April 1, 2016

Safety Culture Across Regions

Global organizations often ask questions like, “Will the things that work in North America also work in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe?” or “Are the principles that inform safety excellence the same across countries and their cultures?” or “Is safety excellence in an underdeveloped country the same as in a developed one?”.

These are important questions that many leaders find perplexing. For sure regional cultures are different when it comes to safety. Travel in Asia and you will see a common sight, an entire family riding a motor scooter, sometimes five or six people at a time, including children, completely unprotected. Even within North America there are serious differences in how safety is looked at and what it really means. So how is a global organization to approach it?

The first thing to understand is this: the principles that inform safety excellence don’t change across cultures. What does change is the underlying value the regional culture gives to safety, and what it looks like to have this value. The goal of safety performance improvement is always the same; make the workplace safer; engage employees in the process of doing so; teach leaders how to lead the effort effectively; start with serious injuries and fatalities.

What is different is what is meant by the words we use to accomplish these goals, and it is very different across regional cultures. When you say that safety isn’t a priority it is a value, what do these words actually mean? These words are understood in the context of a regional culture. If you feel fine about taking your family for a ride across a busy city on a motor scooter, your understanding of what it might mean to make safety a value is altogether different than it would be if this looks to you like unacceptable risk. In itself it doesn’t mean that people in undeveloped regions don’t value human life, but it does mean improving safety must be approached differently.

When I was 15 years old I bought a 650cc Triumph that moved like a rocket. My parents, conscientious people who cared about their children, thought it was fine. I worked after school to earn the money for it and I had a license. I sometimes drove it barefoot, never wore a helmet, and thought the most fun I could have was doing wheelies down my neighborhood street, or outracing my older friend’s Corvette. I don’t want to admit to the rest. It wasn’t that my family didn’t value my life. It was that standards for safety were different then. They were ignorant of what was risky and how it could be dealt with. Seat belts didn’t exist in cars in those days, and the fatal accident rate was five times what it is today.[1]

Vehicles accidents were a fact of life, most people had them. People didn’t realize they could be prevented. It wasn’t part of our culture. But if you had asked us if we valued safety we would have said yes. Of course we did.

Had someone talked to us about safety in those days we would have listened. We would have said we valued safety, and meant it. But the words meant something different to us than they do today. The same thing is true across regional cultures.

So how do we lead safety in a regional culture with different standards than those we find acceptable, say in a developing country? Start by understanding what the task is. The core context for what it means to be “safe” has to be understood. In some parts of Africa children riding barefoot on the top of a truck is perfectly acceptable. Getting that to change isn’t a matter of putting out a rule or fining some people who don’t follow a new rule against it.

The standards have to be raised by leaders educating leaders. Start with a small group of your best organizational leaders and think of it like the nucleus of a cell. The nucleus of leaders has to get it first, then they start the process of raising the standards, setting new norms, communicating differently about safety issues, bringing people on board.

Know that you won’t change things overnight, but understand it isn’t a zero sum game. It is a process of improvement. Can you improve 20% in a year? Yes, and even more if your leaders are highly skilled and motivated for the right reasons.  Can you get people to adopt a higher standard at work?  Yes, site leaders can effect immediate changes that will eventually reach beyond the gates and benefit the entire community.

The good news is that the core value for safety is there already, irrespective of the cultural context. It is built into the human psyche. If I would have been killed on my motorcycle my family would have been crushed.

Look on this as an improvement opportunity to take on with enthusiasm. You can save some lives.

[1] “List of Motor Vehicle Deaths in US by Year.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 03 October 2014. Web. 11 March 2015. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_motor_vehicle_deaths_in_U.S._by_year

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Safety Culture Across Regions

April 1, 2016


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