What is Safety Culture
“Safety culture” is an ambiguous phrase that gets thrown around a lot.
Sometimes we use it when we talk about poor safety awareness.
Sometimes we use it when we talk about corporate culture or lack of upper management support.
Sometimes we use it to refer to resistance to the safety program.
Safety culture can generally be broken down into the following 5 components:
- Hazard reporting culture;
- Safety awareness of all employees;
- Safety communication;
- Willingness; and
- Management-employee relationships.
There's a big difference between understanding what unhealthy safety culture looks like and actually improving safety culture. Managing a safety program with poor safety culture will constantly make you feel like your hands are tied.
The reason is that safety culture correlates directly to safety performance. You might look at the role of safety culture in overall aviation safety as:
- Safety management systems design and document safety efforts;
- Safety manager's use the safety program to influence safety culture;
- Safety attitudes and behaviors result in safety performance; and
- Safety performance feeds the safety decision making process.
Understanding how to improve safety culture first involves understanding the components of safety culture and its role in aviation safety.
Symptoms of Poor Safety Culture
After understanding what safety culture is, the second step in improving safety culture is to be able to identify symptoms of poor safety culture in your aviation SMS program. Here are some common signs of poor safety culture:
- Much lower than expected number of hazard reports;
- Appointed safety executive does not take responsibility for the safety program;
- Active resistance to the safety program;
- Number of high risk safety incidents not improving over time (or getting worse);
- Number of workplace accidents not improving (or getting worse);
- Management silos;
- Lack of upper management support for safety program;
- Retaliation from managers or other employees against person who reported safety issue;
- Strong tendency of employees or management to focus on "blame", or the person rather than the incident;
- Resistance to change;
- Lack of access to safety information;
- Lack of communication from safety management about important safety concerns;
- Lack of safety budget; and
- High number of repeat safety incidents.
This list goes on, but this should provide a solid foundation of some of the most common signs of unhealthy safety culture. Do any of these points look familiar?
Signs of an Effective Safety Culture
The last thing you need to have a solid understanding of before you start improving safety culture is what effective safety culture actually looks like. If you don't know this, you don't know what you are improving towards.
Here are some signs of an effective safety culture:
- Upper management support of the safety program;
- Financial investment in SMS tools;
- Dedication to prescribed safety behavior requirements;
- SMS has listed and distributed valued safety behavior;
- Has strong non-punitive reporting policy;
- Employees are involved in change management process;
- Hazard reporting process that is easy to use, is accessible, and is actively used;
- Regular communication to employees concerning latest safety concerns;
- Safety training includes end of course assessments; and
- Safety culture is regularly evaluated, such as with safety surveys.
Once again, the list of signs of effective safety culture goes on, but the above points provide a solid basis.
Ways to Improve Hazard Reporting Culture
Hazard reporting culture is the first component of safety culture you should try and improve. Hazard reporting forms the basis of your data acquisition process and all subsequent issue management activities that are vital to your SMS program. Moreover, of all components of safety culture, safety management has the most direct influence over hazard reporting.
Here are some good ways to improve hazard reporting culture:
- Audit your hazard reporting process to assess whether it can be made easier or more available (i.e., ask employees how they would improve the process!);
- Train employees on hazard identification techniques;
- Create and distribute list of mandatory reporting and voluntary reporting types of safety concerns;
- Include employee hazard reporting data in performance reviews; and
- Offer multiple ways to reporting hazards, such as via email, mobile device, online website, etc.
For safety management wondering how to improve safety culture, improving hazard reporting culture provides a major boost in overall safety culture.
Ways to Improve Employee Safety Awareness (Mindfulness)
Improving safety awareness is critical for developing a mature safety culture. Safety awareness is simply the ability to:
- Be mindful of relationship between your actions, environment, and safety;
- You have good understanding of past safety concerns; and
- You are up to date on latest safety concerns.
Fortunately, there are several easy ways to influence safety awareness in SMS programs:
- Safety training and end of course assessments;
- Regular communication with employees via
- Daily safety briefing
- Safety meetings
- Safety newsletters
- In person conversation
- Stress testing behavior and follow up review, such as with Emergency Response Drills and follow up meeting to discuss behavior during drill.
Improving awareness is largely about helping employees understand the safety implications of their actions. When employees can see the personal connection between their attitude/behavior and their own personal safety, they are universally much more willing to comply and be involved with the safety program.
Ways to Improve Safety Communication
Poor safety communication can and will ruin safety culture. To improve safety culture, you must have solid communication lines between:
- Management-employee; and
In other words, communication works across all levels of an organization. Safety communication is about:
- Quickly acquiring safety data;
- Having enough data to make safety decisions; and
- Quickly apprising individuals of safety concerns and changes.
Some good ways to quickly improve safety culture are:
- Ensure all hazard reporting forms have enough (but not too much) fields to capture relevant safety information;
- Hold daily safety briefings with all employees;
- Hold weekly safety meetings with management and/or employees;
- Send out monthly safety newsletter;
- Provide anonymous way of communication between management and employees;
- Safety team should have many personal interactions with employees; and
- Frequent use of safety surveys.
These are all easy, documentable ways to improving safety communication. They only requirement a bit of front end work and dedicated follow up.
How to Break Down Silos and Corporate Culture
Breaking down silos and corporate culture is a tricky beast to tackle. Unfortunately, there are no quick tips or easy answers here. The reality is that in some situations, you may be entirely powerless to effect change.
That being said, here are some ways to try and break down silos and change corporate culture:
- Identify dependencies on individual people and implement new processes into SMS to shift dependency to system (i.e., dependency on process vs person);
- Interface with front line employees and often as possible to become their spokesperson for management;
- Push hard to demonstrate financial benefits of SMS program; and
- Document grounds for punitive action.
Here are some resources that should help you improve safety culture in your aviation SMS program: