Every day, employees in various companies from oil & gas, manufacturing or chemical industries perform extremely dangerous jobs, including building construction, commercial diving, and hazardous chemical monitoring. Yet, in 2014, companies with such working environments were voted among America’s Safest Companies by EHS Today.

How is it that despite having high potential risks of workplace injuries, these companies achieved higher health and safety scores than others? And how can more companies get to the same level?

 Most of the time, it boils down to the maturity of the organization’s health and safety culture . The higher your maturity, the safer your workplace.

Companies at the bottom of the maturity curve have a dependent safety culture where employees rely on their leaders or supervisors to keep them safe at work. As the company moves up the curve, their safety culture gradually becomes more independent, and employees begin to take responsibility for their own safety. The top of the maturity curve is the interdependent stage where employees talk to and coach each other to identify and avoid risk for optimal health and safety. This is the level of maturity that “safety stewards” need to achieve.

If you look at the growth through these phases, you’ll notice an increase in the amount of talking going on in the organization. The dependent phase begins with leaders and supervisors doing most of the talking, but by the interdependent phase, everyone in the organization is actively talking to each other to achieve high levels of health and safety.

Moving up the maturity curve not only helps companies avoid safety risks, but also strengthens compliance with various occupational health and safety standards. The maturity stages described below help companies journey up the curve, and achieve a mature health and safety culture.

Starting Out: The Dependent Safety Culture

Companies at the bottom of the maturity curve tend to manage health and safety in a rather random manner i.e. they put some safety controls in place, and hire a few safety professionals. However, as the pressure from regulators increases, most companies begin to adopt a compliance-based approach to health and safety management. The drawback of this approach is that the employees tend to follow only minimum safety compliance requirements in order to avoid disciplinary action.

However, the good news is that as the company adopts a compliance-focused culture, they start noticing a reduction in safety costs, including: (1) obvious costs (e.g. workers compensation costs, medical and rehabilitation costs), (2) hidden costs (e.g. onsite medical treatment, replacement staff, investigations), and (3) costs to market (e.g. reputation, liability, boycott).

The company then matures to understand that effective safety management can actually save costs. However, cost containment does not equal investment. And unless safety is treated as an investment, the changes are short-lived.

So the question then becomes – what is the value proposition that can transform the perception of safety management from a cost-driver to an investment with tangible returns?

At this juncture, the company enters the “value proposition” stage. Traditionally, things like Integrity, Shareholder, Customers, Image, and Growth are referred to as company values. Hardly ever is safety treated as a core company value. It’s only considered when major mishaps happen, and injuries are great in number. This is a reactive approach.

However, when safety is made a company value, it becomes a proactive driver of decisions and a top management priority. Consequently, the organization strives to minimize health and safety risks through interventions such as audits and inspections, incident analysis, accountability and recognition programs, and health and safety policies and procedures. When these measures are implemented, the organization is ready to move to the next maturity level in their health and safety culture.

Trusted Discovery: The Independent Safety Culture

The Safety Triangle, as depicted here, is like an iceberg where only the tip is visible. The tip usually comprises fatalities or serious injuries. However, minor injuries, near-misses, and at-risk behaviors usually go unreported – the invisible part of the iceberg.

To get visibility into such hidden safety risks, it’s important to gain the trust of employees. You can do this by adopting positive reinforcement tools like encouraging employees to report at-risk behaviors and near-misses, providing recognition, scheduling feedback sessions, and emphasizing the importance of timely reporting in enhancing employees’ own safety.

The other way of getting visibility into hidden safety risks is by building safety scorecards which enable stakeholders to better understand where the top risks lie, so that they can make informed decisions on how to strengthen safety.

Engagement: The Interdependent Safety Culture

In the highest phase of cultural maturity, employees are actively engaged in managing safety, and looking out for each other. Engagement is critical because employees:

  • Know when and where at-risk behaviors occur
  • Are aware of peer attitudes which may impact safety
  • Are in the best position to use behavior-change tools on a day-to-day basis
  • Have the most to gain from safety improvements

A popular way of increasing employee engagement is through a people-based safety approach where a team of trained employees observe and score peer behavior as “safe” or “at risk,” anonymously. Based on their observations, they provide feedback, and work with management to reduce at-risk behavior.

Here, employees are actively improving their behavior not because they “have to,” but because they “want to.” They care about health and safety, and take initiatives to do things that they may not otherwise do.

ISO 45001 and Cultural Maturity

The ISO 45001 Occupational Health and Safety Management Standard, which is expected to be published in October 2016, is broadly divided into several steps, many of which correspond to the phases of cultural maturity that we have just discussed.

For instance, the standard will require participating members to document their safety processes in the context of the organization, while also identifying internal and external drivers of safety performance. This is similar to the “value proposition” stage of cultural maturity.

The standard also talks about leadership commitment and support resources -- which align with the stage when safety becomes a management priority, and is followed by interventions such as audits and inspections.

Similarly, the sections on evaluating the performance of the safety program correspond to the “trusted discovery” stage where companies are not only measuring lagging indicators of injury, but also looking at employee reports of near-misses and at-risk observations to develop leading indicators.

Finally, there is an increased emphasis on the need for continuous improvement of the safety programs which companies are adopting.

There is no better time than now to check where your company lies on the safety maturity curve. Where ever you are, the intention should be to adopt changes to move up the curve, and achieve a holistic health and safety culture.

The Role of Technology

As companies move from one maturity stage to the next, their health and safety programs become broader, and often, more complex. This is when it makes sense to leverage technology especially to streamline and automate workflows, strengthen incident capture, and enhance tracking and reporting. Technology can also help you develop integrated data models which link your assets with other data objects like risks, controls, and compliance requirements.

Here are some of the benefits that technology can offer:

Real-time safety risk intelligence

Technology can roll up risk data from across the organization to provide a centralized, real-time view of safety risks aligned with business objectives. This kind of visibility strengthens decision-making, and enables early detection and mitigation of safety risks. Risk analytics add further value by helping slice and dice data from multiple angles to identify safety trends, and anticipate potential risks.

Improved Safety Transparency and Accountability

One of the biggest advantages of technology is the ability to map health and safety risks to the corresponding controls, regulations, policies, business units, and incidents in a comprehensive data model. Thus, you gain a clear understanding of where the most critical safety risks lie, who is responsible for those risks, and how effectively the controls are functioning.

Automated Regulatory Updates

Staying abreast of the latest health and safety regulations can be a major challenge. Technology helps by automatically capturing regulatory alerts from external sources, mapping that data to compliance and risk categories, and then triggering the appropriate risk assessments and policy updates.

Closed-Loop Incident Management

With technology, you can effectively streamline and accelerate incident recording, investigation, and corrective action. Technology also enables you to capture incidents as they occur, and attach photos and videos as evidence.

Efficient Supplier Compliance Management

A scalable technology infrastructure can help you extend your safety culture into the supply chain by streamlining and automating assessments of supplier safety risks and compliance, while also enhancing collaboration with suppliers on incident resolution and corrective action.


Building a mature health and safety culture is not just about meeting regulatory requirements, or protecting the organization from litigation. It’s about creating a work environment where employees are empowered and engaged. The result? Higher productivity, better quality, and greater profitability.

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