Safety Culture versus Safety Climate


“Climate is what you expect. Weather is what you get.”

Safety, like weather, can be measured. Instead of temperature averages, we measure unsafe acts, incidents and accidents. We also investigate accidents. We also want to know the reasons why accidents occur and how to prevent them in the future.

Tip: Serious accidents have the same root causes as minor accidents as do incidents with a potential for serious loss. It is these root causes that bring about the accident, the severity is often a matter of chance.

All accidents should be investigated to some extent, based on the loss potential. This is part of Loss Control, an essential characteristic of top performing organizations and businesses.

Immediate causes (unsafe acts and conditions) are obvious and easy to find, and may indicate poor safety attitudes and/or a lack of proper training.

Root causes are not so obvious, and may point to organizational failure in the management’s safety system and controls.

Tip: Beware of “Safety Creep” — Staff unintentionally drift away from safety controls by replacing procedures with short cuts.

Safety Culture and Safety Climate

How your organization or company responds to safety events, accidents and incidents is based on its underlying beliefs and values. This will determine what is known as your Safety Culture and Safety Climate.

Safety Culture is about “what people do.” Safety is, after all, about behavior — being safe. Safety Culture is stable over time and can be applied to the organization/company as a whole. Safety Culture is affected by policy and the tone at the top.

Safety Climate is the perception in the workplace of how safety is managed or “how people feel,” their attitudes and mindset.  These can reflect the views of your smallest units – teams, departments, groups, silos, etc. Safety Climate can best be changed by safety training and enforcement of policy.

Safety Culture and Safety Climate are sometimes described as two separate ends of the same piece of string. The term “safety culture” first appeared in a report about the  Chernobyl disaster. In many cases the terms Safety Culture and Safety Climate are often used interchangeably.

The bottom line is that attitudes toward safety matter and can affect overall accident and incident trends. An organization or company can work to achieve what is known as a positive safety culture.

A Positive Safety Culture

Safety experts have identified five indicators (or facets) of a positive safety culture:

• Leadership,
• Two-way communication,
• Involvement of staff,
• The existence of a learning culture,
• The existence of a just culture

Leadership sets the “tone at the top,” the direction, the safety vision. Only leadership can impart the importance of a strong management commitment to safety.

Effective two-way communication between management and staff is essential for an open and honest discussion of safety, to learn local information and give feedback, and place sufficient emphasis on the impact of careless behavior and unsafe acts. This would include:

  • Developing and issuance of a good safety policy statement, throughout the organization or company.
  • Communication via methods as warning sheets, videos, interactive systems, and safety newsletters.
  • The communication of major risks. Many driver hazards are not from vehicle collisions but from slips/trips/falls or material handling and overexertion.
  • Effective reporting from staff of frontline safety issues and problems. (In turn this requires management followup and action or reporting will wane.)

Involvement of staff — Staff at different levels of the organisation should be involved in identifying hazards, suggesting control measures, and providing feedback, thus leading to a feeling that they ‘own’ safety procedures.

A learning culture enables the organisation or company to identify, learn and change unsafe conditions. An effective learning culture shuns clever theorizing because it understands well the eloquence of action, seeking progress over perfection.

A *blame culture is the opposite of a just culture that holds people accountable to one or more behavioral choices as:

  • Doing anything that is intentionally reckless or risky
  • Following a procedure or policy in a specific way
  • Doing something with an expectation of a defined result or outcome

*A blame culture emphasizes individual blame for the human error, at the expense of correcting a possibly defective system. Blame is the process of shaming others and searching for something wrong in them.

Case Study: A Positive Safety Culture— the U.S. Postal Service

The U.S. Postal Service operates 211,264 vehicles (FY2014) and experiences about 23,000 crashes.

The US Postal Service starts each new employee with eight hours of classroom driver’s training and four hours training, per type of delivery vehicle, on the obstacle course. At the end of the training, the new employee must pass a road test.

To encourage safe driving the US Postal Service participates in a Driver Award Program and gives special recognition for safe driving, as the Million Mile Award. Drivers are also evaluated with an internal disqualification matrix. Drivers are considered “at-risk” for the first two years.

Thank you for reading this.

John Taratuta is an independent Risk Engineer. (989) 474-9599