A Workplace Culture Based on Safety


By Dan Paulsen
FDSOA International Director

Every workplace has its own culture based on beliefs and actions that have become automatic and often go unchallenged. One can recognize those beliefs and actions by statements such as "This is how we do things here" or "That's the way we've always done that."

Seeing as you're reading this article, you probably believe in enhancing safety. But how can you, as an individual, motivate others toward making injury prevention a top priority?

Working safely makes sense. Firefighter death and injury statistics don't. Within the fire service, activists are well aware of the issues. They have created programs for defensive driving, seat belt awareness, safety officer training, wellness, and a host of others. The programs are internationally supported and recognized. But still death and injury statistics are relatively unchanged. How can that be the case? We have the information we need to prevent many of these situations so what is in the way?

One would think that the chance of serious injury or death would be enough to motivate safe practices. Since the stats prove this isn't always the case, we have to explore other reasons for failure to comply with safety recommendations. That brings us to the idea of workplace culture and whether proactive attitudes toward safety planning and action are automatic.

What follows is a skeleton for a process of assessing what you already have, identifying potential areas for enhancement and reviewing concepts that can facilitate or sabotage efforts to make the workplace as safe as possible.

1. Assess the current level of compliance within the idea of workplace safety
Look for beliefs and actions in your workplace that indicate just how serious your department is about safety both on the organizational level as well as the personal. Add any additional questions to the ones below that apply specifically to your situation.

Beliefs

  • Does the hierarchy, from the floor through management to the politicians and the public, understand and support the need for safety?
  • If applicable, does the union insist on a culture of safety?
  • Are internal politics feeding power struggles that prevent constructive dialogue on the subject of workplace safety?
  • Does negative peer pressure get in the way of lifelong learning?
  • When a safety program is set up, do members take it seriously or do they react like they don't care?
  • Is safety training seen as boring?
  • Do senior staff give the impression that there is nothing they need to learn or that further understanding of fire and safety is a waste of time?
  • Is there evidence of an underlying hero complex that makes individuals careless or thrill-seeking?
  • Is change seen as a threat to the status quo?

Actions

  • What is the safety record?
  • What programs do you have in place for ongoing safety training?
  • Is there a method of recognition and evaluation for ongoing training?
  • Do you have a fire safety officer in place for appropriate situations?
  • What happens when there has been an incident? Is it reviewed promptly and are procedures modified with follow-up to prevent recurrence or does it all just disappear? 
  • Is a near miss reviewed by the whole team to check for errors or omissions that might prevent future occurrences? Is it treated as a failure or an opportunity to learn and provide real-time training for junior staff who have yet to "see it all?"
  • What are the consequences of failure to comply with training?


2. Identify potential areas for enhancement
Just as the each fire service culture is unique, so are the possibilities. With the information gathered from the previous questions, list all of the possibilities for enhancing workplace safety.

  • Identify the most obvious roadblock to continuing down the road to a culture of safety. Then identify several areas for improvement that will be most likely to succeed in your specific workplace culture. Be realistic. Nothing sells like success!
  • Give careful thought to your circle of influence. Look both up and down the chain of command. Who can you bring on side to provide support or direction for your idea? There is both strength and safety in numbers. Can you work effectively through your union or your group of peers?

3. Identify the motivators that will work for your particular group
Motivating others is a tricky business. Whether we are aware of it or not, all behavior has a purpose that stems from personal beliefs; specifically what is seen as important. Group behavior is more complex. Motivators can be used as a reward or punishment, as a way to control in an unhealthy culture or to facilitate growth in a healthy one. Common motivators, positive ones paired with their negative counterpart, are given below. Add others that apply more specifically to your workplace culture.

From the information gathered in the first part, identify the motivators that appear to be at work in your organization:
• Belonging/Isolation
• Recognition/Embarrassment
• Accomplishment/Avoidance
• Excitement/Boredom
• Respect/Control
• Financial Reward/Penalties
• Justice/Revenge

Check for roadblocks to continuing down the road to a culture of safety. What beliefs could use some work in order for safety to become a priority? And give careful thought to your circle of influence. Look both up and down the chain of command. Who can you bring on side to provide support or direction for your idea? Can you work effectively through your union or your group of peers?

As the scope of practice for the fire service evolves, firefighters can expect an increase in the potential for injury and death. A workplace culture that values safety planning and training will be in a position to minimize the impact that might have on their members.

Then, hopefully, they'll be able to say with confidence, "We take care of our own. Safety is a priority in our workplace. That is how we do things here."



Dan Paulsen is a 24-year member of the Saskatoon Fire and Protective Services in Canada. He holds the rank of assistant chief. He is also a fire service instructor in rescue teaching, covering dive rescue/recovery, technical rope, confined space and extrication.

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