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How to Cultivate a Safety Culture

​ELIZABETH IS A SEASONED SECURITY OFFICER. She is on her third foot patrol of the night, inspecting the fence line, when she catches her shoe in a wire and falls into a ditch, breaking her wrist. John is on his second day of training when his instructor receives a report of a fight in the lunch room. During the security team’s response, John slips on a drink spilled during the ruckus, falls to the floor, and throws out his back.

Most companies would respond to these injuries by implementing generally accepted preventive measures. They would install extra lighting along the fence. They would issue slip-resistant boots. They would then be satisfied that the safety issues were addressed. But they would be wrong. Unless management proactively works to change the overall culture, the stop-gap measures won’t stick.

Reacting to safety incidents by improving safety policies and procedures is only part of the safety equation. For initiatives to be truly effective, security values must be woven into the fabric of the company’s operations through a safety culture.

A safety culture creates an environment that gives priority to protecting the well-being of employees, customers, and the public, regardless of profit, schedules, or market share. This approach has to start at the CEO’s desk and spread through relationships with senior leadership, human resources, and throughout the management hierarchy.

Management’s level of commitment to the safety culture directly affects the results. In addition, the message that safety is a priority must be pervasive and the safety culture concept must be reinforced through practices and supported through an awards and incentives system.

This is not just theory. I have seen firsthand how such a program can succeed at a large organization with hundreds of offices worldwide and thousands of employees. This priority on safety has been proven to enhance performance and site security at my company. One measure of the results is that our insurance rating has dropped by more than 50 percent since 2004. Also, no employee has missed time from work as the result of a job-related injury for almost six years.

Any company of any size can benefit from these same practices.

Make Safety a Priority

The goal is to have zero incidents. To achieve that objective, safety management must be integrated into the daily operating methodology of every employee at every level. Companies can do this by raising employee’s awareness to ensure that they maintain a proactive attitude towards safety.

Managers throughout the company can raise awareness about safety by holding open meetings on safety topics to address timely issues, such as winter weather hazards or safe lifting techniques. Field managers should conduct a short safety briefing before each shift, reiterating that safe working conditions are the team’s first priority.

In addition, the organization should have posters everywhere with slogans such as “Zero incidents is our goal.” These serve as constant reminders. When delivered correctly, these reminders help motivate the team to achieve zero accidents.


Training is the next plank in a safety culture’s platform. The goal is to equip the entire staff with the knowledge to make smart decisions that keep them, their coworkers, and the assets they are protecting safe.

Safety education and training should start on the first day of the job as a part of orientation, and it should continue for the duration of an employee’s tenure.

During orientation, safety should be the first topic discussed. By giving it priority, the company stresses how important safety is to the corporate ethos.

The employee handbook should prominently cover company safety information, policies, and procedures. Companies should put this section at the front of the publication for the same reason that they should put the topic first on the orientation agenda.

Employees should also be asked to sign a “safety commitment letter” which confirms that they have read and that they understand the handbook’s safety chapter. The letter should commit them to abide by all regulations, identify and correct unsafe practices they encounter, and encourage others to follow the rules.

Videos should be used to demonstrate basic safety scenarios and illustrate how they should be handled. When done properly, this type of presentation grabs the attention of employees and memorably communicates a lot of information in a short period of time.

Initial instruction must be supplemented continuously and enforced constantly to keep lessons fresh in employees’ minds and current with industry developments. Regularly scheduled training updates by in-house safety experts or guest lecturers is a useful tactic.

In any training exercise about procedures and how to use equipment, safety should be a focus of the discussion. The Point is not just to teach employees how to use a piece of machinery or which type of footwear is the best. Rather, the objective is to have safety on the minds of all workers at all times.

The risk of not following procedures should also be highlighted. The more that employees understand about the risks associated with each task, the more they will understand the importance of safety.

Another way to get the message of safety across is to develop a library of one-page safety case studies to reinforce training. These briefs should include a specific safety scenario and provide suggested solutions for handling it. As each new case study is written up, it should be distributed. Management should try to circulate one such document weekly or monthly. Employees should be required to read, sign, and return them.

Once the case studies have been distributed, they should be kept in a central location—in hard copy or electronically on a computer depending on the working environment—so that employees can access them when needed. The signed copies should be retained in employees’ files to document this facet of their awareness training.

Get Site Audits

For employees who work outside the main office, such as security officers, training must be reinforced on location. If the location is a new client site, it should be surveyed for hazards and unsafe or unhealthy conditions. In addition, if the security team is going to a remote office or a client site, it is essential to make sure that those in charge at that site are on the same page when it comes to safety.

The officer should proceed with the assignment only if it is deemed safe—even if that means turning down business in the case of contracted workers. The key point here is that for safety to become a core value, it must trump monetary gains within the corporate culture.

Security officers face potentially unsafe conditions in some of the least expected places. For example, my company provides service in one location where there is a significant amount of truck traffic going through an entry control gate. The physical setup of the gate area was originally configured so that personnel were forced to walk in front of moving vehicles as they approached the gate.

The situation became so severe that the company confronted the client. After discussing the problem, the client reconfigured the gate area. While the client was initially reluctant to do this, causing some friction in the relationship, our managers, through persistence and with supporting data, helped them understand the potential hazards the gate presented. In the end, everyone benefited, including the employees of the client company.

The safety status of a site is not a static phenomenon. Weather conditions, wildlife, and people can quickly change a location’s safety conditions for the worse. To ensure that no new issues have developed at a site, officers should conduct a location audit before each shift. This is an obvious, yet often neglected, practice.  As a part of the audit, officers should go through a checklist of items that must be in place before work begins. This could include placing traffic cones at certain spots, salting roadways when icy, and checking the working order of receiving gates. Reviewing this checklist at the start of every shift programs employees to identify the state of their environment and take action to ensure that all areas are safe.

Empower Staff

Officers must be taught to stay on alert for more than just security threats. They have to be on the lookout for changes in the environment throughout their shift. When they identify an unsafe condition, they must be empowered to make immediate decisions that neutralize the threat.

For example, if an officer is patrolling a perimeter on foot in the rain and suddenly sees lightning, he should feel free to immediately call his manager and tell him that he needs to find cover and delay the patrol until the storm passes. Though this seems like common sense, an officer told to adhere strictly to the rules may choose to continue the patrol rather than face an irate manager.

Even more importantly, officers must feel free to question conditions, procedures, and requirements that strike them as unsafe. They must be able to offer ideas for corrective actions. These freedoms motivate officers to assume leadership roles in maintaining safety and becoming safety advocates in the process.

Companies can enhance safety by making job-hazard analysis part of the daily routine. This process encourages officers to notify each other of unsafe conditions or habits they observe. In the earlier case of John, who slipped on a wet floor during a skirmish, a coworker might have prevented John’s fall if the coworker had been encouraged to keep an eye on fellow officers and had subsequently suggested that John wear anti-slip boots when on duty.

Peer support can also include a buddy system. Managers can pair two officers and make each responsible for the team being equipped with proper safety gear before their shift. Together, these techniques instill situational awareness and reinforce responsibility.

Encourage Communication

An essential component of an effective safety culture is fostering an open, honest environment. Executives must be kept abreast of problems and how officers and managers are solving them or failing to respond. People must be accountable not only for making mistakes but also for failing to report mistakes they observe.

Officers must be required to report to their supervisor the safety status of their site as well as any injuries sustained in the field. Reporting “near misses” is as important as reporting actual accidents, because by examining the underlying cause and implementing a fix, the company may prevent the next accident.

For example, in the prior case of the poorly configured gate, the company used the reported “near misses” to prove that the area was dangerous. It did not wait for a fatality to show that safety was a real concern.

In another instance, officers were required to manually open a gate for incoming and outgoing traffic. This procedure required that the officer swing the gate open and closed. As we continued our efforts to raise awareness about safety, the officers at this site began reporting “near miss” incidents. Each time they closed the gate, their fingers came very close to being crushed between the gate and the post that held the gate closed.

Site supervisors examined the problem and verified that someone could have their fingers severely damaged by the gate if they did not remove their hand quickly enough. The client agreed to fix the problem. Until then, supervisors instructed all personnel on the proper technique for closing the gate. The gate was reconfigured shortly after to ensure that there was no way that anyone could be injured while opening or closing the gate.

As another way to further communication, field managers should provide updates for safety directors and executive leadership. Monthly conference calls are an easy way to do this. Managers can provide briefs on the safety status of their locations, including injuries sustained, challenges encountered, solutions developed, and lessons learned. They can also encourage discussion and solicit ideas to deal with unresolved problems.

Ideally, a representative from the company’s workers’ compensation office should participate in these calls. He or she can discuss costs related to injuries, report on safety trends, and note any location that is incurring higher rates of injuries. The team can then discuss how these trends are affecting the company, and formulate actions to address them.

Another simple, yet highly effective tool is a 24-hour, toll-free safety hotline. This gives officers a direct route by which to report safety concerns and violations to senior management. The hotline provides officers with a way to give reports anonymously, thus simultaneously addressing safety issues and issues with managers who are not listening to their officers.

Create Incentives

An awards and incentives program can be instrumental in cultivating a companywide safety culture and keeping people interested in it. Incentives need not be expensive or extravagant. Small recognitions are often enough to maintain employee interest.

One idea is a company-sponsored luncheon for people who work accident-free for some period of time. The time period should be long enough to make the achievement worthwhile but not so long that officers forget the reward exists. A financial quarter or six months is a good length of time. Locations that are incident-free for a year can be honored with a dinner and a plaque.

Field managers can also give “spot awards” to officers when they observe them going above and beyond their safety duties. These might include a monetary reward or promotional gift item.

Another good option is using the company’s annual meeting to applaud safety performance. Giving the employees who have excelled at safety a chance to share the stage with top executives can boost morale and confidence.

Company newsletters, e-mail feeds, and blogs can also provide good ways to recognize individuals and teams that have performed exceptionally well. These vehicles can be used to pass on advice and lessons learned from real-world situations.

Contract security officers should be included in the incentives program. For example, they can be given plaques to honor a month, a quarter, or a year without a lost-time incident.

Activities that foster critical thinking about safety and also include a reward should be encouraged. For example, in my company, managers often hold a “two-minute drill.” When officers arrive on site, they fill out a form that asks, “What’s the worst-case safety scenario that could happen to you and others here in the next two minutes?” Field managers collect the forms and review them at the end of the month. Officers with the most creative, yet plausible, responses receive a reward.

Filling out the form puts officers in the safety mind-set, while the incentive encourages them to take the question seriously. They’re motivated to think about their safety and the safety of others and to keep safety top-of-mind as they start the day.

Send It Home

A safety culture should not start and end at the workplace. When safety is part of employees’ personal lives, they are more receptive to practicing safety at work. Management, therefore, should encourage employees to be safe wherever they are, whether at home, traveling, or at work.

Toward this end, the company should incorporate home-safety education into workplace training. This can be done by having a brief discussion of a home-safety topic during company meetings. Possible topics include how to prepare your family to evacuate the home in a fire, how to secure your home against burglary, and what to do about carbon monoxide detection and radon testing.

The company can disseminate this safety information through all standard communication vehicle, such as flyers and newsletters.

My company uses all of these methods and the proof of the safety culture’s effectiveness is in the numbers. Last year, the security department reached a milestone of more than 34 million hours worked without an employee losing time from work due to an incident.

Marcus Perdue is vice president of business operations for Day & Zimmermann Security Services, based in Philadelphia.