How can we achieve a sustainable safety culture?

At the 2nd International Symposium to Advance Total Worker Health in Bethesda, Maryland, in the U.S. I had the honor to give a lecture. The main topic of the symposium was the launch of the International Social Security Association’s (ISSA’s) “Vision Zero Campaign” in North America. 

The campaign aims to improve safety, health, and well-being at work by engaging companies worldwide to systematically reduce occupational accidents and diseases through investments in a healthy and motivated workforce.

This campaign is a perfect match with our Zero Harm Culture @ Siemens program that my team and I initiated in 2012 to improve the safety performance at our company and permanently transform the way management and employees think and act with respect to health and safety. We began the implementation of our company-wide global Zero Harm Culture campaign with the very firm conviction that a zero-incident workplace is achievable. So the topic of my lecture was our Zero Harm Culture strategy, what we’ve already accomplished in the past, and what we’ll do in the future to achieve our goal of zero incidents.

Reaching hearts and minds

As you probably know, our company is one of the largest technology corporations in the world with more than 370,000 employees globally. Some of them work in challenging environments like offshore platforms, substations, and power plants. Nevertheless, for the Managing Board and myself it was clear that we all have the same vision, that everyone working for our company should be able to rely on an safe and secure work environment and return healthy and safe to family and friends at the end of the day – and that we can achieve this if we systematically and unrelentingly work for it every single day.

Safety usually starts with rules, regulations, and instructions. Information and training are certainly an important cornerstone. But just addressing people’s minds isn’t enough to create a culture of safety. It’s essential that we also reach people’s hearts in order to build up a true Zero Harm Culture. And that’s something that can’t be decreed. Plus, for a company like Siemens that employs people in more than 190 countries, there isn’t a single, defined path that can be walked in all different cultures. Because diverse cultures prevail in our different countries, this has to be reflected in the cultural aspect of our Zero Harm Culture. A common vision and principles are the foundation of our company-wide framework, but a safety culture needs to be adapted to local cultures in order to be accepted and implemented in a sustainable manner. Employees shouldn’t adopt safe behaviors just because it’s requested by their boss: They should be completely convinced that it’s the right thing to do, and it’s crucial to protect their own health and life and the health and the lives of their colleagues at all times. Many elements of our internal Zero Harm Culture program were therefore designed to impact people emotionally.

As the safety researcher professor Sidney Dekker discovered, the majority of workplace accidents are the result of flawed design and inadequate resources – and so Dekker claims that people are the solution. They need to be engaged in designing an improved workplace. Our tools for engaging people include videos where employees who had a work-related accident tell their personal story. Another approach is to hold interactive engagement sessions that combine filmed drama, live action, and a facilitated discussion.

Leading by example

To make our Zero Harm Culture easy to understand for everyone, it’s based on three simple principles. The first is the strong belief that zero incidents is achievable. The second is that there’s never a reason to compromise on health and safety. The third is “We take care of each other.” These three principles set clear expectations for our employees as well as our contractors at our construction sites all over the world. In addition to reaching hearts and minds and teaching basic principles, there’s more involved in ensuring the full implementation of a safety culture. Another crucial factor is that living safely starts with the leadership – beginning with the Managing Board.

Managers who want to be credible and be accepted by their team have to lead by example. It’s also important that every manager praises laudable behaviors and calls out unsafe or noncompliant behavior. That’s why we introduced a measure that we call “Safety Walk and Talks” that’s mandatory for our management team. Business Unit CEOs needs to regularly talk with people on-site and check to see if safety is ensured. Managers who fail to meet a safety commitment over the long term suffer the consequences. Managers at all levels are also asked to openly express their appreciation of those who put our Zero Harm Culture principles into practice, and employees who’ve made an extraordinary effort are publicly praised.

A shared commitment to a shared goal

In general, the implementation of a sustainable safety culture that’s lived every day can only work if each employee and each manager is committed to contributing to the common goal, regardless of their position – because a Zero Harm Culture needs to be anchored in all business processes. Colleagues in R&D, Sales, and SCM along with everyone else are charged with the task of preventing accidents, just like managers at projects sites. They all have different work to do that ultimately impacts the safety performance of the entire company. If every person is committed to the Zero Harm Culture – no matter what job they do at Siemens –, zero incidents is achievable.

Proactive action

Discuss this important topic with us.

What’s your company’s approach to cutting down on occupational accidents and diseases? I’m looking forward to your comments!