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Common Barriers to a Strong Safety Culture

Common Barriers to a Strong Safety Culture and How Your Organization Can Overcome Them

Workplace safety is of utmost importance to all organizations. However, a true safety culture depends on the actions and beliefs of your employees. When workers and managers believe their organization is focused on creating and sustaining a healthy workplace, and that everyone strives to work safely, a positive safety culture can exist.

In a previous article, we discussed its importance as well as how and why to measure safety culture. In this article, we’ll examine common barriers to implementing a positive safety culture and what your organization can do to overcome them.

Top 5 Hurdles to Implementing a Safety Culture

Organizations with a strong safety culture, one that starts from the top down, are able to protect their employees, their equipment and system investments, and the organization as a whole. However, there are many things that can disrupt that culture or stop it from starting in the first place.

Here are a few common barriers to safety culture that organizations should consider:

  1. Leadership Commitment – As with most company policies or procedures, adoption must start at the top and be modeled throughout executive leadership in order to get employee buy-in. To truly resonate with your workers, a safety culture has to be more than just lip service. There has to be real action taken and communication of those actions must come from the top. When leaders set the standard, model the behavior, communicate safety plans and procedures, and enforce them, your organization can be successful in implementing a positive safety culture.
  2. Non-Punitive Reporting – Employees must feel comfortable speaking up when they see issues or behaviors that contrast with the prescribed safety culture. There cannot be any backlash or judgment placed on the worker reporting the problem. If this happens even one time, it will be what’s noticed and remembered – versus all of the other times that concerns were handled properly and with discretion. Creating a safety culture includes providing protection for whistleblowers – even if the complaints are against their direct managers or members of senior leadership. Organizations can help achieve this by putting in place an anonymous reporting mechanism, system, or process. Communication is key for both the process and achieving the desired outcomes. Make sure all employees understand that reports are not just welcomed, but are actively investigated and acted upon when necessary. Additionally, mistakes should not be punished unless or until they become a pattern. Instead, use mistakes as a learning opportunity, and be sure to provide education and reinforcement about how mistakes could have been avoided, or what should have been done differently.
  3. Distractions – In busy organizations, such as hospitals or manufacturing plants, there is always a lot going on. Oftentimes, employees are wearing many hats and multitasking throughout their shift. This can lead to accidents. To ensure a positive safety culture, organizations must limit distractions as much as possible – especially in areas or during tasks that can be extremely dangerous if a mistake occurs. For instance, in a hospital, measuring medications can literally be life or death. Therefore, a healthcare system can institute a no-interruption zone for medicine-dispensing areas. In a manufacturing plant, install a barrier or “red zone” around dangerous machinery or chemicals. By instituting off-limits areas or rules of engagement for certain tasks, you can add an extra layer of precaution that leads to a safer environment.
  4. Staffing – In the era of the Great Resignation, adequate staffing is becoming a critical issue. When organizations are understaffed, it leads to burnout and extra stress for those who are working. Tired, stressed, distracted, and unengaged workers may be more prone to mistakes or errors. A government study actually found sleep deprivation to be as impairing as alcohol intoxication. Therefore, limiting the number of hours an employee can work in a week or day can help, as can hiring more workers. While these may not be possible in all industries, giving employees breaks, or access to rest areas or destress rooms can also go a long way in refreshing employees on long shifts.
  5. Training – In addition to creating the right policies and procedures, and modeling them from the top-down, employees must be adequately trained. Employees need clear instructions about what’s expected of them, with detailed guidelines and responsibilities for each role in the organization. And not just on the policies themselves, but also on what it means to have a positive safety culture, why your organization is implementing it, and what the consequences will be for employees who refuse to comply. The more knowledge and education you can provide, the more likely your employees are to embrace the new safety culture and resulting guidelines.

Is Your Organization Ready to Implement a Positive Safety Culture?

While there are clear challenges to implementing a positive safety culture, the benefits far outweigh the effort. A positive safety culture is not only good for employees, it also provides long-lasting rewards such as higher engagement, better business outcomes, improved collaboration and teamwork, and a shared sense of purpose. It's never too late to start your journey toward a positive safety culture. A good first step is to understand where you currently are as an organization through an employee safety survey. A safety-focused listening program can reveal what your organization is already doing well, as well as the areas to target for future improvements. It will also emphasize the importance of safety to your employees and prepare them for future policy changes and enhancements.

Read our previous article to learn more about implementing and measuring a safety culture in your organization. Stay tuned for an upcoming webinar focused on the importance of safety culture in healthcare organizations.

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