Make Safety Second Nature

A strong focus on building the right corporate culture is crucial.

By Michael R. Gambrell, The Dow Chemical Co.

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Companies that want to elevate their environment, health and safety (EH&S) performance should focus on two sides of safety: the soft side and the hard side. The soft side is all about making EH&S a part of your culture and your DNA. The hard side is the engine that drives that culture, such as companywide operating disciplines, processes and tools.

Both are critical, but the soft side is more difficult to achieve because it involves human behavior. It takes time to nurture a safety mindset and make it a way of life rather than a box to check or something to do as time allows. Eventually, the effort pays off as safety behaviors become automatic, like putting on a seatbelt, and that’s when you start to see dramatic improvements.

You can buy most of the processes and tools to implement and measure safety programs from organizations like the National Safety Council and the American Chemistry Council and from various consulting companies. However, you can’t buy a safety culture; it must happen from the inside out.

Dow has created a safety culture — testifying to our success, we currently hold the Robert W. Campbell Award of the National Safety Council, which recognizes achievement in integrating EH&S into business success. We do things differently than other companies in the process industries — but our approach certainly is transferable.

In my experience, when companies fail in their safety performance, it’s because they didn’t focus enough on the behaviors — when that link is broken, problems occur. For this reason, I’d like to share five tips to help you create an enduring safety culture, one in which safety becomes second nature.

1. Make safety the top priority… Have the philosophical discussion. Every company should ask itself what it’s doing to create the right behaviors to keep people and the environment safe. Early in its history, Dow chose to create a culture predicated on caring for human health, the environment, our communities and the world — and making that a top priority in terms of time, attention and money. From there, our goals and operating disciplines fell into place and have continued to advance with knowledge and technology. It’s one reason why working at Dow is 19 times safer than working in a grocery store and 23 times safer than working in a hospital.

Putting safety first is critical but conversations can’t be only about the numbers; they must put concern for the individual and the enterprise’s future first. When you do that, you’re building a culture in which tolerance for harm and injury is very low and safety expectations are very high. Employees at all levels will start demanding the processes and tools, and get inspired to make a difference. When that happens, safety becomes a part of your DNA. Improved behaviors will fuel innovative thinking and more sustainable improvements in total EH&S performance — just as they have for Dow (see Figures 1 and 2).

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