Safety Culture Assessment and Strategic Planning: Getting a Solid Game Plan for Success
By Josh Williams, Ph.D.
Football coaches like the Patriots’ Bill Belichick make more than $10M per year trying to guide their teams to an NFL championship. Ridiculous sums of money? Maybe. But there are lessons learned from elite coaches that can be applied to safety culture improvement.
Coaches spend countless hours preparing their weekly game plans. This includes reviewing past game tape to identify strengths and shore up weaknesses and properly preparing for next week’s opponent. It’s an ongoing process of performance review, planning, execution, and re-evaluation.
Safety culture assessments and strategic planning are similar processes (minus the game tape and weekly schedules). Organizational leaders use assessments to understand their present state with safety culture. Recommendations are made based on strengths and gaps followed by strategic planning to prepare and document a solid game plan moving forward. These plans are then executed with follow up reviews to assess progress. The primary difference? You may not be getting $10M+ for your efforts. But the life you may save is priceless. Essentially you are setting the course for ongoing, sustained safety culture improvement to prevent serious injuries and fatalities.
Why Assess Safety Culture?
Advancing your safety culture leads to a wide range of improvements, including:1,2,3
- Improved organizational commitment
- Heightened job satisfaction
- Reduced turnover
- Lowered reported stress levels
- Increased safety participation
- Improved personal responsibility
- Increased following of policies and procedures
- Few minor injuries
- Lowered lost time injuries
- Fewer overall safety incidents
One exceptional longitudinal study shows the causal relationship as follows:3
Improved safety culture -> Heightened safety motivation -> Improved behaviors -> Incident reductions
There is one big caution before embarking on a safety culture assessment. Survey-only assessments are limited. You get a picture of “what” is going on but don’t get the “why” behind it and more importantly the ‘how’ to drive improvements. For example, in one organization, the survey showed that tools and equipment to do the job were a significant issue. When considerable efforts were placed to improve tools and equipment based on employee feedback, nothing changed. Why? Because what employees were really saying was that they wanted to be consulted in designing work practices. When we asked the right question in focus groups, we were able to move the needle. Assessments should be weighted 90% on interviews, focus groups, site visits/tours, and document reviews. The other 10% is survey data. With that in mind, surveys should only take 5-10 minutes to complete…100+ item surveys are relics like typewriters, flip phones, and fax machines.
What Does Good Assessment and Strategic Planning Look Like?
There are numerous components of an elite safety culture assessment, including:
- Focusing on high quality interviews and focus groups with a representative sample of organizational leaders and field employees
- Strong interview questions that focus on strategic, structural, interpersonal, and intrapersonal dimensions with a focus on organizational learning
- A rigorous safety culture maturity rating with level appropriate interventions (e.g., don’t implement BBS if you have low maturity)
- Site visits and tours to get a sense of communication patterns, quality of facilities, pride with housekeeping etc.
- Document reviews to better understand the quality of close call reporting, incident analysis, soft-skills training and other proactive safety efforts
- A summary report with concrete recommendations focused on practical solutions and not complicated, academic musings
- Results and action items should be shared with all employees. While many cite “survey fatigue” as an issue, a larger concern is that employees share their opinions and ideas and never hear back about what was learned or changed as a result.
Guided strategic planning sessions follow the safety culture assessment. These sessions identify:
- Immediate improvement actions needed
- 3-5 year roadmap for longer term improvement
- Persons responsible for implementing change
- Timelines and prioritization of interventions
- Potential barriers to consider
- Success metrics
This plan should be created with a governance team over several days. Once the initial plan is constructed, it should be reviewed with field employees to make any needed adjustments. Executives then provide their feedback to finalize the plan moving forward and to socialize with all employees. The governance team meets regularly to ensure actions are completed in a timely fashion. They also provide ongoing updates with executives, share progress reports, and advertise successes with all employees. Active participation in safety increases when employees see actionable improvements based on their input.
It’s helpful to get employee feedback throughout improvement efforts. This provides comprehensive information about improvements made, remaining gaps, new issues that have arisen, and future recommendations to maintain improvement momentum. A full safety culture re-assessment should be done 3 years after the initial implementation but not annually. Research shows that there is a lag time between improved safety culture, corresponding attitudes and behaviors, and the reduction of injuries.3
Brief pulse checks should also be used (once or twice a year) to assess progress. Unlike a full assessment, pulse checks consist of a short set of questions based on key themes from the assessment. This keeps the governance team apprised of directional status with key issues (i.e., we’re improving, staying the same, getting worse).
Leaders maximize their energy and efforts when they have a smart game plan for success. There’s too much wasted energy when we’re focusing on the wrong things. Getting a succinct strategic plan from a high-quality safety culture assessment is the starting point. Ongoing pulse checks and full re-evaluations gauge progress and ensures you’re staying on the right track.
So do yourself a favor by properly assessing your safety culture and conducting strategic planning based on your results. Just don’t expect a $10M paycheck in your mailbox when you’re done.
At Propulo we conduct practical, solutions-based safety culture assessments, strategic planning, and pulse checks to help leaders guide long-term safety performance improvement.
- Clarke, S. (2006). The relationship between safety climate and safety performance: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 11(4), 315–327
- Morrow, P. C., & Crum, M. R. (1998). The effects of perceived and objective safety risk on employee outcomes. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 53(2), 300–313.
- Zohar, D. (2000). A group-level model of safety climate: Testing the dffect of group climate on microaccidents in manufacturing jobs. Journal of Applied Psychology, 85(4), 587-596.