“How many psychologists does it take to change a lightbulb? Just one, but the lightbulb really has to want to change.”  Anonymous

A former student, now working in industry, recently called me. He said he had a safety question. “How do you change safety culture? I can’t find that in my notes from your class.”

How indeed? It’s not easy. If someone had an easy trick, they could make a fortune as a safety consultant because the world is full of organizations that want to improve their safety culture.

Start at the Top

The first thought that came to mind is that changing safety culture, like changing anything in an organization, must begin at the top. A mid-level safety manager is not going to change the safety culture of an organization. Senior management has to believe that safety is important. Not only must they speak about safety, but their actions must match their words. Organizations are quite adept at detecting hypocrisy.

When senior management talks about profits or market share, and mentions safety as an afterthought, they are saying that safety is an afterthought.

When senior management pounds the table and says “Zero incidents” but then fails to provide the time and resources to identify and address hazards, they are saying that safety is a slogan, not a culture.

When senior management says “Safety First,” but then behaves unsafely, they are saying “Not really.”.

No Change is Better than Changing for the Worse

Safety is the result of safe behaviors. We behave safely and maintain our layers of protection, then count on these layers of protection to keep us from harm. Sometimes, though, our layers of protection fail us. Everything has a probability of failure on demand.

On the other hand, we don’t experience demands on our safety continuously. Sometimes we do things that are not as safe as they should be, yet nothing bad happens. Everything has a probability of success.

Whether an action results in a good outcome or a bad outcome is a matter of probability. We behave safely because our safe behavior shifts the probability in favor of good outcomes. The outcomes themselves, however, are the result of probability—luck. So, when we punish bad outcomes, we are punishing bad luck. Likewise, when we reward good outcomes, we are rewarding good luck.

Our actions, our behaviors, are what we have control over. It is important reinforce safe behaviors, not safe outcomes. By the same token, we should look to modify unsafe behaviors, not unsafe outcomes.

To this day, I am troubled by a letter that a vice president of operations sent to personnel who, against their emergency action plan, took it upon themselves to fight a fire with fire extinguishers in a unit poised for catastrophic failure. Instead of chastising them for their unsafe behavior, or at least simply ignoring it, he thanked them and rewarded them for their bravery and service to the company, as though the unit was worth their lives. Going forward, what impact do you think that letter has had on the safety culture in that organization?

Changing Safety Culture Begins with Changing Yourself

As he neared the end of his life, Aldous Huxley famously said, “I wanted to change the world. But I have found that the only thing one can be sure of changing is oneself.” That is not to say that any of us should throw up our hands in despair of changing the safety culture in our organization, but that we should make sure that we, personally, exemplify the safety culture we want to see.

Don’t take short-cuts. Behave in safe ways. Always—always—follow safety rules, especially when they don’t seem necessary. Just as rough men will temper their profanity when around a holy man, workers will be more mindful of safety when around someone they know is passionate about safety.

You won’t have to say a word, and if you must, say what you would do, not what they shouldn’t do. They’ll only believe you, however, if there is evidence that you would in fact take the safer course.

What Is Your Pitch?

For me, the call came out of the blue, completely unexpected. I want to be ready for the next call. How do you change safety culture? How would you answer the question? This is not a rhetorical question. I sincerely would like to hear the answers you would give.