Kevin Ian Schmidt

How to Change the Workplace Safety Culture

Setting out to modify or change the safety culture in a workplace is a daunting task. Working against you is the custom, practice and habits that have been built up over the years. However, this is not your biggest challenge. The biggest challenge lies in the belief system that occupies everybody’s mind. Again, this has been built up over a number of years, it is not something recent, it is not something which has suddenly occurred, is something which people can justify by recounting past events.

The phrases commonly heard are, “I have been doing it this way for 15 years and never hurt myself.” “This is a dangerous industry, I’ve seen many accidents in this place in the past.” “Accidents go with the territory. If you work in this industry you will hurt yourself.” “You are still a newbie until you hurt yourself.” “You can’t prevent accidents in this industry, they just happen.” “You can’t prevent accidents in the workplace, that’s why they are called accidents.” “You can’t stop accidents here, we have been having them for years.”

All this entrenched thinking will have to be changed before the culture changes. This sort of thinking is part of the current culture. Obviously, you can’t go head-to-head with this sort of thinking, you need a more subtle, alternative approach which will gradually overcome the very pessimistic approach and replace it with optimism. Getting people to question their deeply entrenched views and beliefs takes time. After all, it took quite a long time for them to reach these conclusions and beliefs. They will not be changed in a few weeks and certainly not as the result of a two day course on safety.

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The secret of changing the culture in the workplace is to consider very carefully the people who wield influence. They may or may not be in a position of authority. Convince them. The problem you are faced with is that if you want someone to change their belief, it has to be replaced with something else that they can believe in. There is little point in telling people that their beliefs are part of the reason why so many accidents happen. In fact, telling people anything, especially how to do the job safely, is likely to create resentment. Especially, if they have been carrying out the job for a number of years.

The new belief system must be credible. There must be compelling reasons to adopt it. There must be some benefit from the new way of thinking that will positively affect people in the workplace. By far the best method of introducing this belief system, is to lead people to discover it. If you fail to do this, and prescribe what people should think, you will fail in your attempts to change the safety culture in the workplace. There are thousands of examples where change has been prescribed and failed miserably. It requires a much more thoughtful approach and the avoidance of creating resentment within the organization.

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