Is Workplace Safety Culture the Same as Organizational Culture?

We’ve recently been asked the question: “Is safety culture the same as organizational culture?” In a moment where “culture” is a topic of conversation in any workplace context, it’s important to clarify these two concepts. Let’s start with some definitions…

Organizational Culture: According to an article from Harvard Business Review, culture is “consistent, observable patterns of behavior in organizations” – the repeated habits and behaviors of everyone around the organization. In other words, it’s “the way we do things around here.”

Safety Culture: Safety culture is the collection of the beliefs, perceptions and values that employees share in relation to risks within an organization, such as a workplace or community.1 It is the core values and behaviors resulting from a collective commitment by leaders and individuals to emphasize safety over competing goals to ensure protection of people and the environment.2 

By these definitions, safety culture is a part of organizational culture

Both are essential to producing a more engaged and committed workforce where every employee seeks to better themselves, their peers and the company. Building a strong organizational culture can be a lengthy and involved process but starting with a workplace safety culture provides a foundation for growth. The principles learned through safety will become applicable to other functions of the business and personal development.

So, where do we begin?


Start with Workplace Safety Culture for Strong Organizational Culture

Initiating organizational cultural change starting with safety ensures buy in, commitment and engagement, which results in reinforcing changes and minimizing the time required to change the organizational culture, because:

  1. Everyone agrees with improving safety (it’s the right thing to do)
  2. It’s already measured (current safety performance)
  3. Shows organizational concern and commitment to employees and community (social responsibility)
  4. Leading and predictive measures ensure desired outcomes (behavioral reliability)
  5. Everyone has an equal role in the process (engagement at every level)
  6. Safety is directly or indirectly related to every business process (safety performance is a result of ALL other decisions)
  7. Workers feeling safe leads to increased productivity (along with increased profitability) 
  8. Safer companies are more desirable employers (recruiting advantage)
  9. Focusing on exposure-based behaviors, processes and systems leads to desired improvements in other areas (continuous improvement mindset)
  10. The Team Approach drives collaboration (decreased barriers between departments)


Safety Culture Starts with Leadership

For true sustainability, safety culture must be led by senior management with a value and commitment for safety that is shown through behaviors and the implementation of a safety culture program that employees will believe in.

Key characteristics of this type of leadership include: 

  • An obsession for continuous improvement
  • Reliable patterns of behavior to demonstrate a commitment to safety
  • Priorities for handling safety related concerns
  • Continuous learning in other areas in addition to safety
  • Care and concern for exposures shared across the workforce regardless of the stated policies
  • Ability to leverage moments of safety transformation

If you’re looking to improve culture, begin with safety for the best results in the shortest possible time-frame. However, remember that this won’t happen overnight. It’s a long game and requires leadership. Like anything that’s worth doing, find the courage to commit, put the plan in place, and get started. The results are worth the effort.

1As found in Communicating Risks to the Public: International Perspectives (Risk, Governance and Society)2 As stated by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

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