees may continue questioning what other values or norms are ‘open game’ for personal interpretation?  When this occurs, leadership can plan on a continuous withdrawal from their personal accountability and trust account!

Event detection is key.  Hopefully with your daily MBWA (management by walking around) activities, you will be able to catch inferences of how and when this event might have occurred.  Practicing proactive safety citizenship, you are empowered to call out the leader’s behavior and direct them back to the proper policy, procedure, or directive that supports their errant behavior.  Should you only suspect that this behavior is occurring, then warm up your internal evaluation program, and design a policy and procedure review for the suspected area(s), staff, shift, etc., This detail helps reestablish the correct policy and procedures, and sets a baseline for the expected behaviors.  Be sure to report your findings to leadership to amplify your behavioral concerns.


3. There’s excessive gossiping within the crew’s debriefings or downtime.

In our nature of work, there are natural periods and conditions where crews working together have some isolated periods that enable them to ‘talk shop.’  However, without checking in on how crews are practicing strong safety citizenship, shop talk slides into gossip, which left unchecked, leads to rumors and negative talk.  Employee trust can be eroded, damaging relationships, and creating a hostile work environment.

It's best to address the situation head-on to rid your company of this behavior.  culture. First, you’ll need to identify the individuals who are most frequently involved in gossiping and speak to them separately from the rest of the team. Next, address the entire company so all employees know gossiping does not set the tone for proactive safety citizenship. Train employees, if necessary, how to model the right behaviors.  


4. New hires do not stay long

Employers have 44 days on average to “make or break” a new hire, and first impressions make a lasting impression, according to a Sept. 20 report from BambooHR, a cloud-based human resources platform.  Almost half of new hires regret their decision within the first week.  Are all new hire orientation and training classes met personally by senior leadership? Do leaders promote their vision, mission and core values - to include novel and proactive safety management – during their open Q&A time with the management team? As competitive an industry as we are currently experiencing, leadership should be bringing their safety management A-game to set the corporate safety culture baseline with each new hire class.

To fix a bad company culture, you need to get to the root of the problem.  Conduct thorough exit interviews with employees, to understand their reasons for leaving. Take the time to understand what it is about your company culture that has made them unhappy, as well as which parts of the culture they like. Share these outcomes with your leadership and safety committee. As they begin to frame better policy and procedures (P&P), note how exit interview feedback may be integrated into new p&p design.  

5. Employees do not receive adequate and timely feedback on safety reports being filed.

A reporting function is the heart blood of an SMS, allowing all employees who are exposed to, or have identified hazards, irregularities, and quality improvements have the right voice to file, and sometimes painstakingly describe multiple conditions or events.  Regardless of the sexiness of the app, or the robustness of a safety report design, safety culture scores fall dramatically with each company that fails to make equal efforts to respond with actionable details and resolution. 

When the safety culture reporting scores are low, it can be surely correlated that Leadership, Learning, and Accountability & Trust scores are all taken down. Safety culture reg flags rise when the company somehow does not find time to listen and actively respond to their employees report submissions.  No, this is not an automatic email that thanks them for their submission, but visible and tangible actions from safety committee members, managers, and leadership. 

What is your safety report action response performance threshold?  See warning #1 above.

6.  Employees are not sharing lessons learned during activity debriefings

This is a culmination of the first five red flags previously listed.  Corporate knowledge and learning safety culture suffers greatly when employees choose to not disclose lessons learned.  If any or all the warning signs are present, it is evident that the workplace is not conducive to open reporting.  Evidence of omission of details, anonymous tips, and ‘discovery’ of events after the fact, are multiple waving red flags that the company’s safety culture could be reset to the days before implementing an SMS.

To start remedying this condition, begin modeling the behavior, with full support of your leadership.  Invite members to ask questions that they do not already know the answer to.  Keep their listening channels open and prompt them, if necessary, on the importance of sharing lessons learned.  What were some of the key lessons that leadership learned? 


7. Employees aren’t adequately rewarded for proactive safety behaviors/

If the mantra “safety in everything we do” is talked about by senior management, but then completely omitted from employee performance reviews, this can throw another red flag towards mistrusting the value of safe behaviors. Especially if safety goals, objectives and values are not prioritized and rewarded within employee performance. Evaluations may begin to lack the consistency that high performers deserve.  Results may begin to be reflected in increased turnover rates. 

To avoid this, try recognizing performance outside the confines of monetary awards. Instead, reward employees with a personal reward, and then publicly noticing their efforts of proactive behaviors.  Link the behavior back to the high safety performance standards that have been “re-established.”


Your Change Management Plan

A poor safety culture can be healed – over time.   While putting a band-aid on the problems, can tempt the best of us, the key to creating lasting change is identifying the underlying issues and creating a strategic change management plan. 

Practice Humble Inquiry: Instead of scrambling after the fact to figure out what went wrong, take a proactive approach, and sit down with employees to honestly inquire what is frustrating them, getting in the way of their productions, identifying work group behaviors that are wrong, etc.  Model and encourage transparency at the same time.   Bring copies of safety reports that remain open. Work with employees on designing the right treatment or mitigation.

Encourage Continuous Learning: Mix up the attendees of safety committees or action groups.  Remind all that the best solutions come from the front-line or first-level employees who are experiencing safety events firsthand.  Their attendance in safety committees can bring fresh ideas and expertise

to solving specific challenges.

Address Conflict Constructively: Establish a zero-tolerance policy for workplace gossip – maintaining a respectful and positive atmosphere.  Reframe conflict as an opportunity for personal improvement, and not a venue to air personal grievances.  Meet face to face and stay focused on the issue.  Create the space if either party needs to clear their heads.  Work toward a collaborative solution that will involve compromise to create the best outcome.  


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