Column: Growing a Safety Culture From the Middle Out
Most safety culture improvement initiatives either start at the top or the bottom of the organizational structure, with executive coaching for senior managers or work force teambuilding for the rank and file. Some experts believe that safety begins with leadership; others stress that worker behavior has the most impact on safety. Both approaches can achieve improvement. However, there are organizations with good reasons to delay these approaches and start safety improvement in the middle.
A recent client discovered in an assessment of its safety culture that managers did not realize the impact of poor safety performance on the organization. As a result, the client wanted to begin efforts by training managers. This organization is a division of a larger entity, which had absorbed the costs of safety into the corporate structure and insulated the division managers from the economic realities. However, after further analysis, it became evident that the managers had almost no direct contact with the levels of the organization where safety issues existed. Just as the managers were insulated from safety realities, the safety realities were equally insulated from the managers.
The next thought was to begin with the rank and file, and yet another barrier was identified. The work force of this division was a diverse group with multiple backgrounds and languages that would require significant work to form into teams. Moreover, the attrition rate was averaging 35% over a 4-year period. The existing culture was heavily dependent on the first-line supervisors to train employees and to direct daily operations. The supervisors had received virtually no training when promoted from the work force in either supervision skills or in safety. The evidence indicated that working first with supervisors might be our best transformational opportunity.