Why Safety Culture Improvement Matters: Case Studies
By Josh Williams, Ph.D.
There is a large body of evidence showing the benefits of safety culture advancement including improved: safety motivation and participation (Neal & Griffin, 2006), employee commitment (Clarke, 2006), perceptions of leadership buy-in (Brown & Holmes, 1986), and other organizational factors like job satisfaction, likelihood of staying with the job, and decreased stress (Morrow & Crum, 1988). I would like to share a few examples of client case studies showing why safety culture improvement matters.
Improving safety culture is also associated with fewer workplace injuries (Barling et al., 2002; Clarke, 2006; Gillen et al., 2002; Zohar, 2000, 2002). There is no single metric to describe how long it will take incidents to reduce after a change effort because every company and every culture are different. There are variables that influence changes in target outcomes including the size of the company (e.g., Scott, 1998), the industry and sector of the company (e.g., Hoonakker et al., 2005), the maturity of the culture at the onset of the change process (e.g., Kezar, 2001), the amount of time the organization spends on the development effort (e.g., Weick & Quinn, 1999), how comprehensive the change efforts are (e.g., Krause et al., 1999), and the effectiveness of safety culture improvement interventions.
Improving safety culture takes smart planning, effort, and long-term commitment. Here are a few examples of client case studies showing how safety culture advancement helps prevent incidents.
Unpacking the Importance of Safety Culture: Insightful Case Studies
Case Study 1: Power Generation Facility
Propulo partnered with a large coal mine and power generation facility to help improve safety culture. In the shadow of a large-scale transition away from coal, they engaged Propulo to improve safety awareness and performance. Recognizing the disruptive impact of the transition away from coal, Propulo focused on understanding the degree to which change had affected the workers’ focus on safety. Targeting points of pain between leadership and the frontline workforce, we sought to create a more cohesive workplace which could facilitate more evolved safety conversation.
After initial scoping to understand the dynamics of their safety culture, we delivered person-based (e.g., attitudes and behavior) safety training, conducted safety leadership ownership activities, and provided guidance on process improvements for safety inspections, meetings, job planning, corporate communications, and change management. This resulted in a 38% reduction in TRIR and more than 900,000 exposure hours without an injury – the longest stretch in company history.
Case Study 2: Energy Provider
Propulo partnered with a very large energy provider to develop a customized and targeted safety program to reduce injuries. This organization had a vertically integrated operation across production, trading, and retail, and also used a variety of generation technologies like natural gas, LPG, hydro, wind, and thermal. Given their broad operational variety and the challenges that accompany vertical integration, our team focused on understanding how to address each of the diverse subcultures within their organization. We provided safety leadership and field level safety training and coaching that was customized for each group along with focused programs to provide structure for supporting this training. Targeted training is considerably more effective when paired with structural changes which permit the embedding of training concepts and learning transfer. This led to an 89% reduction in total recordables, a 55% decrease in lost time incidents, and a more than 1,000% reduction in average compensations claim costs (relative to the national average).
Case Study 3: Canadian Mining Company
Propulo worked with new ownership of a leading Canadian diamond mining company to assess their safety culture maturity, increase safety engagement, and improve overall safety performance. This organization was struggling with a perceived lack of a unified safety vision, noncompliance with site policies, low levels of hazard identification and risk awareness, and subpar leadership capabilities among some team leaders. Also, there was a lack of personal accountability and belief that employees should look out for one another.
Propulo partnered with this organization to:
- Establish a steering team to guide the change effort.
- Support a communication strategy to personalize safety messaging that employees would “feel” as a value instead of just another company program.
- Identify and train process champions across departments who would serve as leaders in their respective community to support the change effort.
- Implement a safety culture leadership training strategy to all site leaders, from executives to frontline supervisors.
- Deliver safety culture and ownership training to all employees.
- Develop a sustainment strategy that included embedding training concepts in safety meetings and pre-job briefs, implementing monthly safe production communication themes, and developing a visual campaign to reinforce safe production values.
- Support executive messaging to better align corporate communications and reinforce the message that “safe mining” is what we do and not just a corporate goal.
Over this two-year period, the organization was able to reduce total recordable rates from 4.17 to 1.1 which was one of the lowest in the Canadian mining industry (average was 3.28).
It is important to understand that changes in lagging safety indicators (incidents, injuries, property damage) typically lag safety culture improvements. Although the trend is that companies will enjoy a gradual decrease in injuries across several years after implementing quality safety improvement programs, the effects of change on safety outcomes do not happen in a predictable fashion (a straight line). Across a multi-year time period, there will likely be years where there is a steeper reduction in injuries, while other years could more steadily decline or plateau. For example, Krause et al. (1999) studied the effect of behavior-based safety management changes on injury reduction over time in 73 companies. Results showed the change was weakest (on average) in the earlier time periods and were the strongest at year five (i.e., five years after the interventions were completed). So, it is reasonable to expect that culture change takes time, some of the strongest effects may be seen after several years, and the results won’t be a linear and consistent trend.
The end game for conscientious leaders is to decrease the quantity and severity of incidents and injuries. Improving safety culture has been demonstrated to reduce the likelihood of these events occurring, even if it doesn’t follow a predictable path or happen overnight. Conducting safety culture assessments with strategic planning, delivering safety leadership skills training and coaching, and providing ongoing executive coaching are just a few ways that Propulo can help leaders improve safety culture to prevent serious injuries and fatalities and other incidents.