This article by Ray Prest originally appeared in the
June 1, 2023 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.
Safety professionals typically define safety culture as “the way things are done around here.” Ask a group of researchers for a more specific definition and they’ll come up with a few bullet points—sometime after lunch tomorrow—that end up saying pretty much the same thing. And if you ask either group to be more specific, to describe what safety culture looks like in action or how to improve it, their answer will likely be so abstract that it may as well be a verbal inkblot test.
We’ve all seen inkblot prints, in which people put ink on paper in a vaguely recognizable shape. Inkblot art has been used for parlor games since the Italian Renaissance, and then in 1921 a psychiatrist by the name of Herman Rorschach formalized inkblot interpretation as a psychological test. When you look at a print, what does it make you think of? Thousands of people have been asked to decide whether one inkblot looks like a bat or a butterfly or a moth, whether another looks like a crab or a spider and whether a third reminds them of a human face.
Crucially, the Rorschach exam is not a test of what you see— because there’s no right answer—but of how you interpret an abstract image. In a standard Rorschach test, examiners will take a close look at why you see a bat (is it because of the black ink?) or a butterfly (is it due to the shape or the pattern of splotches on the “wings?”).
It’s a test of whether you can pull concrete meaning from ambiguous signals, of whether you can find underlying patterns in a collection of seemingly disparate points. And in that way, it has a lot to do with how we view safety culture.
It can be hard to pin down the essential qualities of an effective safety culture because no two workplace safety cultures are exactly alike. One of the few universally defining traits is that all safety cultures are an emergent property. They are the result of established procedures and processes, the efficacy of training plans, the strengths and weaknesses of supervisors as well as the individual abilities and mental states of a whole bunch of workers, plus many other factors. It’s a classic example of the sum being equal to the parts, and then some.
What Forms an Informed Safety Culture?
In the case of safety culture, it’s a lot of ink all contributing to a very blotty safety-culture picture, which makes it a particularly tricky subject to talk about. James Reason identified four main subcomponents of an informed safety culture: a reporting culture, a just culture, a flexible culture and a learning culture. But these qualities are so high-level that it can be hard to put into action.
There’s also a lot that those four aspects don’t capture, and you have to drill down many levels further to identify all the dimensions involved in cultural formation, whether it’s engagement, trust, buy-in, rapport with management, empowerment, positivity, common safety language, sense of personal responsibility, human factors awareness or any one of dozens more.
Then there’s the matter of determining the practical impact that each of these elements has on safety outcomes. Take a moment to ask yourself whether each of the safety culture elements listed above was a factor in a workplace incident in the last year. To each one, you could reasonably answer: “Yeah, sorta … maybe.”
If one worker had felt more engaged, maybe they would have paid attention during a toolbox talk and avoided making a costly mistake later in the day. If another worker had felt a greater sense of personal accountability, maybe they would have remembered to put their hard hat on after their lunch break. None of it is certain, and ambiguity abounds, but there’s definitely something there.
Pinning It Down
All of this is to say that the concept of safety culture may be nebulous and hard to pin down, but it nonetheless has a notable effect on workplace safety. Safety pundits spend so much time talking about culture for a reason—we know culture influences in safety outcomes, even if we often can’t point to exactly how. Much like how we know a Rorschach image resembles a bat or a butterfly, even if we can’t agree on the exact factors why.
Most safety folks have a pretty good feel for their current safety culture. Some even try to assess where they’re at with a maturity model. But regardless of where they’re at today, they’re always striving to improve and struggling to maintain some desired level of cultural strength. But some days feel like one step forward and two steps back.
Even safety folks who have fostered robust safety cultures still want to make theirs better; there’s no clear end-state or finish line for culture, and it’s an issue of continuous improvement rather than reaching a static destination.
While the ten inkblots used in the Rorschach test have remained unchanged for over a hundred years, safety is always changing and evolving. Emergent systems like culture can feel akin to participating in a live-action Rorschach test where the inkblot keeps changing shape.
With so many separate inputs—from organizational systems to individual behaviors—it’s nearly impossible to identify which input should be addressed first, and how the secondary or third-order variables will be affected by the first, since most cultural attributes are interdependent.
These Essential Skills Might Surprise You
In many ways, it doesn’t matter which cultural input you address first, because only changing one won’t make much of a difference anyway. Changing a safety culture requires a wide-sweeping approach that focuses on processes rather than outcomes. You need interventions that affect multiple systems components, you need methods of tweaking workers’ risk perceptions on a large scale, you need broad engagement tactics and universally applicable tools. In short, you need soft skills.
Soft skills—also known as interpersonal skills or people skills, and which stand in contrast to hard, technical know-how—are probably not what you were expecting to encounter here, halfway through an article on how to wrestle the many tentacles of safety culture. Their value is severely underrated in most workplaces. But make no mistake, soft skills are one of the best ways to upgrade your cultural inputs.
Consider the effect of communicating to workers that you believe in them, that you know they’re capable of doing their jobs well and that when they make a mistake, you expect they will learn from it and make better use of their attention in the future. Organizational psychologist Adam Grant suggests that framing criticism like that can make people 40 percent more receptive to what you’re saying, and more likely to adjust their actions accordingly.
Expressing a degree of faith in workers’ abilities makes hard conversations easier. It also builds trust, which is a major component of culture. It makes workers more likely to participate in safety meetings, more willing to fill out near miss-reporting and less likely to talk negatively behind their supervisor’s back. In short, making a single adjustment to communication style can improve a host of cultural components.
The same is true for any number of other soft skills. Using a consistent and common language can reduce ambiguity as well as make it easier for workers to share real-time safety observations with each other. Research has shown that demonstrating genuine appreciation for workers will make them work harder and can also improve personal accountability. Greater empathy can improve trust, relatability and morale.
Few interventions can kill as many birds with one stone as improving employee-facing soft skills. Which begs the question: why don’t more organizations invest in supervisors’ communication skills, safety managers’ storytelling abilities and executives’ relatability?
It all goes back to the Rorschach test. Safety folks are used to hard safety solutions. Engineering solutions, PPE, rigorous processes—these are things that look like effective EHS interventions. (And with good reason, because they are.) But when the same safety professionals turn their attention to soft skills, they seem something less actionable, less definitive and more open to interpretation.
Safety professionals are used to root-cause analyses that lead to definitive (or at least probable) contributors to incidents. They also favor solutions that have a direct link to a problem. Want to prevent someone from tripping on a staircase? Add a handrail. It’s not always clear how expressing faith in workers or using a common safety language will stop workers from stumbling on stairs.
But we know that bolstering workers’ confidence will reduce distracting or negative thoughts. Which increases their ability to attend to the task at hand. And when attention goes up, incidents like tripping go down. When workers are more engaged, they pay attention more in safety meetings—including meetings that remind them about safety on the stairs.
When safety folks use a consistent and common safety language to talk about the dangers of rushing and tripping, or the dangers of distraction and tripping, then workers are more likely to listen.
Could each of these factors individually have a positive effect on safety outcomes? To repeat the answer to an earlier question, “Yeah, sorta. Maybe.” But every input has a cumulative effect. One slight tweak to a soft skill won’t get much traction. But a long-term adjustment to multiple soft skills, in combination with the existing safety interventions you already have in place? That’s when a new safety culture truly begins to emerge. When you see it, you’ll know.
Ray Prest is the Director of Marketing at SafeStart, a safety company focused on human factors solutions that reduce preventable death and injuries on and off the job. A columnist for Safety Decisions since 2015, Ray’s been helping people learn about safety and training for over 20 years. Read more at safestart.com/ray.