Integrating Organizational Culture and Safety Performance

Organizational Culture and Safety Performance

One of the hardest concepts to grasp about safety culture is also one of the simplest: How does organizational culture apply to safety performance? Even some experienced hands have trouble, at first, shedding their former orientation. From years of working on the 3 E’s of traditional safety — Engineering, Enforcement, Education — they may have trouble making the leap to working on the soft/human/cultural side of safety.

A variety of metaphors can help convey the difference between working on traditional safety and working on culture. If you think of safety as a stew, the traditional elements of safety — safety audits, incident investigations, policies and procedures, even safety training programs — are the solid ingredients of a stew, i.e. the meat and vegetables. The culture is the broth in which they simmer. If you have a rancid broth, you can’t have a good stew—even if you keep adding the most expensive ingredients. Likewise, in a toxic organizational culture your safety programs won’t give you the safety performance you want.

An integrated solution similarly is built on a two-factor theory of injury prevention: you need to have excellent safety programs – the meat and vegetables in our analogy of the Safety Stew – but you also have to have a strong, healthy organizational culture as well. Both are needed to achieve world class safety performance.

Examples of Safety Systems/Programs vs. Organizational Culture

The problem for companies with mature safety systems and programs comes about when the culture is ignored. The default for safety improvement efforts, unfortunately, continues to target traditional safety program elements – more training, more engineering fixes, new procedures. But if the defects are a broken or uneven culture, and not an inadequate safety program, tweaking the existing safety program will avail nothing. In that case, attention needs to be turned to the “cultural broth.”

An excellent example of “working the culture” to achieve world class safety performance can be seen in the experience of a large manufacturing company that had one of the best-funded safety programs in North America: they were stuck in a safety performance rut. Frustrated, and trying to learn a new approach, they benchmarked with some of the most successful companies in the country. One benchmarked company observer put his analysis succinctly: “You have the best safety programs I have ever seen, much better than ours, but our employees don’t put their hands in moving equipment. You have the programs, but we have the culture.” After changing their focus to culture, the manufacturing company showed 14 years of continuous improvement, won numerous safety awards, and surpassed the performance of some of their benchmarking peers.

After changing their focus to culture, the manufacturing company showed 14 years of continuous improvement, won numerous safety awards, and surpassed the performance of some of their benchmarking peers.

That’s the impact of culture as applied to safety.

And, we have real life safety culture case studies playing out right now as the cultures of both Boeing and the FAA are being criticized due to the 737 Max certification issues. Boeing was criticized for having a “culture of concealment” and the FAA was criticized for expectations to “not rock the boat with Boeing.” Both organizations have extensive safety systems but they were not enough to overcome ineffective aspects of their organizational cultures.

What Is Needed: An Integrated Solution

Thought leaders in the field of organizational culture, Environment, Health and Safety, and culture diagnostics agree on the need for an integrated solution. With the Covid-19 pandemic challenging organizations to implement new health and safety protocols and ensure their culture is supportive of them as never before, the need for such a solution has never been more urgent.

The idea of bringing Organizational Culture and Safety Performance into a single, integrated and systemic intervention is to harness the diagnostic intelligence that comes from assessing the overall organizational culture while building on the transformative power of driving safety improvement through engaging employees in all areas of safety performance.

As pioneers in the culture field, Edgar Schein, Steve Simon and Robert Cooke know that too many in the culture field offer pre-packaged “culture programs” that are so watered down they may impact something… but do not qualify as culture building, culture improvement, or culture transformation. To see significant improvements, they understand that cultures need to be approached holistically, and in-depth.

As Dr. Schein says, “In order to manage culture, you must understand what culture is, what content culture covers, and how to assess it. It is dangerous to oversimplify this concept because of the illusion that one is managing culture when one is, in fact, managing only a manifestation of culture and, therefore, not achieving one’s change goals.”

As Dr. Cooke says, “The power of organizational culture for achieving outcomes of value continues to be increasingly understood and accepted across industries and throughout the world.”

As Dr. Simon says, “Safety culture is an anchor strategy for driving trust, which drives employee engagement and psychological safety, which in turn drive organizational performance.”

Solution Design

An integrated solution framework is designed to bring about systematic, systemic organizational culture change with a focus on improving safety culture first. It is based around 5 principles:

Safety 5 Principles

Solution Implementation

The Starting Point: Assess the Overall Culture First. Intervene in Safety First.

Following the 5 design principles listed above, an integrated solution starts with an assessment of the overall culture and moves immediately to embrace safety as a lever to drive overall culture change. The rationale for assessing the overall organizational culture at the outset is that this reveals how an organization’s culture impacts safety. Then, with the understanding of that broad set of influences, the intervention immediately moves to focusing on one starting point: safety. Focusing first on safety is based on our experience that safety is perhaps the most powerful lever for obtaining buy-in to culture transformation. Safety is unique as an area in which to win engagement of employees. It alone triggers reciprocity: when the company shows it cares about employee health and safety, employee engagement in meeting company objectives – quality, innovation, customer service – is reciprocally unleashed.

Through diagnostics, the organization can understand its culture change competencies and deficiencies; through a launch focused on safety, employees can learn key culture-based tools needed to drive and sustain change. This knowledge can then be applied to changing culture in other areas of performance.

Through diagnostics, the organization can understand its culture change competencies and deficiencies…

The solution then follows a systematic culture change process to ensure sustainable change.

safety culture change process


Educate leaders, from the frontline to the C-suite, about the relationship between culture and leadership, the impact on performance improvement in all facets of an organization, and their role in leading or supporting change.


Complete a comprehensive assessment of the current culture and climate using a customized blend of qualitative and quantitative methods, including surveys, interviews, focus groups, and crucial historical deep-dive sessions with long-tenured team members at all levels.


Capture assessment results in high definition, revealing areas in need of immediate targeted improvement solutions and providing bespoke improvement plans to address those areas.


Engage leaders and grassroots change teams through providing a structure needed to actively manage and track the implementation of improvement plans with disciplined cycles feedback.


Provide expert coaching and support throughout the change journey to inform strategy and planning adjustments as needed, in order to maintain momentum and ensure sustainability.

Implementation Best Practices

Whether bringing about culture change at the enterprise-wide level, throughout an entire business unit, at a single site, or in a particular department, the following must be heeded:

  1. Involve all stakeholders. Engage upper management, middle management and front-line workers; engage them again, and again, and again.
  2. Remember, different strokes for different folks. Each organizational culture and each sub-culture is unique; solutions need to be tailored to the needs of each culture.
  3. Ultimately, leaders shape culture. If the mantra for real estate is location/location/ location, then the byword for culture change is leadership/leadership/leadership.
  4. The culture change effort isn’t sustainable until the process is owned jointly by both top leadership and front-line workers. This means it’s okay to start a culture change process either at the top or at the bottom but it’s not okay to declare “mission accomplished” until it is owned and driven by both the top leaders and the frontline employees working together.


In summary, organizational culture and safety performance are inextricably linked. In order to improve safety performance, the organizational culture must be assessed and then employees engaged in improvement efforts. Focusing on health and safety as a first step provides a powerful foundation for improvement in other areas of organizational performance including quality, innovation, and production priorities. What is needed is an integrated solution, a systematic approach to improving organizational performance through culture assessment and employee engagement in safety. Readers are encouraged to consider the elements of the solution design, implementation approach and principles as a model of an integrated approach to organizational culture and safety performance.

Editor’s Note: A learning opportunity, November 19, 2020:

For insights on managing culture and leadership development in an intentional and integrated approach, consider this complimentary, upcoming Webinar:

  • How Do You Lead Your Culture NOW? You’ll gain useful content and takeaways to finish 2020 strong and provide your organization with a profoundly fresh approach to 2021. Join us on November 19 for this timely, info-packed session. Click for details and to register today.

About the Author

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Steven Simon, Ph.D.

Dr. Steven Simon, President and Founder of Culture Change Consultants, Inc., originated the concept of safety culture and introduced that term into the safety vocabulary in 1983. Dr. Simon is a nationally recognized pioneer and proven leader in guiding companies through successful culture change to improve safety performance. Over the past 35 years, he and his team have devoted themselves to refining a structured methodology and applying it to safety culture transformation through hands-on consulting partnerships with top-tier global corporations which, using his methods, have become world class safety performers. Dr. Simon holds the Ph.D. degree in Clinical Psychology from Harvard University.