Consider these two safety vision statements:
  • “On every project, at all times, safety is our top priority.”
  • “We make no compromise with respect to morality, ethics or safety. If a design or work practice is perceived to be unsafe, we do not proceed until the issue is resolved.”
Both sound great on the surface, yet they reflect two distinctly different safety cultures that are then reflected in the firm’s overall safety performance. The company that considers safety a “top priority” has a total recordable incidence rate (TRIR) twice the national average for a construction company of its size and work type. In contrast, the TRIR for the company that won’t proceed until safety issues are resolved is 0.20. That’s 95 percent below the industry average.

The simple reason behind such vastly different performance metrics lies in how the companies’ leadership and, as an extension, their employees, perceive safety. When safety is perceived as a priority, it means that other priorities—such as schedules and cost overruns—can move to the top of the list. The emphasis on performing work safely, every single time, without exception, is at risk of lagging or being shunned completely. When this type of inconsistent climate is established, safety is only important when things are going well.

A true world-class safety culture—one where a near-miss, let alone an incident, must be remedied immediately—designates safety as a core value upon which every decision, big or small, is based. The foundation of that culture is leadership’s uncompromising commitment to achieving a zero-incident jobsite and their unwillingness to waver from safety as their core value. The structure of a world-class safety culture comes from the belief that not only is every incident preventable, but also that all employees are responsible for their safety and the safety of those around them.

This sounds great in theory, but what about when there are 150 employees on five different jobsites and superintendents with three distinctly different leadership styles? Or what about the prospect of implementing an uncompromising approach to safety with 4,000 employees worldwide?

Transforming a corporate safety culture isn’t as difficult as it may seem. Again, it all starts with the CEO and senior leadership’s commitment to sending every employee home in the same, or better, condition than which they arrived, and exhibiting that commitment to all employees. That causes a trickle-down effect: Regional managers and superintendents see this commitment to safety as the core value and begin to use it with their crews.

Leaders should reward individuals who stop work when they recognize a hazard or who help a fellow employee safely tie off, rather than basing awards on the number of hours worked without a lost-time incident.  

When Paul O’Neill took over as CEO of Alcoa in 1987, he stated unequivocally that his core value was a zero-injury workplace. He needed to change the culture.

Because of O’Neill, the automatic routine at Alcoa became that whenever an injury occurred, the unit president had to report it to the CEO directly within 24 hours and present a plan to ensure that the type of incident never occurred again. Employees who embraced the system were promoted. Floor employees became supervisors, supervisors became directors and directors became vice presidents—if they committed to zero injuries and to learning everything possible from incidents to prevent a recurrence. 

What happened next was astonishing: Not only did Alcoa’s safety program change from reactive to proactive, but its entire culture shifted. The keystone safety habits O’Neill instituted resulted in new corporate habits that streamlined the company’s manufacturing process and increased profits (as well as employee salaries). 

Transforming a safety culture from one where safety is a priority to one where safety is the core value doesn’t have to be difficult; it just takes commitment and instilling the importance that each team member performs their duties safely and watches out for their coworkers. It means building relationships among employees so that everyone understands that safety isn’t about individuals, but rather the people they work with and their families. It’s an interdependent effort and can be achieved regardless of the company’s size.


Up Next
This is the second installment of a four-part series on achieving world-class safety. The next column focuses on the systems and processes required to identify hazards and prevent them from becoming incidents. Click here to read the first part of this series (on the importance of uncompromising leadership).


Chris Williams is safety director for Associated Builders and Contractors. For more information, email cwilliams@abc.org.