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Construction Safety

Organizational Culture Drives (Safety) Performance

Peter Furst | June 19, 2015

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A circle of construction workers looking at plans

People come together and join forces for a purpose. To carry this purpose out effectively and efficiently, they create organizations. The sum total of those individuals' shared beliefs, norms, attitudes, and behaviors is then reflected in the organizational values, vision, goals, systems, functions, policies, and practices. That can then be loosely said to be that organization's culture.

The organization's culture develops over time. By its very nature, culture ensures that its members continue conforming to the governing norms, indoctrinating new members. To make any substantial change to the organizational systems, one has to change the culture. Changing the culture is difficult, and it takes concerted effort to do so. To some degree, the organization's culture is influenced by both internal (leadership, people, and their interaction) and external (business, national, legal, global, etc.) factors. All cultures have subcultures.

Safety Management and Culture

The "safety culture" is a subculture of the organizational culture and therefore constrained and influenced by it. The safety culture may be defined as the truths, ideas, and beliefs that all members of the organization share about risk, accidents, injuries, and occupational health. An effective safety culture can be described as the corporate atmosphere in which safety and health is understood to be and accepted as an important core value. The safety culture does not operate in a vacuum. Business initiatives (restructuring, downsizing, acquisitions, etc.), organizational changes, and management's actions all affect the safety culture, and it in turn, over time, affects the people and ultimately the organization.

Safety management is a much discussed and sometimes a misunderstood topic. Over the years, many different theories on improvement interventions have been tried and many of these have had less than stellar results. Some would have you believe safety should be management driven, while others propose an employee-driven approach. Some will advocate behavioral safety solutions, while others will look to internal systems as the drivers of loss. All of these approaches have been around for 15, 20, and even more years—so why haven't we hit on the "mother lode" of safety intervention with which to ensure superior outcomes as yet?

Written and Unwritten Rules of Engagement

If you think about it, in every realm of our lives, there are rules of engagement. These rules apply at work, in our social life, and in our family life. In addition, if we further think about it, these rules come in two varieties. They are in either written or unwritten form. The written rules are there to tell us how we are supposed to behave. In the work environment, these are the policies, procedures, organizational and operational systems, and rules of engagement.

The unwritten rules reflect the way we actually do behave. The unwritten rules come about as a result of the individual's understanding or interpretation of the written rules, their perception of what they think is expected of them, or their reaction to management's actions, prognostications, expectations, and agendas. It also is an individual's way of interpreting what he/she needs to do to be efficacious, given the realities of the work environment. The unwritten rules help employees cope and thrive within complex organizational situations.

Unwritten rules tend to have side effects, some of which are undesirable and result in low productivity, poor work quality, inefficiencies, disruptions, and mistakes and may even cause accidents, losses, or injuries. Think of this as it relates to safety. The written rules represent safety programs, training, etc., which are supposed to be there to keep workers safe. It's the organization's "official" position of how its employees are supposed to behave. The unsafe behaviors may be reflective of the employees' perception of what is expected of them in terms of performance, which may cause them to consciously decide to take risks to succeed, which are contrary to the written rules, with potentially unacceptable outcomes.

The unwritten rules also spring from misaligned organizational systems—conflicting objectives that may be compounded by the organizational climate. Much of these result from pressures to achieve some goal set by management to be carried out by supervisors. They in turn have to get the workforce to accomplish this. In some organizations, the climate may be such that supervisors do not feel "safe" to voice their concerns associated with the difficulty of achieving the goals given limitations in resources and are "forced" to achieve them notwithstanding. In those cases, relaxing the performance rules (cutting corners) may permit the workers to accomplish the goal, but it increases risk. In many such cases, the goals are achieved with little or no adverse side effects. This is known as "normalization of deviance" (see my article of August 2014, "Normalization of Performance Deviations").

Normalization of Deviance

Normalization of deviance is a phenomenon by which individuals, groups, or organizations come to accept a lower standard of performance until that lower standard becomes the "norm" for them. This phenomenon usually occurs when individuals, groups, or organizations are under pressure to meet schedule requirements, conform to budgetary considerations, or deliver on a promise, while adhering to expected standards or prescribed procedures. Faced with a situation in which relaxing the standards or procedures gets the "job done," they decide to utilize lower standards or less robust procedures with the expectation that, when things get back to "normal," they will go back to utilizing the higher standards or procedures. This generally does not happen.

The undesirable side effects result from the interaction of the written rules, management's actions and behaviors, and the employee's reaction to and/or perception of them. In understanding this fundamental process, one is able to identify the organizational drivers of undesirable outcomes (in safety): namely, accidents, injuries, and losses. This understanding accentuates the ineffectiveness of one of the key traditional interventions such as safety training as an approach to combat employees' unsafe acts. More importantly, this allows for the modification of internal systems and procedures or their alignment to one another so as to affect structural changes that permanently eliminate the core drivers of loss and potentially enhance the company's culture, climate, and, more importantly, its bottom line.

Failed Solutions

Although well intentioned, there are simplistic views held by some who try to improve safety performance by focusing on the individual employee and the immediate physical work environment. There is a whole industry that advocates safety standards, programs, training, inspections, incentives, and punishment with which to accomplish outstanding safety results. When the interventions do not prove highly effective, these organizations try to focus on one underperforming area. This does have some immediate and short-term effect (Hawthorne effect), but in the end, all of these interventions are doomed to produce inferior results. This is an unfortunate result of the fundamental lack of understanding, leading to wasteful utilization of resources.

Another misguided approach is to try to find an organization that has a successful safety program and try to copy it. This, too, is doomed to fail because that program was successful in that particular organization with its unique culture, leadership, systems, and people. To devise an effective safety process that garners superior results, one has to identify the salient components of that organization's particular culture to make modifications or introduce changes to the existing organizational as well as operational systems.

The United Example

Following is a good example of this. Several years ago, United Airlines decided that it could do the same things Southwest was doing, even better, thereby potentially taking a big piece of Southwest's business away from it. United formed a new subsidiary, United Shuttle. The team that designed the new subsidiary essentially duplicated everything Southwest did. To differentiate from Southwest, United Shuttle offered customers seat assignment, which at the time Southwest did not, the rationale being that people would not have to come to the airport 1–2 hours early to secure early boarding and get a good seat.

The launch of United Shuttle caused Southwest some concern. This was illustrated by Herb Keller, then president of Southwest, saying, "United has aimed a bullet at our heart and is trying to put us out of business." Now, several years later, Southwest is still going strong and profitable while United is struggling with various aspects of the business. Although United was able to copy much of Southwest's strategy and practices, it could not copy the Southwest culture!

Taking a Holistic Approach

To achieve highly effective safety performance, one must addresses the issue holistically. To do this, one needs to identify the core drivers of risk, accidents, and occupational injuries. The key players, who may inadvertently impact safety outcomes, are senior, middle, and line management and, to a lesser extent, the individual employees. Senior management makes high-level strategic decisions, which middle management then implement at a tactical level. This in turn flows to the line supervisors, who carry out the plan at the operational level. They accomplish this with their employees, the physical plant, resources, and the overall operational plan.

So, where do the latent drivers of failures introduce themselves into this system? They can occur in the thinking at each level of management, as well as the communication between these levels. Senior management may implement a strategic plan that is not fully aligned with all aspects of the business and therefore may impose latent stressors into the system. Middle managers may devise plans and procedures that are not totally integrated into the overall system, which creates its own stressors. Line management employs the available workforce, plant, and equipment to execute the somewhat deficient plan, adding even more stressors to the system. All these stressors increase the potential for adverse outcomes.

Another point to note is that some of the discrepancies may result from poor communications or misunderstood expectations across all levels. Hiring inexperienced workers, assigning workers to tasks beyond their capabilities, and devising tasks that are error-provocative all increase the potential for failure. The individual employees then try to carry out their tasks, burdened with a less than optimum situation. This then impacts the decisions employees make daily and eventually may result in discrepancies, leading to accidents, injuries, and/or losses.

Therefore, to establish an effective safety culture, we must not only address the psychological, behavioral, and situational factors but also must devise a mechanism with which to drive it. One way to accomplish this may be with metrics that not only drive the "right" organizational behaviors but also provide management with just-in-time information with which to effectively manage the process. These metrics not only allow for improvement but also help sustain it over the long haul. This is especially important in the safety arena. The present-day safety metrics (frequency and severity rates) do not tie into organizational strategy, do not "speak" senior management's language, are not aligned with business goals and objectives, and do not provide operational information with which to quickly and effectively intervene.

On the issue of the need for real-time information with which to manage effectively, typically safety improvement strategies start from an analysis of accidents and losses (historical data) or from an undesirable event (accidents). This has proven to garner limited success over time. What is needed in safety is a proactive method with which to deal with the risk of injury before it enters into the operational processes and to quickly find those that have inadvertently materialized and neutralize them. This may be accomplished with metrics that provide real-time data with which to effectively impact results. We need to look to some business methods (balanced scorecards) devised and utilized in the last 2–3 decades that provide a multi-perspective approach to dealing with performance.


In the past couple of decades, business has gone from strictly financial measures to a plethora of different perspectives with which to measure success, implement strategy, and innovate. Business today uses input, output, process, progress, and outcome measures, to name a few, with which to deploy strategies and measure success. This same approach can and must be applied to safety if we are to stand a chance of making a difference in this area. So, a new scorecard must be devised for safety. This scorecard technique should provide linkage between organizational strategy and safety goals and objectives.

Another important point is that organizations exist in an ever-changing environment. Successful organizations are able to identify or, better yet, predict future changes and factor their impact into their overall operations. Therefore, to stay competitive, organizations must anticipate and respond to multiple external and some internal drivers. The organization must be a "learning" one if it expects to continue being successful going forward. This too applies to safety. The safety process needs to be integrated into the business and operational processes as well as aligned with organizational goals to contribute positively to the bottom line.

Rather than viewing the safety culture as shared values, beliefs, and perceptions, it can be argued that the organization's safety culture is a product of many goal-directed interactions between people (psychological), jobs (behavioral), and organization (situational) and the dynamic relationship among these, as well as external factors that shape it.

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