Safety Culture and an Effective Safety Process

In order to reduce accidents and injuries, an organization must work together to change the safety culture.

Damon Tofte, CDS, and John E. Schumacher, CSP

Let’s face it … we have to face it … the waste industry is one of the most dangerous industries in the world. It continually has high rates of fatalities and injuries. While these rates have dropped over the years, the numbers are still too high. To bring these numbers down, it is going to take a team effort on everyone’s part—from large company CEOs to drivers in small “mom-and-pop” companies, to work together to eliminate accidents and injuries. What can be done to bring all these various parts together to focus on safety? Ideally the easiest, most cost-effective and practical way would be to work together to change the safety culture within your organization.

What is a Safety Culture?

Webster’s Dictionary defines culture as “…the set of shared attitudes, values, goals and practices that characterizes an institution or organization.” But it also has a separate definition as “…the characteristic features of everyday existence (as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time.” When applied to safety, both definitions work well. However, in the second definition, culture seems to take on a stronger, more permanent meaning as “features of everyday existence.” A safety culture must have this existence to permeate throughout an organization from top to bottom, through all locations, departments, lines of business, and throughout each and every person within a company.

Four Characteristics of a Safety Culture

A safety culture has distinct characteristics that make it unique from the various other cultures within an organization:

  1. Safety is held as a value by all employees

  2. Each employee feels responsible for the safety of their co-workers, as well as themselves

  3. Each employee is willing and able to “go beyond the call of duty” on behalf of the safety of others

  4. Each employee routinely performs job duties while actively caring for, and performing safety behaviors, for the benefit of others

These characteristics can almost be drawn from parallels to a family, and are evident in many family-run waste companies. When it is your spouse or sibling working beside you, you cannot (nor will not) be too careful. We will all be keepers to our brothers and sisters in the waste industry.

Goal of a Safety Culture (Internal Combustion)

Ideally, the ultimate goal of a safety culture is much like an engine. You want the process to be an internal combustion: once the engine is started, it will keep running. All of the moving parts keep going, and fuel and maintenance is provided continually to keep it running. Every part keeps the safety culture engine running, providing fuel and increasing horsepower. The horsepower is decreased accidents, injuries and costs.

What Shapes a Safety Culture?

The current shape of your company’s safety culture always starts at the top and works its way down through the chain of command, much like the switch that starts the engine. Management and employees shape the culture by what they value and believe in, by the assumptions each group makes of the other groups within the company, or by the attitudes in which interactions take place throughout the course of a workday. Sometimes the message gets lost in translation as policies, procedures and paperwork bog down the true message that management wishes to convey regarding safety. While these are completely necessary, they intended to be a meaning to the message, not the message itself. Oftentimes, managers or supervisors fail to recognize their responsibilities and accountability by separating productivity and safety, when the two must work together. Unsafe activities may be observed but not corrected, or proper training may be pushed aside in order to get an employee on the job quickly. Employees may feel rushed into a job, and thus their well-being, job satisfaction and morale all suffer. The engine begins to sputter or stall.

Three Sustaining Areas of a Safety Culture

All members of an organization must pay attention to three general areas for a safety culture to grow and prosper. Each area builds upon the other, and all support the others. First are the personal safety needs that include knowledge, skills, attitude and morale. In this area, training is vital. An employee cannot be safe if they do not how to be safe. This is also the area where interpersonal skills require a manager, supervisor or even a fellow employee to communicate effectively and often with others. Second is the safety environment created to make all employees feel safe. This includes good housekeeping practices, trucks and equipment, safety tools and safe climate. An organization can preach safety to its employees, but employees must feel safe in the trucks they operate or in the offices in which they work. Finally is the safety behavior that must occur. This would be things such as making sure all employees wear their PPE, trucks are locked out prior to working on them or helpers are lifting containers properly. Once the message is communicated and the tools are provided, the safety activities must be performed. All three areas need to be in place and constantly monitored. These items are the fuel for the engine.

Difference between a Safety Culture and Compliance

Too often, the message of safety gets blurred with compliance. Safety should be a culture, and compliance is always a guide. If your organization wants to just be compliant with OSHA or FMCSA, then it has set very low standards. Compliance is always a minimum standard created by a government institution. The goal is keep your people and assets safe, not just avoid fines. When a true safety culture is created, and the engine is humming, that engine will be fined-tuned and compliance with the law will be easier. There are necessary steps that must be incorporated into your safety activities to be in compliance that will be discussed momentarily.

Steps to Start the Safety Culture Engine

So we want to start the safety culture engine. Let’s do our pre-trip inspection on that engine first. You must first adopt an internal value for yourself that from this day forward, safety is something you are, and it will be as important to you as productivity and customer service in your work life. As a manager, you will facilitate safety meetings to communicate your message; you will not let safety meetings become operation meetings, as that will dilute the safety message. You will also adopt the mindset that you and those around you will not overlook or ignore safety issues, and that you will set the example for safety. Finally, you will train, communicate and motivate everyone in your organization to be safe, and that each person will understand that safety will not be compromised.

Striving for Safety

Many organizations within the solid waste industry strive for zero accidents. As a safety professional I have observed that many of those organizations spend significant resources toward safety but often do not achieve the results they are hoping for. Many of the safety activities are well intentioned, but are not based on a real plan or strategy to reduce losses. What many of these organizations lack is a Safety Process.

A Safety Process is a strategic plan that uses a series of activities and events that are designed to reduce losses. An effective Safety Process will use measurements for each element to track goals, completion and results. The objective is to align safety as a process within an organization that is managed as any other process that drives the success of an organization.

Six Elements of an Effective Safety Process

An effective Safety Process has identifiable elements. Each element contributes to the overall effectiveness of the strategy. Over the course of a year, each element will individually and collectively be evaluated, measured and updated as needed to address the (loss reduction) goals of the organization. Following are the most pronounced elements.

Written Safety Policies

Most organizations own written safety policies. However, the typical weaknesses are that many of the policies are generic, overly technical and do not clearly communicate the day to day do’s and don’ts the workers need to know. Additionally, many of the written safety policies are not effectively communicated to the average worker.

Safety Training

Most organizations have very good intentions to train their workers about safety issues. Quite often, however, actually performing the safety training gets put onto the back burner and another year passes without conducting meaningful safety training for the average worker. A good Safety Process will include a needs assessment for safety training and will have an annual safety training plan that will identify topics of training needed, affected employees and resources for completion.

Safety As Part of a Job Description

Each job/position will identify the specific safety responsibilities. For supervisory and management staff, the safety responsibilities would be measurable.

Claims Management

This is a very significant part of a Safety Process. A well-defined accident investigation process is needed. A post-accident investigation process will serve to determine root cause of accidents and create prevention activities.

Benchmarking (History and Results)

Conducting initial and ongoing measurements of safety results and activities is a critical aspect of the Safety Process. The historical losses of an organization, implementation of key safety initiatives, measuring frequency and severity are all key measurables. Losses by location, type of vehicle, type of route, etc. are details that may also be important for strategizing loss prevention efforts.


This key element is also an OSHA requirement. OSHA requires frequent and regular inspections of the workplace. Effective self-evaluations will identify effectiveness of safety policies, application of safe work practices and identify hazards. Key areas include: Route Collection, Drivers, Facilities and High Hazard Activities.

Top 10 Safety Process Improvements

The most common activities that have created measurable improvements include 10 activities listed below:

  1. Trend losses for past three years of fleet and employee injury

  2. Define measurable safety duties for supervisors

  3. Review and update existing safety policies

  4. Provide ongoing safety training for supervisors

  5. Provide ongoing safety training for employees

  6. Implement a post incident review for all accidents

  7. Conduct safety evaluations of drivers, facilities and higher hazard work activities

  8. Implement a formal safety orientation program

  9. Calculate cost of losses by operation/department

  10. Enforce existing safety policies

Progressive organizations strive for improvements in their key operations. Safety is considered a key operation for most solid waste and recycling organizations.

Damon Tofte, CDS, is a Regional Safety Manager for IESI Corporation(Fort Worth, TX). He is a 15-year veteran of the waste industry in both safety and operations. Damon can be reached at [email protected].

John E. Schumacher, CSP, is a 20-year safety professional that has assisted organizations with developing strategic approaches to reducing losses. He can provide direction and leadership for organizations seeking a greater return from their investment in safety and loss reduction activities. This information is an abbreviated version of a training presentation. For more information about the Six Key Elements of an Effective Safety Process, contact John at (847) 463-7224 or e-mail [email protected].

This article is a summary of the safety presentation from Waste Expo 2010.