Safety Culture – Management Leadership and Employee Participation

Is there a simple method to increase employee safety awareness, reduce injuries and loss producing events, reduce operating costs, enhance overall productivity, and improve employee morale?

The answer is yes! There are many ways that this can be accomplished and as a business leader you can approach this challenge, by simply developing and managing the safety process in a more effective manner. This will lead to an effective safety culture as everyone starts to trust the system.

The question: How do I go about doing this? There is a simple answer! No matter how sophisticated you think that your safety efforts are, your system can always be improved. Our discussion will include all organizations, no matter how small.

To have an understanding of where you are on compliance, you may consider deploying some resources to evaluate your current system to see if the mandated legal requirements are maintained as intended by regulatory requirements. In the United States, the Federal Occupational Safety (OSHA) Act states that “Employers must furnish a place of employment free of recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees.”

The current OSHA format is written in a way that fragments the Safety Process into a series of separate programs. So, this series of articles will briefly discuss each section of the Guideline and the improved benefits that you can expect from implementation.

As we continue our series we will provide an explanation of how to implement each requirement. In addition, we will include some useful tools that will help in initiating or improving your safety system. Therefore, the basic elements presented in this series are intended to cover all industries and organizations no matter the size. You will find that once you understand the basic concepts and start to implement these concepts you may want to expand and/or enhance the safety system to meet your organization. Program Elements You should note that there are consistent elements associated with each OSHA Voluntary Safety process. We will discuss these elements in more detail throughout this series of articles.

In the voluntary programs, OSHA outlines five elements that will help you to create a successful management system. For simplification, we have broken these elements into six sections. Although management and employee participation is complementary and forms the core of an effective safety process, we want to make sure that everyone understands that there is still a clear and distinct difference between management of the operation and employee participation.

Compliance with OSHA standards is an important objective. However, if you develop a successful management system, this becomes a non-issue. In this article we will discuss, what we feel are the core elements in any successful safety system, Management Leadership and Employee Participation. Management Leadership Management leadership from the top down is the most important part of any process. “Lip service”, is not going to work for you. If management demonstrates commitment, provides the motivating force, and the appropriate resources to manage safety, an effective system can be developed and will be sustained. According to OSHA, this demonstration of leadership should include the following elements that are consistent with an effective program:

  • Establishing the program responsibilities of managers, supervisors, and employees for safety and holding them accountable for carrying out these responsibilities.
  • Providing managers, supervisors, and employees with the authority, access to relevant information, training, and resources they need to carry out their safety responsibilities.
  • Identifying at least one manager, supervisor, or employee to receive and respond to reports about safety conditions and, where appropriate, to initiate corrective action.

If employees can see the emphasis that top management puts on safety, they are more likely to emphasize it in their own work and personal activities. It is important for management and supervision to follow set safety rules and work practices, which will provide a good example for all employees.

Managers must show their commitment and involvement in other ways. For example, doing plant-wide safety inspections; personally stopping potential hazardous activities or conditions until the hazards can be corrected or controlled; personally tracking safety performance; and holding managers and employees accountable for their actions.

The elements of management leadership also should include ensuring equal safety of any contract employees. Just remember Management must demonstrate their commitment. In reality, demonstration means “do as I do.” This is an important concept no matter what you are trying to accomplish, always “walk-the-walk, and talk-the-talk”. Remember: Actions speak louder than words.

The following of some basic elements where management must show their leadership to provide a safe workplace. Safety Policy By developing a clear policy statement of management support, you help everyone involved with the worksite understand the importance of safety in relation to other organizational values. By clearly communicating the policy to all employees, you ensure that no confusion will exist when a conflict arises between two of these values, such as productivity, quality, and safety. This is important, as it sets the stage to a successful process. Goals and Objectives You should make your general safety policy as specific as possible by establishing clear goals and objectives for the organization. These goals and objectives set the framework for assigning specific responsibilities. Each employee should be able to see his/her work activities in terms of moving toward the stated goals and achieving objectives.

Do not get caught up in writing a document for a policy statement and expecting employees to remember the rules. For example, I was involved in several situations where there was a written policy statement which consisted of 2 pages, a 40 page set of work rules, and department specific work rules. What is needed is a simple statement that sets the stage and something that everyone can remember. Assignment of Responsibilities Everyone in the workplace should have some type responsibility for safety. Clear assignments help avoid overlaps or gaps in accomplishing required activities. In particular, you must ensure that the safety professional is not assigned line responsibility that properly belongs to line management and supervision. This line responsibility would include functions such as supervising and evaluating the employee’s performance in areas of safety, providing on-the-job training in safe work practices and any required personal protective equipment (PPE), and encouraging employee participation in safety activities.

These responsibilities should flow logically from the goals and objectives that were established to meet the overall management system goals. Provision of Authority Any assignment of responsibility must be accompanied by authority and adequate resources. The latter includes appropriately trained and equipped employees as well as sufficient operational and capital funding. Accountability Once you have assigned responsibility and provided the appropriate authority and resources to all employees, you must follow up by holding those employees accountable for achieving what they have been asked to do. Accountability is crucial to helping employees understand how critical their individual performances are allowing them to take personal responsibility for their actions and performance. Employee Participation In any successful safety system, employees should be provided an opportunity to participate in establishing, implementing, and evaluating the safety process.

Employee participation provides the means that allows them to develop and/or express their safety commitment to themselves and/or their fellow workers. To fulfill and enhance employee participation, management should implement some form of the following elements:

  • Regularly communicating with all employees concerning safety matters
  • Providing employees with access to information relevant to the safety system
  • Providing ways for employees to become involved in hazard identification and assessment, prioritizing hazards, safety training, and management system evaluation
  • Establishing procedures where employees can report work-related incidents promptly and ways they can make recommendations about appropriate solutions to control the hazards identified
  • Providing prompt responses to reports and recommendations

It is important to remember that under an effective management system employers do not discourage employees from reporting safety hazards and making recommendations about incidents, or hazards, or from participating in the safety process.


“Developing an Effective Safety Culture: A Leadership Approach” by James Roughton

“Job Hazard Analysis” by James Roughton and Nathan Crutchfield.

The Safety Program Management Guidelines, published in the Federal Register (54 FR 3908) on January 26, 1989

Safety Culture – Nine Warning Flags – Factors That Defeat Controls

The implementation of an improved safety culture requires an almost Sherlock Holmes ability to use observation and logic to identify where underlying loss potential resides in the workplace. Just as Sherlock searched a crime scene, the OHS professional must be sensitive and aware of subtle clues that may not be quite discernible in the work environment. While the Job Hazard Analysis provides us with the structure and nature of individual job hazards and risk by providing a way to analysis the interactions of job requirements (steps and task, tools/equipment/materials, the work environment, current polices, procedures, etc., and the people exposed to the job), JHAs are not enough to assure that the controls put into place remain effective. Human Performance Improvement The US Department of Energy “Human Performance Improvement” Handbook discusses that 80% of loss producing events are human error and 20% are due to equipment failures. However, a further analysis of the 80% shows that 70% of these human errors are due to organizational weakness and 30% due to human error! This 70% represents “undetected deficiencies in organizational processes, equipment, or values that create job conditions that either provoke error or degrade the integrity of controls.” These latent errors are embedded in the organization.

A study by the Institute for Nuclear Power Operations (INPO) refers to nine common weaknesses that can serve as as “warning flags” that can lead to serious incidents and degrade a safety culture. The INPO “concluded that these latent conditions are conducive to the degradation and accumulation of flawed controls and human-performance-related events.” These are warning flags of conditions that can defeat controls. Nine Warning Flags that can defeat controls within a Safety Culture While the Handbook is written for nuclear power operations, you use the flags with just a little interpretation to evaluate your workplace. Look for signs of the following nine warning flags that are adapted from the DOE Handbook:

  1. Overconfidence – The “numbers” are good, and the staff is living off past successes. Consequently, the staff does not recognize low-level problems and remains unaware of hazards.
  2. Isolationism – There are few interactions with other similar organizations, professional groups, regulatory and industry groups. Benchmarking is seldom done or is limited to “industrial tourism,” without the implementation of good practices learned. As a result, the organization lags the industry in many areas of performance and may be unaware of it.
  3. Defensive and Adversarial Relationships – The mind-set toward the regulatory agencies or professional groups is defensiveness or “do the minimum.” Internal to the organization, employees are not involved and are not listened to, and raising problems is not valued. Adversarial relationships hinder open communication.
  4. Informal Operations and Weak Engineering – Operations standards, formality, and discipline are lacking. Other issues, initiatives, or special projects overshadow plant operational focus. Engineering is weak, usually through a loss of talent, or lacks alignment with operational priorities. Design basis is not a priority, and design margins erode over time.
  5. Production Priorities – Important equipment problems linger, and repairs are postponed while the plant stays on line or in production. Safety is assumed and is not explicitly emphasized in staff interactions and site communications.
  6. Inadequate Change Management – Organizational changes, staff reductions, retirement programs, and re-locations are initiated before their impacts are fully considered. Recruiting or training is not used to compensate for the changes. Processes and procedures do not support strong performance following management changes.
  7. Plant Operational Events – Loss producing Event significance is unrecognized or underplayed, and reactions to events and unsafe conditions are not aggressive. Organizational causes of events are not explored in depth.
  8. Ineffective Leaders – Managers are defensive, lack team skills, or are weak communicators. Managers lack integrated plant knowledge or operational experience. Senior managers are not involved in operations and do not exercise accountability or do not follow up.
  9. Lack of Self-Criticism – Oversight organizations lack an unbiased outside view or deliver only good news. Self-assessment processes, such as management observation programs, do not find problems or do not address them; or the results are not acted on in time to make a difference.”

Safety Culture and Process Improvement An organization is the interaction of its beliefs, values, structure, the tools, equipment and materials in use, people, the social, physical and social environment necessary to reach its stated goals – the reason for its existence. Having an in-depth understanding and knowledge of all aspects of the organization, not just the safety rules and compliance criteria, is essential for a environmental, safety and health process to have a higher probability of achieving a successful safety culture over the long term.


US Department of Energy Human Performance Improvement Handbook, DOE-HDBK-1028-2009

Roughton, James, Nathan Crutchfield; Job Hazard Analysis. A Guide to Compliance and Beyond, Butterworth-Heinemann, 2008

Roughton, James; Developing an Effective Safety Culture: A Leadership Approach, Butterworth-Heinemann, 2002.