Safety Professional's roles continue to evolve. New ideas for safety leadership emerge as our understanding of the concept of culture develops. Changes in safety practice are imminent as organizational cultures evolve in response to the emergence of flatter structures, the reality of global competition, and the increased knowledge base of workers (Simon & Carillo 265).
Certain traditional safety assumptions and practices, such as "the safety department is solely responsible for safety," are no longer valid (if they ever were). Other practices are still relevant, for example establishing and providing training for safety teams is important for developing expertise and gaining employee involvement in safety. Superior safety performance requires new practices that may include and go beyond, and in different directions than traditional practices.
Literature about safety culture details typical characteristics of high performing cultures (Peterson 40–45). It is interesting to note the characteristics of leading safety cultures, but how does one establish a leading safety culture in his/her own organization? Everyone wants to enjoy a culture that supports rather than hinders or ignores safety. It is important for leaders to understand the culture they work within, and how to influence culture to improve safety performance.
Culture consists of basic assumptions shared by the members of the group or organization. Schein asserts that a group has a culture when it has had enough of a shared history to form a set of shared assumptions (Schein 12).
Schein defines the culture of a group as:
"A pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems" (Schein 12).
The Health & Safety Executive (HSE, 1991) in England defined safety culture as:
"The product of individual and group values, attitudes, competencies and patterns of behavior that determine the commitment to and the style and proficiency of an organization's safety and health programs. Organizations with a positive safety culture are characterized by communications founded on mutual trust, shared perceptions of the importance of safety and confidence in the efficacy of preventive measures" (emphasis added).
Cooper notes a recurring problem with operationally defining safety culture is specifying the "product" of the culture. As such, Cooper abstracted from Locke & Latham's goal-setting theory to define the product of safety culture as:
"That observable degree of effort by which (all) organizational members direct their attention and actions toward improving safety on a daily basis" (Cooper 31).
Cooper established a practical definition of safety culture that can be measured and tracked. The reader should refer to his article "Safety Culture: A Model for Understanding and Quantifying a Difficult Concept" to learn how to apply the model.