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Safety Culture and Safety Climate: What's the Difference?


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According to the report, Building a Safety Culture: Improving Safety and Health Management in the Construction Industry by Dodge Data & Analytics, a strong safety culture is proactive about safety rather than reactive and helps ensure safer, more productive job sites by supporting a strong safety climate.

Before Balfour Beatty instituted its Zero Harm program in 2012, the number of high-potential incident—near-misses that could have resulted in serious injury—reported annually throughout
 the company’s global operations was almost none. Suspecting significant underreporting, the firm changed its response to the high- potential incidents that did get reported. Instead of a fault-focused investigation, the firm instituted what it calls a 72-Hour Conference, in which senior staff meet via Skype within days of an incident to generate an understanding of
 it, and to determine what changes could prevent similar incidents in the future. As a result, the firm now leads the industry in the number of high-potential incidents reported.

“We turned it completely around,” says Steve Smithgall, senior vice president of safety, health and environment at Balfour Beatty. “Instead of assigning blame, we thank the people onsite who put the report together, and we turn the incident into a lesson learned that we can share around the company.”

Safety Culture and Safety Climate

High-potential incidents are an example of a leading indicator, 
an occurrence that precedes injuries, and which can help construction firms target their safety interventions more effectively. To help identify and measure the key leading indicators of construction safety, researchers organize the forces and factors shaping it into two concepts: safety culture and safety climate.

Which term someone uses is probably less important than knowing where to target needed change to improve overall safety performance.

Safety culture encompasses “the deeply held, but often unspoken, safety-related beliefs, attitudes,
 and values that interact with an organization’s systems, practices, people, and leadership to establish norms about how things are done 
in the organization,” according to a definition published by CPWR—The Center for Construction Research and Training. Balfour Beatty’s Zero Harm program, with its goals of zero fatalities, zero injuries causing long-term disabilities, and zero harm to the public as a result of the company’s work, is an example of an explicit safety culture.

Safety climate, on the other
hand, comprises “the shared perceptions of safety policies and procedures by members of an organization at a given point in time,” according to CPWR. And, just as an organization has a safety climate, 
each construction project will have one too. A project’s safety climate is a product of the multiple safety climates of the different organizations involved in the project: the project owner, construction manager or general contractor, and subcontractors. Factors such as project delivery method, schedule, planning, and incentives also affect a project’s safety climate.

A Two-Way Arrow

Safety culture and climate are mutually formative—“a two-way arrow,” says Linda Goldenhar, CPWR’s director of research and evaluation—so that a change in either one can yield results in the other. Balfour Beatty’s change in attitude toward high-potential incidents, for example, enabled them to identify falling objects from elevated work as the most common type.

In response, the firm focused education efforts on roping off areas below elevated work—adding the issue to a phone app that prompts safety officers on site tours, for example—thereby translating an improvement in safety culture into an improvement in safety climate.

Conversely, the achievement of 
an exceptional safety climate over the course of a project can reinforce a company’s safety culture. On
 the U.S. Navy’s Camp Pendleton Replacement Hospital, a Clark/ McCarthy joint venture delivered
a four-year construction project comprising over 2.6 million work hours with zero DART (days away, restricted or transferred) or lost-
time incidents. The project built
 its exemplary safety climate with strong support from the client, 
initial orientations to safety as part
of a larger mission for a place of healing, weekly site walks by a joint government-contractor safety team looking for ways to improve, monthly meetings to review and recognize safety-based behaviors, and celebrations to acknowledge major safety milestones.

When the project director for Camp Pendleton, Carlos Gonzalez, 
a vice president with Clark, moved East to take on the leadership of 
the firm’s self-perform concrete business unit in the Mid-Atlantic region, he brought all of the lessons from the Camp Pendleton safety climate with him. As measured by the severity of workplace injuries across all sites over a three-year period, importing those lessons 
into the concrete business unit’s safety culture has improved it by an order of magnitude: the company’s expenditures on injury treatment and rehabilitation (to which Clark continues to be committed, Gonzalez emphasizes) have dropped from two dollars per person-hour to 20 cents. In another measure of the business unit’s boosted safety culture, 
the American Subcontractors Association of Metro Washington has recognized Clark as General Contractor of the Year in overall jobsite safety for the last two years running.

Targeting Change

The academic definitions of safety culture and safety climate may not correspond to the way construction safety practitioners use the terms––but that’s okay. “Which term someone uses is probably less important than knowing where to target needed change to improve overall safety performance,” Goldenhar says in a recent interview with Professional Safety, the journal of the American Society of Safety Engineers. “Do corporate safety policies need to be improved (culture) or is it a matter of how good policies are implemented on the jobsite (climate)?”

The point is to work from leading indicators, not react—or underreact— to problems as they arise. From research in consultation with industry stakeholders, CPWR has identified and described eight key leading indicators for construction safety:

  • Demonstrating management commitment
  • Aligning and integrating safety as a value
  • Ensuring accountability at all levels
  • Improving supervisory leadership
  • Empowering and involving workers
  • Improving communication
  • Training at all levels

  • Encouraging owner/client involvement

To read the full report on Building a Safety Culture: Improving Safety and Health Management in the Construction Industry, click here.

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