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VOICES FROM THE INDUSTRY: Creating a safety culture can benefit the bottom line

April 14, 2008

When then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani hired David Gunn to direct the New York City subway system, he knew Gunn would be unorthodox in his approach to fighting crime. While many encouraged Gunn to use traditional lawenforcement tactics, he saw fit to clean up the subway's crime problem by literally cleaning up the trains.

Day after day for six years, the graffiti artists painted their "art" on the sides of the trains, and day after day Gunn had the graffiti cleaned off or painted over. There was zero tolerance. No train with graffiti would be in service.

Gunn communicated a clear, consistent message that someone cared about the subway, and maintaining order in the subway became contagious. Soon, all sorts of disrespectful and illegal activities common in the subways were on the decline. The subways were cleaner and, more importantly, safer. The culture of the transit system was transformed.

Just as the cleaner physical environment of the subways led to a profoundly improved social order, so an effective corporate safety culture is reflected in enhanced, measurable business indices. For leaders like Gunn who prefer to think outside of the box, it is entirely possible to remedy the ills of a negative corporate environment this way.

Sending a clear message to employees that the company cares about them, and the organization as a whole, ultimately improves employee satisfaction, customer satisfaction, and hence, the bottom line.

Making safety a core value

In an organization with an effective safety culture, safety is a core value. Core values drive everything in the organization. They are part of the organization's DNA. They are lived. Core values come from head, heart and soul. Core values determine what you do when no one is looking.

Interestingly, the essence of an effective safety culture is zero tolerance for unsafe behavior. An effective safety culture has a goal of no accidents.

Since an effective safety culture can be present only in a disciplined workplace, it is no wonder then that the awareness of safety accentuates attentiveness to all critical aspects of the job. Not surprisingly, safety culture leads to improved cost control, schedule control, and product quality.

Of course the cost savings make good business sense too. Savings from insurance premiums, lost worker time, workman's compensations, medical expenses and legal fees are compelling reasons to see safety as "doing things right."

The operational variables in the subway intervention were someone caring about what was happening, and insistence on a prescribed order. Likewise, the potency of an effective corporate safety culture is in the message that leadership cares about an employee's personal safety; and the fact that they'll do what it takes to ensure it. Nothing speaks louder to the essential nature of any human being than absolute insistence on their safety. It's a profoundly personal and meaningful message.

Making business sense

Evidence is mounting that companies that invest in employees' best interests have greater employee satisfaction, the leading variable for customer satisfaction. Not surprisingly, these companies are more productive and profitable than their competition. And that's across industries and regardless of economic conditions.

So, how do you get the safety message out? First, communicate early-when you hire, when you start the day, when a new project begins. Second, communicate it frequently. The more often and the more recently we've heard something, the better we retain it. Third, be clear and consistent. This enhances trust in the messenger, the message and the power of its influence. Last, make it simple and catchy. It's more likely to stick.

And what of "living safely?" When safety is a core value of a caring work culture, it makes sense that the same organization would care enough to have an off the-job safety program. Safety culture needs to follow the employee home. Gone are the days of "balance between work and home." Today's emphasis in lifestyle is integration-consistent values in behavior at home and at work. Therefore, safety becomes a way of life for the employee. They see the world differently, more safely. And that, most certainly, is better living.

Dr. Sipes is a clinical psychologist and senior partner of Indiana Health Group, a behavioral health firm; and founder of nextVoice, a company committed to helping others have better relationships for business and for life. Views expressed here are the writer's.
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