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Primary elements for an effective safety culture

Safety Culture might be best defined as an organization's norms, attitudes, values, and beliefs regarding safety. The more successfully a company manages its safety, the more positive the safety culture, resulting in fewer and less severe safety events.

To assist fleet managers to develop a more successful safety culture in their organization, the Transportation Safety Board sponsored a study, The Role of Safety Culture in Preventing Commercial Vehicle Crashes, which looked at motor carrier industry best-practices.

A synopsis of the study was given at a conference session by the lead author of the report, Jeffrey Short, a senior research associate at the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI), who conducted the study. He shared the key components of the research and presented practical questions, actions, and processes for developing and enhancing the safety culture.

In prefacing his remarks, Short observed: “A homogeneous perception of safety is important for the achievement of a strong safety culture. But employees may differ in their safety perceptions, depending on their position and/or hierarchical level within the organization.”

When establishing a safety culture, the research identified a number of key concepts:

  • Top company leadership needs to communicate the importance of health and safety to drivers, especially through verbal communication.

  • Policies, procedures, employee safety responsibilities, and safety messages must be clear, simple, and to the point.

  • There needs to be participation and cooperation between all departments.

  • There needs to be education and training, especially when bringing onboard new drivers.

  • Recognition and rewards systems for safe behavior are an effective component.


From the study, Short said ATRI put together a list of actions to aid in the development of a positive culture of safety:

  1. Develop or redevelop internal definitions of culture and safety to create a baseline of where a company is currently, and where it would like to be. One of the first things to do is to define what “safety” means, know what the current safety goals are and should be, and what are the motivations and incentives to being safe.

  2. Conduct a Swiss cheese barrier analysis to define the causes of a crash or other loss. This concept defines safety barriers, depicted as slices or layers of Swiss cheese, as measures that typically prevent crashes.

    The barriers, however, have “holes” — vulnerabilities or deficiencies. If the holes in a series of slices (barriers), say driver training and the quality of maintenance, come into alignment, a crash can occur.

  3. Identify and dispel myths because what drivers, safety managers, and top leadership believe about safety is tied to behavior. If something is not seen as a threat or a risk, it will not be treated as such.

    “Risks may in some cases be treated, illogical as it may seem, as safety measures,” observed Short. “For instance, a driver believes that wearing a safety belt might lead to his death should his truck roll, a fire begins, and he is trapped by the safety belt. More likely, he will be killed when thrown from the truck.”

  4. Develop a sound knowledge of safety. This encompasses creating training programs that not only build the initial safety knowledge base of drivers, but continues their safety education.

    Those in charge of safety training should continually monitor the safety environment and training programs to identify ways to enhance safety, Short noted.

  5. Define or redefine employee safety roles from top to bottom, not just the driver's, to determine their safety role and influence on the company's safety culture.

  6. Gauge the effectiveness of approaches and systems of safety communication to determine how well information is being communicated to drivers.

    “It is important that top leadership be able to communicate directly with drivers or through driver management to drivers,” Short said. “Likewise, drivers must be able to efficiently and effectively give information to top leadership and management.”

  7. Create or enhance a system of safety record data collection and analysis in order to positively change safety performance.

  8. Develop or redevelop motivational tools, training, and orientation methods because these are effective means to increase safe behavior and bring drivers into the safety culture.

From ATRI's research, it also came up with practical questions and actions for fleet safety managers to use to develop their organization's safety culture.

Because building a safety culture is part policy course and part program implementation, Short said ATRI created a four-stage plan.

Stage 1

The initial step is to assess the current safety culture through eight questions.

  1. What is the current state of our corporate culture?

  2. What makes up our safety culture? Determine the pervading company safety-related attitudes, values, norms, and beliefs.

  3. What is the overall level of employee commitment to safety? Determine what currently motivates safe behavior among drivers, and make an assessment of the role of specific employee groups (drivers and operations, sales, and safety departments) in the safety culture.

  4. Are the safety training, orientation, and recognition and rewards programs effective?

  5. What data are collected, what data should also be collected, and is all data properly analyzed to understand safety performance of drivers and company as a whole?

  6. Is driver empowerment in the safety culture sufficient?

  7. What are the barriers and vulnerabilities to improved safety?

  8. Are safety communications methods in place adequate?

Stage 2

The next phase is to identify areas for safety culture improvement. For this, ATRI produce some brainstorming exercises for companies to use to help find potential areas of improvement areas.

  1. Develop a list of how things “could be” or “should be” compared with how they are currently.

  2. Develop a list of where high-level deficiencies exist within the safety culture, and where overall improvements will be beneficial.

  3. Develop a list of safety-related deficiencies areas for each department within a company.

  4. Develop a list of improvement areas for training, orientation, and recognition and rewards programs.

  5. Develop a list of data and data analysis needs.

  6. Develop a list of driver empowerment needs.

  7. List new safety barriers and discuss how existing safety barriers can be improved.

  8. Identify where safety communications systems are ineffective or needed.

Stage 3

After compiling safety culture deficiencies, the next step is development of individually tailored solutions for each deficiency, and solutions to address multiple safety culture deficiencies.

Stage 4

The final stage is to implement safety culture improvement solutions. ATRI recommended that these be transparent, open to suggestions, and include as much of a company's staff as possible.

After implementation, the effectiveness of the safety culture should be evaluated and reassessed by going through the four-stage cycle once again.


Research clearly indicates that a positive safety culture leads to good safety performance, Short said. Following best practices regarding the assessment, development, and reassessment of the safety culture can help any company improve, regardless of size.

For the best results, the “safety culture must be seen as anevolutionary process that is adaptable to changes,” he said.“There is no right or wrong way to have a safety culture aslong as you do what works for your organization.”n

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