The Real Truth about Safety: Creating a Culture of Buy-In

by Garrison Wynn, CSP

Knowing that safety is important clearly is not enough to create (or even put a dent in creating) incident-free environments. Most of us have heard the messages “Safety First” and “Target Zero.” I’ve even heard one earnest, dedicated guy in rural Louisiana put it this way: “We ain’t toleratin’ any more dead dudes!” As powerful and eloquent as these messages might be, they haven’t produced the buy-in for which we might have hoped.

Frankly, it’s not hard to imagine some skepticism arising in response to these messages. When I hear “Safety First,” I wonder: Are you paying me to do my job or to not get hurt while attempting to do my job? The motto “Target Zero” seems to ignore the fact that some industries will have recordable incidents and fatalities, regardless of huge improvements in equipment and environment. Even at a site with the latest technology and safest equipment, some human factor is involved that cannot fully be anticipated. Just because there always is some idiot who thinks that Jägermeister and welding are a great combo, does that really mean we have failed at safety?

Overall, the improvement in safety implementation is tremendous. In the past 25 years, we have managed to do very well, and people are much safer on the job than ever before. But it seems that the complacency that causes some accidents actually can be created by having a great safety record. After all, if you have no recordable incidents for a year and terrific improvement has been seen, what’s next? Well, your most conscientious employee might be winding down his 366th uneventful shift, but while walking and texting (neither of which he does well), he slips and injures his back.

Complacency can be dangerous. Similarly, people on the job often “check out” because they feel overworked or undervalued. Sometimes, supervisors or bosses are grossly ineffective. Poor communication can create lack of awareness. These are just a few human elements that can throw a wrench in the argument that safe systems plus watertight procedures will equate to zero incidents. Any of these factors can foster huge issues, even in places with the most impeccable safety environment.

With a little thought, we can further blur the “fault line” between incidents caused by human error and those attributable to systems/environments. If an employee is emotionally distracted, worn out, under the weather or feeling unappreciated by the boss, he or she might create, build or set up something that doesn’t work very well. All of a sudden, it’s the system that’s the problem – not the human.

Simply stated, where safety is concerned, the human factor and the environment both are important. There’s much interplay. While systems and equipment require significant investment and tight controls (which should be crucial elements of the safety approach anyway), the human side of the equation can be greatly – and somewhat easily – improved by creating a culture of safety.

The only successful way to change a culture is to get an extremely high level of repeatable buy-in. That means the message from leadership must be very clear and simple to implement. It also means that we have to be realistic about what’s working. Have you noticed that the job site with the best safety record typically is the one where the boss makes everyone feel valuable, the people seem to trust one another and everyone gets along well? Most research confirms that when people feel valuable, they make fewer mistakes. They are more loyal, and they watch out for each other. They are consistently willing to do more of what they are asked to do. All of that results in dramatically fewer incidents and a true culture of safety. But how do you make that happen in your organization or at your location?

Here are seven ways to make sure your environment is positioned to reduce incidents:

  • Beware of mixed messages. “Hey, be safe, but hurry up! Don’t be so safe that we can’t make any money!” The real message should be “Let’s get it done before 5 p.m. – but if you get outside the safety guidelines, rethink it.”
  • Make sure the people around you understand that you have their back. They will be more likely to have yours. Watch your behavior and treat others with respect. Very few people rush back into a burning building to save the guy that nobody likes. Don’t be that guy.
  • Be realistic about how people feel about safety procedures. If you have a process or situation that everyone makes fun of or complains about, look into it and make adjustments. Nothing is more dangerous than expecting people to be protected by things they obviously don’t believe in.
  • Remember that many accidents happen indoors in office environments. Approximately 76,000 people each year are hospitalized because they put their feet on their desks and leaned back in a chair. Acting like a big shot not only is obnoxious; it’s apparently dangerous!
  • Communication skills are the foundation of safety. Let people talk about what’s important to them before you tell them your opinions. People who feel heard are much more likely to listen to you. To make safety happen, you need to have a level of influence that enables your words to create action in others. If people see their input in your safety solution, they are much more likely to have buy-in and much less likely to be injured.
  • Don’t tell young coworkers how brave you were “back in the day” before modern safety equipment. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, and that especially means our younger brothers and sisters. On a job site, I once heard a guy in his 50s say to group of people in their 20s, “You young guys have all this protective clothing and special tools! In the ’70s, we were down in there naked with a Q-tip!” Challenging someone’s manhood makes you part of the problem.
  • Make sure you can clearly explain the value of a safety procedure or policy in 30 seconds. People buy into what they quickly understand. The leading addiction on the planet is not drugs or alcohol; it’s convenience. People will consistently abandon a safe process that’s complicated for an unsafe one that’s not. Keep it simple. It does not matter how smart you are if nobody knows what you’re talking about!

Whether you are a leader who is driving safety forward or just a person on the job trying to be good at what you do without being hurt, influence is required. Are you influential enough to make safety happen around you? Do you have the trust and the relationships in place to help safety concepts and procedures remain effective?

For some of you, it may be hard to buy into how important it is for people to have a supportive environment. You might think that it’s all “charm school BS” or that people should just do what they are supposed to do and be safe. But in reality, the overwhelming success of this approach is kind of like listening to NASCAR on the radio – you personally may not believe it makes any sense, but for some strange reason it’s still happening!

Garrison Wynn is a nationally known speaker and consultant, the author of the bestseller The Real Truth about Success and the CEO of Wynn Solutions. He will be a featured speaker at the MAPP Benchmarking Conference, to be held Oct. 16-17 in Indianapolis, IN. For more information, visit