Workplace accidents caused 5,333 fatal injuries in 2019, the highest annual number since 2007. That means that every 99 minutes, a U.S. worker died from a work-related injury. And, as if those numbers weren't enough, there were an additional 2.8 million non-fatal workplace injuries and illnesses in private industry alone in 2019. These numbers are not just disturbing — they're also costly. The National Safety Council estimates the total cost of these injuries at just over $170 billion.
No matter what precautions an employer takes, the only sure way of preventing workplace accidents is to have everyone, from supervisors to workers, practicing and promoting safe practices. It has to engrained in the company culture. Creating a positive safety culture isn't easy, of course, but the payoffs can be immeasurable.
Do you have a positive safety culture in your workplace? Here are a few signs that may indicate your workplace is right where you want it to be.
Safety is a clear priority
In your organization, nothing is more important than safety. All of your personnel, including executives, share responsibility for safety. Work stoppages for repairs or safety-related matters are handled without negativity or complaining. Productivity comes second to safety every single time — employees don't feel they need to rush through things, but rather that they can take their time and complete their tasks safely.
Management takes the lead
Management doesn't simply support safety efforts — they model them. Supervisors and others in prominent positions play an active role in demonstrating that safety is a priority for the company. There is a clear hierarchy of responsibility for safety in place with a "buck stops here" attitude.
Management is also visible on the shop floor, following safety protocol and engaging workers in discussions. They take the time to see for themselves that safety protocols are being followed and understand employee concerns.
Employees are both engaged and empowered
Employees must be engaged in safety, but they must also feel a high level of engagement between them and management. Companies with positive safety cultures accomplish this in several ways. One is that they have regular safety meetings and frequently solicit feedback and ideas from workers.
In positive safety cultures, management encourages workers to identify and report issues or gaps that could result in safety hazards. That means that safety meetings or walkthroughs should not be opportunities for finger-pointing or top-down solutions, but rather open invitations to everyone to brainstorm and solve the problem together.
Rules and discipline are fair and just
Safety rules should always be about workers' safety. The message isn't that you should wear personal protective equipment (PPE) simply because the law says you must. Instead, the messaging should focus on why it benefits the worker and how it will help keep them safe or help keep others safe.
Even in positive safety cultures, there will be times when consequences must be meted out for infractions. What's different in positive safety cultures is all perceive that discipline to be fair and just.
Responses are active rather than reactive
The company focus is on preventing accidents before they happen rather than responding after the fact. That means that maintenance is ongoing. Managers are constantly on the lookout for new features, upgrades or other improvements that will enhance existing equipment or processes.
Companies with positive safety cultures also emphasize data that is more predictive of a positive safety culture. This could include feedback, training rates, corporate safety audit scores and the outcome of reported issues.
Finally, positive safety cultures are often promoted through regular outside audits of the company's safety training and plan. These are conducted by an external auditor who is given access to both management and workers.
Safety is the easy choice
Some of the most robust safety cultures focus on making safety the easy choice. Human nature will seek out the easiest option, the shortcut. Companies that create easy safety choices may spend a little on more comfortable PPE, on things like relocating hand-washing stations, as well as on safety training modules and break rooms for rest breaks.
This often requires a financial investment, but visible investments in safety and health are also a visible sign that a company has a strong safety culture.
Everyone "gets it"
In organizations with positive safety cultures, everyone is invested in safety. They exhibit a working knowledge of health and safety topics. They are also comfortable with their role in maintaining and promoting safety and are fully aware of others' responsibilities.
Leaders in the company have invested the time and resources and consulted workers to create a companywide safety plan. They've also communicated the plan widely and clearly. Safety goals in the plan are widely understood, as are the metrics used to measure those goals' success. There is an understanding among all staff that the plan is fluid, and that input is encouraged.
Workers tell you it's true
It may seem like a risky move but ask your workers if there is a positive safety culture in your workplace. Conduct a survey or solicit anecdotal information. Consider making this a question in exit interviews with departing employees.
There are also other, more subtle ways that workers may reveal the status of your workplace's safety culture. What are your retention and recruitment rates? What are employees saying about your company on recruitment or job posting sites such as Indeed or Glassdoor?
The bottom line
A positive safety culture can make a difference in creating a safe workplace, but it can also provide cost savings and help you retain and attract employees. If you don't recognize these signs of a positive safety culture in your company, it may be time to make changes.