Rethinking safety: What does a safety culture mean to you?

Christian Fournier
February 27, 2018
By Christian Fournier
Feb. 27, 2018 - How many times you have heard the phrase “safety first” or “everything starts with safety”? I’m pretty sure that we have all heard some variation of these phrases at one point or another. As a safety professional at a sawmill, it can be challenging at times to know which approach is the best for motivating employees and staff to be more safety conscious in the workplace and at home.

Why at home as well? About 70 per cent of all injuries occur at home. Our end goal is to create a safety culture. But what is a safety culture exactly? The common definition is a set of beliefs that are acceptable to a group, but there is much more to a safety culture than that.

At my workplace I decided recently to try to increase the safety consciousness of the employees and staff by involving them in our monthly safety meetings. I started by asking two questions at the meetings: What does safety mean to them and what is a safety culture? I asked each question to each employee. For the first question, the answers I received varied and based on their personal beliefs, like not getting hurt. I was impressed with one of the answers I received, which was that safety is a lifestyle. The idea of a safety lifestyle got me thinking about the core values of a person. For the second question, I was surprised that most of the employees didn’t know what a safety culture was or their concept of a safety culture was, for example, wearing their hard hats. I received a lot a positive feedback but also some backlash from a few employees who didn’t appreciate being singled out in front of the group and preferred to be quiet and not participate. I understand that not everyone is comfortable speaking in front of groups, but I believe that in order to improve as a person, you must be placed outside of your comfort zone.

My definition of a safety culture is a set of shared core values of a group of individuals who believe that safety is more than work, home or lifestyle: it’s part of who we are.

The following month, I decided to once again ask for input at the safety meetings. This time the questions I asked were: What are you doing now to contribute to safety? And what are you willing to do for the next month to improve safety on site? Obviously, these questions were more challenging for the employees and staff because they were asked to dig deeper within themselves. For the first question, just like the previous month, I received a wide range of answers from picking objects up off the ground to ensuring that their fellow co-worker locks out properly during cleaning and maintenance. Employees found it difficult to answer the second question. In order to help them out I provided them my two personal commitments that I had given myself for the next two months, which were: to only look for the positive actions around me; to observe one employee per day, and thank them for working safely and tell them the reason why I was thanking them. Once I mentioned my own commitments, it encouraged some of the employees to provide their own personal commitments in order to improve safety at our workplace.

As you can see, safety isn’t as easy as replacing a bolt or putting on a guard; more often than not it requires dealing with people. I wish I can say that all employees were on board with my approach, but it’s never quite that simple. Instead I know I made some headway, and some of the employees saw the value in this new approach. At the end of the day, safety comes from within each and every one of us.

Christian Fournier has worked in the safety profession for more than 10 years. He is currently safety and training co-ordinator for Fornebu Lumber in New Brunswick.

This article was originally published in Canadian Forest Industries, a sister publication of Pulp & Paper Canada.

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