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Safety Culture War

By Carl and Deb Potter

Is there a Culture War in your Workplace?

Not too long ago an executive of a large company in a high-risk industry proudly displayed his handsome new shirt.  The shirt had a company logo.  Below the logo was a large “7” in bright yellow and a line below that read:  Reduce Injuries to 7 in 2007.

What this leader didn’t understand was that he was contributing to the safety culture war in his organization. He was suggesting that seven injuries was the goal.  The message implied that it was okay if seven employees were injured.  When questioned about it, he started to think about the implications of the message.  If he said he wanted a workplace where nobody gets hurt, yet wore a shirt that stated that seven injuries was the target, he was sending mixed signals.

One Organization, Three Cultures

Think about your organization for a moment.  Does everyone seem to be on the same page when it comes to safety?  It’s likely that if you spend time talking to people in different parts of the organization, you’ll soon learn that you can group people into three categories of safety beliefs:  workers, engineers, and executives.  These three categories don’t necessarily represent job titles, but rather viewpoints when it comes to safety.  These perspectives represent safety sub-cultures in your organization.  The farther apart the beliefs of the sub-cultures, the deeper the divide in your organization.
Different Perspectives, Different Beliefs

Let’s examine the three sub-cultures that seem to exist in most organizations:

1.  Workers  Front-line employees who face hazards daily in the course of their work want to know that they can go home every day without an injury.  They want to know that their leaders are there to create and support an environment where nobody gets hurt.  The perspective in this sub-culture is people.

2. Engineers  The engineering sub-culture typically is concerned about systems and equipment.  People in this sub-culture want to know how to improve equipment, tools, and processes to improve safety.  They rely on statistics as their yard-stick.  After an incident occurs, the focus is on improving equipment or systems.  The perspective in this sub-culture is process.

3. Executives  The executive sub-culture focuses on the cost of safety, usually in terms of dollars.  This culture may include executives and managers as well as people with accounting and budgeting responsibilities.  The primary question these people ask is:  How much is that going to cost?  The perspective in this sub-culture is profits.

These different beliefs exist in an organization primarily because of the perspective that different parts of the organization play and because they haven’t been exposed to different perspectives or a unifying perspective.
Stop the Culture War

As a leader in your organization, you can bring together different perspectives into one ideal: nobody gets hurt.  Here are three things to consider:

1. Adopt an expectation that no one gets hurt doing their job.
Be vocal – let people know what’s important to you.  The reality is that no on can argue with a belief that is focused on everyone going home every day without an injury.
Start today to express your desire that nobody gets hurt on or off the job.

2. Organize your daily calendar to include safety as a priority.
If you’re like most people, if it doesn’t get put on the calendar, it won’t get done.  Make it a habit to schedule at least on safety-related high value activity.
Begin every day by scheduling time to include a safety specific activity.

3. Show your appreciation to employees who demonstrate a high regard for safety.
One of the best ways to build a culture that is focused on the goal that “nobody gets hurt” is to involve people — the more, the better.  And, people want to get involved when they feel appreciated and are acknowledged for their efforts.
Take time every day to thank an employee for his or her efforts to create an injury-free workplace.

Hope for a Common Goal

No matter how divided your organization’s safety culture seems to be, you can make a difference.  It doesn’t matter what your job title is, you can make a difference by leading others around you to create an environment where nobody gets hurt.  That’s a goal everyone can live with!

About the Authors

Carl Potter, CSP, CMC and Deb Potter, PhD, CMC work with organizations that want to create an environment where nobody gets hurt.  As advocates of a zero-injury workplace, they are safety speakers, authors, and consultants to industry. For information about bringing Carl and Deb to your company or your next conference, contact them at Potter and Associates International, Inc. 800-259-6209 or

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