World Safety Day 2016: How a Safety Culture Helps

At the center of a preventive employee health and safety (EHS) culture is the belief at the executive level that accidents and harm should be preventable.

More than 313 million global work-related accidents occur each year, according to the International Labour Organization, with a high percentage of those accidents resulting in significant time away from work. Each accident bears a personal and financial cost for the worker and the employer. Yet, many companies still take a corrective outlook on employee health and safety, dealing with accidents as they happen, rather than focusing on preventive measures and safety benefits.

At the center of a preventive employee health and safety (EHS) culture is the belief at the executive level that accidents and harm should be preventable.

Building upon this belief is an appreciation that safety and health functions should not be separate functions as they have been traditionally viewed. Rather, worker health and safety are inextricably linked. Unhealthy workers represent a safety risk and unsafe working conditions can negatively impact worker health.

Company leadership can create the framework for the integration of health and safety by establishing a management structure that creates lines of authority and reporting to encourage effective communications among all parties. With this type of structure in place, a successful EHS program will include trained organizational leadership, open communications among management and employees, and daily actions to foster a culture of safety.

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The overall quality of a safety program largely depends on the people who are responsible for it. Employers must recruit and train qualified safety professionals who can act as agents of change throughout the organization. Those safety professionals must emphasize to employees the importance of a culture rooted in participation in both health and safety practices. True integration requires buy-in at all levels of the organization, from the C-suite to the front line. This approach should be promoted as an investment in employees’ own future as well as the future of the company.

Open lines of communication within an organization help to build and sustain a culture of safety. Employers have a responsibility to make their employees feel comfortable asking questions and reporting potentially dangerous situations without fear of retribution. By valuing transparency and encouraging each worker to take individual responsibility and initiative in maintaining their own and others’ safety, managers gain the ability to respond to system and process failures more quickly at all levels of the organization. Managers should expand the focus of reporting beyond accidents to include behaviors and conditions that create risk.

And finally, employers and managers should reinforce a culture of safety each day through simple and repeatable actions like ensuring that employees use proper personal protective equipment, taking necessary health and safety precautions in extreme weather conditions, and inspecting and regularly repairing company vehicles and equipment.

Overall, employers must set up the right framework and reporting structure, invest in staff, and give managers the tools to engage employees in building a culture of prevention. For these initiatives to be successful and have a lasting impact, managers must be the catalysts for change that the organization needs.