How Mature is Safety Culture in Organizations Today?

Construction Worker
January 16, 2020

“Safety culture doesn’t improve by accident.”
~David Cant on Twitter

Sometimes it can take years for a safety culture to fully develop. It takes time for everyone to share the same set of beliefs, values, attitudes and customs regarding workplace safety.

What constitutes a positive safety culture?

Answers vary, but a safety culture is positive when employees understand the importance of safety, take personal responsibility for safety, adopt the right behaviors, conduct risk assessments, and proactively report incidents, near misses, hazards and observations.

Here’s a more interesting question: How mature is safety culture today in organizations?

There is no precise answer, but there are some clues that can help us understand how organizations are doing.

A few months ago, Shirley Parsons released its inaugural EHS Talent Report that provides key insights into how companies are achieving positive results through the strategic deployment of talent within their EHS teams.

The report includes results of a survey with 533 EHS executives across the U.S., all with Director, Vice President or Senior Vice President titles.

Survey participants represent 476 companies with $4.8 trillion in combined annual revenues and almost 17 million global employees. The largest percentages of represented industries are Construction (20%), Heavy Manufacturing (11%), and Pharmaceuticals/Biotech (10%).

Respondents were also asked to assess their companies’ EHS culture using Patrick Hudson’s “The evolutionary model of Safety Culture” in “Safety Management and Safety Culture – The Long, Hard and Winding Road”.

The stages in the model are the following, from the weakest to the strongest:

  • Pathological: “Who cares as long as we’re not caught.
  • Reactive: “Safety is important. We do a lot every time we have an accident.”
  • Calculating: “We have systems in place to manage all hazards.
  • Proactive: “We work on the problems that we still find.
  • Generative: “Safety is how we do business, and is fully integrated into everything we do.”

According to Hudson, a safety culture can only be considered seriously in the latter two stages. Up to and including the Calculating stage, “the term safety culture is best reserved to describe formal and superficial structures rather than an integral part of the overall culture, pervading how the organization goes about its work.”

What does the Shirley Parsons report reveal?

First, the two highest response categories for organizational EHS culture were “Proactive” and “Calculating”. Here are the full results:

  • Pathological: 1%
  • Reactive: 15%
  • Calculating: 25%
  • Proactive: 40%
  • Generative: 19%

Second, the report says that there is a correlation between EHS culture and EHS staff turnover: organizations with more mature EHS cultures see lower turnover among their EHS teams.

Third, EHS executives who report directly to the CEO are 53% more likely to report a “Generative” culture than executives who are one or more levels removed from the CEO.

Fourth, as the number of EHS professionals increases, executives are more likely to report higher levels of EHS cultural engagement.

So we can conclude that:

  • U.S. organizations have a somewhat positive impression of their safety culture, but there’s plenty of room for improvement.
  • A positive or negative safety culture directly impacts turnover of safety staff.
  • Commitment by executive management, especially the CEO, is key.
  • The number of EHS employees clearly impacts EHS culture. Doing “more with less” may not work.

Finally, it’s worth noting that these are opinions of how organizations view their safety culture. There may be a disconnect between how people perceive things and reality. But the findings from the Shirley Parsons report are still valuable.

For more information, including results by industry, download the full report.



Jean-Grégoire Manoukian

Content Thought Leader