Safety Culture & Safety Climate: Knowing the Difference

June 29, 2017

EHS professionals are familiar with safety culture and what it means. Establishing, promoting and maintaining a strong safety culture lead to a reduction of incidents and improvements in safety performance. If you read about safety culture, you may come across another term that sounds similar: safety climate.

Safety culture and safety climate are two different things, but they work together. In this post, we define both concepts, and explain the relationship between the two.

A Safety Culture Takes Time to Develop

There are many definitions of safety culture, but I like this one included on a webpage of the Australian state of Queensland:

Safety culture embodies the value placed on safety and the extent to which people take personal responsibility for safety in an organisation. Safety culture is often described as the “personality” of an organisation, as it is a shared value of safety.

According to a factsheet from the same webpage, a positive safety culture exists when employees understand the importance of safety and exhibit positive safety behaviors, such as wearing personal protective equipment without being asked, completing risk assessments for all jobs and reporting all incidents.

Safety culture encompasses a set of shared beliefs, values, attitudes and customs with regards to workplace safety. A safety culture can take time to develop, sometimes even years, and can remain unchanged for a long time.

Safety Climate Gives a Snapshot in Time

Most people are more familiar with safety culture, but the term “safety climate” appears to precede the introduction of the term “safety culture”, according to an OH&S article. It is generally accepted that “safety culture” was first described in relation to the 1986 Chernobyl accident, while “safety climate” was used at least as early as 1980 or even earlier, the article says.

Here’s a useful definition of safety climate included in a factsheet from the Australian state of Queensland:

Safety climate is the perceived value placed on safety in an organisation at a particular point in time. Therefore, we can think of safety climate as the “mood” of an organisation, based on what workers experience at a specific time.

Since safety climate is a snapshot of safety at one point in time, it can change quickly, on a daily or weekly basis, the factsheet says. For example, an incident or the implementation of a new safety process may heighten the safety climate.

Also, safety climate is a good indicator of safety performance because it captures the attitudes and perceptions towards safety at a specific point in time, the factsheet says. The best way to measure safety climate is through surveys, while discussions can also help, especially in safety committees.

Which Came First: the Chicken or the Egg?

The relationship between safety culture and safety climate is a little like the “Chicken or the Egg” dilemma. Specifically, which one comes first or which one impacts the other? To answer the question, let’s look again at both concepts from the standpoint of time. Safety culture is built and sustained over time. Safety climate is a snapshot of perceptions at one particular moment in time.

If the safety climate is consistently positive over multiple points in time, it will inevitably have an impact on safety culture because positive behaviors and attitudes will be reinforced. Similarly, if the safety culture is strong, the safety climate will reflect it through the positive feedback received from surveys and other measurements of safety perceptions.

So, which comes first, safety culture or safety climate? An article from The Jobsite, a website on construction industry news, describes the relationship as “a two-way arrow”, which is a great answer. Safety culture and safety climate are mutually formative, the article says, meaning they impact each other. While we can’t definitively say whether safety culture or safety climate comes first, there is at least another debate that we can put to rest: in the case of the chicken and the egg, we know for sure that the egg came first!

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