Safety Culture: Steps to Effective Change

Safety Culture: Steps to Effective Change

In my last article I defined safety culture and explained its importance in organizational safety. In the current article (with a limited word count!), I’ll attempt to illustrate the steps needed to obtain a positive safety culture.

In the first step you should assess your organization’s safety culture. Tools for assessing safety culture can be classified as either qualitative or quantitative methods. Qualitative methods include employee observations, focus group discussions, historical information reviews and case studies. Qualitative measurement can be intensive; however, in-depth information can be obtained using the focal group’s own language. In contrast, quantitative approaches numerically measure or score safety culture using procedures that are often highly standardized and calibrated, such as highly structured interviews, surveys and questionnaires, and Q-sorts. These methods will be critical in identifying areas in need of improvement, but also serve as a baseline to assess your efforts in obtaining a positive safety culture. Of particular importance is the similarity (or discrepancy) in drivers’ or other front-line workers and safety mangers’ attitudes and opinions regarding safety. Everyone should be on the same page regarding safety and its importance to your organization.

The second step involves the formation of a safety steering committee. The purpose of the steering committee should not overlap with ongoing activities in the existing safety department. Be specific and determine the ground rules for the steering committee, limitations or restrictions, priorities and who should be on the team. The best approach is to be inclusive and involve all levels in your organization. This means you’ll have input from all levels and your efforts won’t be perceived as another top-down safety approach. The critical elements to be discussed by the steering committee include leadership, behavioral safety and what Geller (2001) calls “actively caring.” The largest influences on safety culture include the following:

Management Commitment and Style: Although input and participation in a positive safety culture is needed from all employees, leadership is the key to affecting a positive safety culture. Effective leaders build responsibility, focus on the process (not the outcome), educate (not train), listen first, ask questions, promote ownership and inspire by example.

Employee Involvement: Management may be the key to adopting a positive safety culture, but employee involvement is necessary to maintain the process. Front-line employees are more likely to take ownership and adhere to safety initiatives when they’ve been involved in designing and implementing safety procedures and techniques.  

Education, Training and Competence: Employees need to learn key principles and procedures to behave safely. To ensure an effective education, training and competence program, the steering committee should consider the following elements: develop education content and procedures, plan the education and training process, plan follow-up sessions, and identify and prepare instructors. 

Communication: Don’t pay lip service to bottom-up communication. Listening (and acting) to front-line employee communication shows you care about their opinions. In turn, this effective communication will lead to better trust, camaraderie and empowerment.

Compliance with Procedures: Initially, focus your efforts on measuring compliance with procedures rather than outcome measures (e.g., crashes, etc.). This will allow you to identify your successes and target areas in need of improvement. 

Actively Caring: An organization that actively cares about safety is not passive (e.g., problems are identified but not put into practice), but rather active (embedded into the culture) in truly understanding safety and how to improve safety. With effective leadership, employee involvement, education, training, competence programs and a focus on process measures (rather than outcome measures), your employees will be more willing to actively care for their co-workers and your organization.      

Just remember, culture change doesn’t happen overnight; a culture change process can take several years.


Dr. Hickman joined the Center for Truck and Bus Safety at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute in 2004 and became the Group Leader for the Behavioral Analysis and Applications group in 2009.  He has significant experience in the design, delivery, and implementation of safety and health improvement interventions using behavior-based and person-based psychology and human factors applications.  His primary areas of research include community-wide (large scale) applications of behavior-based safety, self-management, and organizational culture change techniques as well as assessing driver behavior, fatigue, work/rest cycles, and driver distraction in commercial motor operations. Although specializing in commercial motor vehicle safety, Dr. Hickman’s research interests are broadly defined as occupational health and safety.

Dr. Hickman has been the PI, Co-PI, or Project Manager in 35 research projects (totaling over $10 million).  These research projects include competitive research awards from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Mine Health and Safety Administration, National Transportation Research Center, Inc., Transportation Research Board, Canadian Council of Motor Transport Administrators, and the American Automobile Association Foundation for Traffic Safety. Dr. Hickman has over 60 professional presentations, including invited talks at Duke Energy, Sherwin-Williams, National Private Truck Council, Maersk, Pike Energy Corporation, and XL Insurance. Dr. Hickman has over 30 scientific publications and technical reports, served as a scientific reviewer for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in fiscal year 2012, and currently serves as a reviewer for the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, Accident Analysis and Prevention, and Journal of Organizational Behavior Management.