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Safety culture a hot topic in OSHA guideline update debate

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Some stakeholders are lobbying the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to incorporate a discussion of what constitutes a safety culture in its planned update to its safety and health program management guidelines, while others say the concept is too vague to warrant inclusion.

The agency should make it clear in the guidelines' introduction that senior management and CEOs are responsible for instilling a culture of safety within their organizations and ensuring their safety and health programs are effective, Patrick O'Connor, a partner in the Washington-based consulting firm Kent & O'Connor Inc. who represents the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, said at a stakeholder meeting last week.

“They just can't push that responsibility down the line and assume it's being taken care of,” he said.

“Culture is an elusive entity and maybe an explanation of what culture is and how to measure it and how to define it should be there,” said W.E. Scott, director of consulting services for the National Safety Council in Itasca, Illinois. “When safety becomes more instinctive, that's when the culture is the strongest.”

However, stakeholders expressed concern about the vagueness of the safety culture concept and the lack of a consensus definition.

“I would suggest OSHA stay far, far away from terms that have no real meaning and stick to what you do know, which are the important elements to bring about a good, effective health and safety program,” said Nancy Lessin, senior staff for strategic initiatives at the United Steelworkers' Tony Mazzocchi Center for Health, Safety and Environmental Education in Pittsburgh.

Terms such as safety culture or safety climate would introduce more confusion into the guidelines, which will be most effective the clearer they are, said Margaret Seminario, director of safety and health at the AFL-CIO in Washington.

While the guidelines are important, a comprehensive standard requiring proactive safety and health programs would be even more important, said Michael Wright, director of health, safety and environment for the United Steelworkers in Pittsburgh.

“You don't start out with a culture, you end up with one,” he said. “I've been in a lot of meetings with various managers who say the first thing we have to do is create a better safety culture. No, the first thing you have to do is to create a way to find and fix hazards, a way to empower workers. You need to create an effective safety and health program. You need to create one that includes everyone, and the culture emerges from that.”

One of the most infamous workplace disasters was the space shuttle Challenger explosion, which killed seven crew members in 1986. While the reasons initially attributed to the disaster were technical in nature, NASA's flawed safety culture contributed to the explosion, said Michael Belcher, president of the American Society of Safety Engineers in Park Ridge, Illinois.

“After several studies were done, it became very evident that the reason that space shuttle exploded was because of a culture that accepted defects, a culture where silos were being built up, and those factors contributed to that accident as much as anything else,” he said. “The culture is important. But rather than chase these terms or get caught up in what the definition should be, I think we have an opportunity to … have that discussion around culture, mention it and perhaps encourage employers and organizations to consider things like safety and perception surveys, which will provide them with insightful information about the culture or whatever you call it.”