Management's role in safety culture

by World Grain Staff
Share This:

by Scotty Dunlap

The last decade has seen health and safety evolve from an engineering OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) compliance focused discipline to that of a multifaceted and multi tiered approach. Management not only needs to understand how to comply with regulations that are geared toward protecting the worker, but also understand behavior, perceptions, organizational structure, management styles, economics, group dynamics and an array of other influencing factors on the development of a health and safety culture within an organization.

Regardless of what is said in public or written on paper, the demonstrative behavior of corporate or location leadership dictates the culture of the organization. The term "culture" being used here supersedes the safety culture within the organization. "Culture" refers to the larger norms and behavior of the organization as a whole. The power of leadership to influence culture is evident in leadership’s decision making ability and visible stature. Decisions made by leadership will dictate the direction and climate within an organization. Consider any number of the recent scandals that have rocked the business world. Poor decisions made at the top can begin to make deviant behavior acceptable.

It is clearly evident that leadership has a direct impact on company culture. The second stage of this process is that company culture drives health and safety performance. An organization’s health and safety culture and its over all organizational culture will be in harmony with each other. It is unrealistic to expect a health and safety culture to thrive when it is not couched in an environment that encourages openness, caring, high ethical conduct and teamwork. Organizational leadership and health and safety performance are inextricably linked.


The phrase "safety culture" has become an integral part of our collective vocabulary. We must first know what it is and define it in order to achieve it. The definition of "safety culture" should be unique to and fit within each individual organization.

Within the ADM Grain Division for example, safety culture has been defined as the shared individual and group characteristics of beliefs developed from a response to the work environment, behavior and personal perceptions.

"Safety culture" can be defined in more length by the following:

• Individual and group characteristics of beliefs affect how we perform in regard to safety.

• Individual and group beliefs are influenced by the characteristics of the work environment, perceptions held by employees and behavior demonstrated by management and co-workers.

• These beliefs evolve into an attitude that affects our behavior in safety both while we are at work and while we are at home.


The larger organizational culture must be in harmony with what is expected in health and safety. It must support efforts made to establish, change and/or develop a safety culture. It is not possible to create or develop a safety culture without the larger culture being aligned and moving in the same direction.

Methods that can be used to begin accomplishing this include:

• Involve safety topics as a part of organizational meetings. Though a meeting may be held to primarily discuss production, include a relevant safety topic(s) that can foster the conversation. Safety communications should periodically come from members of upper management.

• Employees may be accustomed to safety communications coming from their direct supervisor or the safety manager/director, but communications from upper management confirm the commitment that the organization has made to safety.

• Include safety as an aspect of annual performance reviews. This not only includes the lack of an employee being injured, but also visible and tangible contributions the employee has made to the health and safety of the workplace.

• Management must model safe work behavior. Lack of proper modeling will lead to employees not taking the development of a safety culture seriously.


Employee perceptions must be identified in order to understand how to proceed in developing a safety culture. Gaining an understanding of employee perceptions allows us a snapshot to see how they think, their values and what they deem as important.

A general effort that many companies utilize through human resources is the use of an employee engagement survey. This survey allows insight into employee perceptions on a general level.

An instrument known as a safety culture survey or a safety climate survey can be utilized to measure the safety culture within an organization.

These surveys are typically performed by consultants and are costly. If utilizing a consultant, it is important to gain information on the tool they plan to use to ensure that the information you will gain from it is statistically reliable.

Once the safety culture is measured, upper management or other key members of the organization can begin to identify activities and efforts that should be put in place to influence the direction of the safety culture. Weaknesses can be identified that need an accompanying strategy in order to see growth. Strengths should also be identified to determine what activities should continue to occur. This survey can be done initially to gain a baseline measurement and then performed periodically to de- termine the impact of interventions that have been made.


In order for an organization to be effective in health and safety performance, leadership must have a vision for excellence in health and safety and how it fits into the larger organization.

Leadership can demonstrate this quality by:

• Incorporating health and safety issues into communications regarding general business growth and production. This will verify that leadership sees health and safety as an integral part of business success.

• Sending periodic e-mails or other impromptu communications to demonstrate the support for safety and realization of its importance.

• Include health and safety in short and long term business development goal setting.


A number of behaviors within an organization affect the development of the safety culture. Identify specific areas that need to be improved and then develop a strategy that will be effective in accomplishing the improvement. This can be an incredibly sensitive process.

Behavioral change can be accomplished by establishing specific expectations and accountability for safety. These expectations will clearly delineate the behavior that is expected of leadership at various levels of the organization.

Accountability must be defined to ensure leadership understands the significant consequences of not changing their behavior. An organization must be prepared to take action when these expectations and behavioral changes are not achieved.


All leaders within an organization do not need to be safety professionals, but they do need a strong knowledge of health and safety. Well-meaning leaders can inflict significant damage on an organization when this knowledge is not obtained and properly acted upon. The phrase "knowing enough to be dangerous" is often used in a jovial conversation, but the essence of this phrase speaks volumes to why safety does not appear to develop within an organization though there are numerous physical manifestations of effort in this area. Sufficient knowledge must be obtained and then properly applied.

This knowledge can be obtained through a number of avenues. Listen to internal health and safety professionals. Attend health and safety conferences that offer sessions on topics of interest or importance to the organization. Read books by reputable safety professionals. A number of these can be found by visiting the publications section of the American Society of Safety Engineer’s web site ( Take a college or university course in an area of interest. A great number of four year and community colleges offer credit or community education courses in health and safety. Subscribe to reputable health and safety magazines. A primary reference in this area is Professional Safety, the journal of the American Society of Safety Engineers.


An individual cannot develop a safety culture nor can it be forced on an organization. The involvement and support of numerous people within an organization are necessary to develop a safety culture. It is important to identify the key individuals who will be critical in the development process.

Influencing these people will facilitate the growth of the safety culture. These individuals could include:

• Organizational leaders

• Supervisors

• Lead workers

• Group leaders

• Union stewards

The organization must be thoroughly evaluated to determine who these people are and what methods must be utilized to influence their attitude and behavior toward health and safety. The most effective strategy to influence them must be identified and executed. Manipulation must be avoided and will not result in true commitment to the health and safety effort. Simply influence them with legitimate methods in an effort to gain their support. WG

This article is based on a presentation made at the GEAPS Exchange Feb. 21-24, 2004. At the time of the presentation, Scotty Dunlap was grain division health and safety manager, ADM Decatur, IL, U.S. For the full presentation, visit