Four Types of Corporate ‘Safety Cultures’ Detailed

By J.J. Smith Oct 31, 2008
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Most organizations’ “safety cultures” can be classified within four types; the challenge for safety officers is to move low-level safety cultures to higher levels, a safety expert says.

A company’s safety culture generally reflects the overall culture of an organization, Robert Pater, managing director of Strategic Safety Associates, said during an Oct. 7, 2008, presentation at the Executive Safety Summit in Arlington, Va. In addition, most employees develop their attitudes toward safety from their employer, he said. “Basically, they [employees] get their safety habits from work.” The four types of safety cultures are forced culture, protective culture, involved culture and integral culture.

Forced Culture

The forced culture uses bribes and threats to motivate employees, according to Pater. “It’s a carrot and stick culture” where health and safety officers are seen as the “safety police” because code enforcement is the name of the game, he said. Health and safety officers are there to catch employees doing something wrong and write them up. The problem is that most organizations that have forced—or “got you”—cultures receive minimal job performance from workers because fear does not cultivate high-level performance, Pater added.

Protective Culture

The protective culture implements safety programs for employees; its main feature is that it produces endless “policies and procedures,” Pater said. When a worker violates a policy or procedure, management’s first reaction is to write more policies and procedures, he said. Thus, the risk of having this type of culture is the creation of an unending flow of regulations that leave everyone confused. In addition, protective cultures “produce average [job] performance within an industry,” he said.

Involved Culture

The involved culture is characterized by high levels of safety training sessions held for employees but not attended by top management, according to Pater. Morale is higher at organizations with involved cultures because management is less interested in monitoring behaviors and prefers to “monitor by performance.” However, involved cultures that are “doing OK” run the risk of settling for OK, which supports the notion that “the good can be the enemy of great,” he adds.

Integral Culture

The integral culture is characterized by high levels of safety training for employees—training sessions that are attended by top management, including the CEO, Pater said. Organizations with integral safety cultures are characterized by safety officers that have budgets and authority, he said.

An organization can move from its current level of safety culture to the next level, but for that to happen the official first has to identify where the firm is, Pater said. Once the safety official has determined that level, the next step requires determination to move up at least one level. The safety officer has to identify the obstacles that are keeping the organization from moving to the next level and must overcome those obstacles, he said.

Safety officers need to develop relationships with the highest level of company executives with the goal of getting senior managers excited about achieving high-level safety cultures within a firm, Pater said. When senior managers get excited about achieving high levels of safety culture, the firm likely will devote the time and money needed to reach the goal, he explained.

J.J. Smith is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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