When we read about “economy airlines” not focused on safety — experiencing repeated engine failures — we can only wonder what kind of safety culture each has within their organizations. Airline expert Jim Brauchle recently characterized one such airline as “an accident waiting to happen!”

Michael Belcher, while national president of the American Society of Safety Engineers commented: “One of the most infamous workplace disasters was the space shuttle Challenger explosion, which killed seven crew members in 1986. While the reasons initially attributed to the disaster were technical in nature, NASA’s flawed safety culture contributed to the explosion.”

Locally, we see oil and gas companies and other local operations with workers’ compensation experience modifications in the 200s, therefore paying more than double the standard premium for this statutory insurance. We need to ask:

Why are some local organizations “accidents waiting to happen”?

Experience modifications emphasize frequency of injuries more so than severity. So a chronic safety problem is in place with these local high “x-mod” companies.

At the same time, we see example upon example of local companies that rarely, if ever, experience losses and have an “x-mod” well under the norm of 100 — even at 60 percent where their workers’ compensation rates are discounted 40 percent because of their outstanding safety records!

In addition, they experience little or no costly lawsuits because of their positive safety performance, nor any property losses, as others have experienced when accidents happen.

Why such divergence?

I’m convinced the difference is found in the safety culture within a company’s overall organizational culture.

The definition of a sound safety culture is not rocket science, yet to be effective, it needs to be part of an organization’s overall culture.

This is as it should be.

The critical point here is that safety should not be in its own silo, separate and apart from an organization’s overall culture. All elements of a corporate culture must demonstrate collaborative, cross-functional engagement throughout the organization — not in individual, separate silos.

So what’s a corporate culture? It has been defined in many ways. For example:

• The way it conducts business, treats employees, customers and the wider community;

• The extent to which freedom is allowed in decision-making, developing new ideas and personal expression;

• How power and information flow through its hierarchy; and

• How committed employees respond to organization’s overall goals and objectives.

Most agree that organizational culture is unique to every organization — and difficult to change. Yet, especially with accident-prone organizations not committed to safety, change should be a high priority until the desired culture is achieved.

The steps usually suggested to change culture in an effective manner are:

1. Fully understand the current culture;

2. Consider accepting outside counsel; and

3. Consider both top-down and bottom-up participation.

Revision of both mission and vision statements — and especially values statements — can be helpful to formalize and reinforce cultural change. Yet it requires long-term strategic goals and shorter-term operational objectives followed by action plans that convert such words into positive actions.

When focus is on the safety dimension of your organization’s overall culture, these elements need to be included:

• Both top-down and bottom-up “buy-in” to safety;

• Safety costs considered an investment, not an expense;

• Application of the quality management principle of “continuous process improvement”;

• Professional development (training and education) at all levels; • An on-going system of risk control (prevention, mitigation and/or elimination (avoidance) of risk).

It’s critical that middle management safety professionals make these good things happen operationally. Top-down leadership and vision are essential. Without safety professionals at all operational levels, a safety culture will be ineffective.

A leadership tool that can bring all these elements together is the “balanced scorecard.” On a single page, it includes an organization’s mission, vision and values, plus its long-term strategic goals and annual operational objectives. The operational objectives are structured and balanced under these headings:

• Customer focus

• Continuous process improvement

• Professional development

• Financial targets

Setting your mission, vision, values and strategic goals first and then following through with specific, and measurable, objectives is an effective way to assure that your organizational and safety cultures are what you want each to be.

For more information on the balanced scorecard, simply Google its name and/or its creators’ names, Kaplan and Norton, two Harvard Business School professors who have employed this leadership tool all over the world in organizations of all types and sizes. (For a sample of the BSC, email me at johnpryorqrm@gmail.com.)

Finally, enjoy the benefits of a sound safety culture, viz., a quiet night’s sleep!

John Pryor is a management consultant with CSU Bakersfield’s Small Business Development Center and author of “Quality Risk Management Fieldbook” published by International Risk Management Institute in Dallas.

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