How To Build a Safety Culture Using Rituals 

Posted by Mark G. Gardner on January 19, 2017 in the category Compliance, Training
Semi Truck / Tractor Trailer at dock night view

Here we go again. Another new year.  A fresh start.  Maybe this is the year to really do something about safety.  Maybe this is the year we’ll create a true culture of safety, reduce accidents and injuries, lower our insurance premiums, and maybe even save a few lives.

January is a time to think ahead and imagine what might happen, what we might do and what we might accomplish. January always comes with a host of resolutions. In fact, nearly half of all Americans make New Year's resolutions, often committing to making positive personal changes. Unfortunately, most of these go poof by mid-February.  A recent study showed less than ten percent will succeed long-term.

Why is it so easy to make a resolution, yet so difficult to make it stick? Quite simply, it's hard to change behavior, even our own behavior. It requires self-discipline, and self-discipline, like a muscle, needs repetitive exercise. Most people give up long before they develop any self-discipline “muscle.”

Here’s the bad news:  it's no different for organizations.  We've all been through change initiatives before. They start with fanfare and kickoff meetings, with managers cheering at the top of their lungs about new and different policies and procedures.  People going around crowing about how much better things will soon be.  January is the time when we tend to launch new initiatives, but more often than not, these fade away by the second quarter.  But after a short while, all talk of the new ways fades away like a summer sunset. Silence.  Then, things go back to normal, to the way the were.  We’re creatures of habit.  It's really difficult to maintain the necessary discipline to keep that new initiative going.

So, is it a bad idea to start the year on a positive note?  Is it foolish to declare your newfound appreciation for safety?  Is it doomed to fail?    Not necessarily, but you better understand a little bit about organizational change.  It all begins with rituals. 

Rituals are pre-planned group activities that follow a certain desired pattern.  Most religions consist of rituals like Sunday services, baptisms, weddings and funerals.  Social clubs have their own set of rituals, like secret handshakes, saying the pledge of allegiance to the flag before a meeting begins, or wearing matching uniforms like the Boy Scouts. Of course, some rituals just kind of evolve over time, such as the whole family packing up and going to grandma’s house for Thanksgiving, because “that’s what we always do.”

There can be little distinction between rituals and habits, but both are important when trying to create a culture of safety.  It’s one thing to declare your intent to run a safer operation, but how do you make it stick?  Rituals are the key to making things last.  Rituals keep us on course, well after the initial motivation wears off.  Rituals help us to stay on track and to turn the fledgling behavior into a habit.  Once it becomes a habit, it's no longer difficult to keep at it.  It's just what we do.  It’s the new normal. Before we know it, we couldn't imagine NOT performing that desired action each day.

In an organization, a ritual might involve beginning each meeting with a brief discussion about a specific behavior related to defensive driving, like discussing Look Ahead, Look Around, Leave Room or Communicate.  Rituals are vital to building corporate culture. Rituals don’t happen willy-nilly.  They happen every time. Soon, a ritual such as setting aside one minute to discuss safety at the beginning of every meeting just becomes habit.  As it becomes a habit, focus on the desired behavior grows. Eventually, the behavior becomes internalized and becomes a natural and regular part of the culture.

In 2017, if you're serious about improving your safety results, make rituals a part of your cultural plan.  They don’t have to be time consuming or expensive, but they do have to be consistent. Start every meeting with a few meaningful words on safety and you’ll be on your way.

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