Why Your Organization’s Safety Culture Matters Now More than Ever

SOURCE: AEM | July 3, 2020

The message of safety is one the equipment manufacturing industry should never get complacent about. With that fact in mind, AEM is proud to support National Safety Month and our members’ efforts to maintain a culture of safety throughout their organizations — especially in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

In moments of crisis, such as COVID-19, our instincts are to respond, fix and lead, but culture – an important element – often gets overlooked. With today’s diverse workforce – both in national backgrounds and generations, employers must recognize how different cultures might respond differently to crisis and pivot accordingly.

COVID 19 – a new strain of coronavirus not previously identified in humans – has created a situation that no one on the planet has ever experienced, observed Elaine Cullen Vandervert, PhD, president of Prima Consulting Services, a company specializing in occupational safety and health training development for high-risk industries. “The world as we know it has changed, probably forever. The new normal, whatever that is, is unknown.

“People are living in fear, overwhelmed with stress of the unknown and what they should do about it. People respond to fear in different ways. Because all of us come from different cultures, we have some clues about how we are going to deal with things.”

Vandervert – who will keynote AEM’s upcoming Product Safety and Compliance Seminar and Liability Seminar, discussed why culture matters and how understanding it will help keep people safe in her webinar: Maintaining a Culture of Safety through COVID-19 and Beyond. In her 40 years of experience in safety research for the U.S. Bureau of Mines and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, she participated in a major study on occupational cultures to improve safety training effectiveness. An author of numerous publications, products and videos, she is the recipient of multiple awards from NIOSH, CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and the International Mine Safety Professionals.

For more information and resources on COVID-19, visit the COVID-19 section on the AEM website

HOW TO MOTIVATE PEOPLE 

“No one has a clue as to what will happen when the pandemic ends and the world will try to get back to some kind of normal,” said Vandervert. “A big challenge for employers will be how to get employees back to work and do their jobs safely and productively.”

She says one way to accomplish this is to consider psychologist Abraham Maslow’s theory that all people are motivated by five levels of basic human needs. Known as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, his hierarchy is typically displayed as a pyramid.

The lowest levels of the pyramid are made up of the most basic needs. The more complex needs are at the top of the pyramid. Needs lower down must be satisfied before a person can go up to the next level.

“The bottom level is Physiological – things vital to our survival: air, food, water, shelter, clothing, sex, sleep, etc.” said Vandervert. “These are needs that people have been very stressed out about.”

Safety and Security – health, employment, stability, security, etc. – is the next level. “These are also very big concerns nowadays because of the pandemic and how things have played out around the world.”

The next higher level of human needs is Social. This encompasses friendship, family, work groups, intimacy, relationships, etc.

Esteem – confidence, respect, achievement, independence, etc. – is the next level in motivating behavior, she said. This is a level employers want their employees operating in because people have a need to accomplish things and have their efforts recognized.

The top level is Self-Actualization – morality, creativity, spontaneity, acceptance, attainment of potential, etc. It is about people being the best they can be.

In an effort to shed light on the immense impact of the current COVID-19 pandemic and help ensure the safety of AEM member companies and their employees, AEM offers on-demand webinars to provide timely information and insights during these challenging times.

UP AND DOWN

“Maslow said that all people move up and down the pyramid every single day,” Vandervert pointed out. “If your lower levels needs are not met, you are less interested in the reaching the higher levels.

“Right now, most people are stuck in either the Physiological level of the hierarchy – I don’t know if will have enough to eat, I don’t know how I am going to pay my rent, Am I going to get kicked out of my apartment or house – or the Safety and Security level – Do I even have a job?

“Maslow said when people are stuck in the lower levels, it is irrational to believe that they are going to be motivated to achieve the higher level goals.”

People differ in how they work through what is going on nowadays, she explained. As employers try and get everybody back to work and focused on working safely and productively, “employers must understand that they have a whole gamut of people who are going to react differently, and a lot of that is because of the culture people belong to.”

WHY CULTURE MATTERS

“Culture is a big part of why we do what we do,” said Vandervert. “Culture is a collection of behavior patterns and beliefs that gives us a roadmap to get through all the parts of our lives that we really don’t know what to do about, like this pandemic.”

Culture is socially constructed and developed over time by the members of the culture, she explained. It is shared among the members – the older members teach the younger and the new members what’s what and what is expected of them. Culture is a way to define who is in and who is not and is a social road map so members know what is expected of them.

According to Vandervert, culture can be nationality, generations, gender, family, occupations, organizations, service clubs, geography, alma mater, religions, sports teams, etc. Each has its own sets of rules and expectations. “These are not written down but are learned from people who are members of the group.

“The workforce is just as diverse with as many cultures as any other group,” she pointed out. “Right now, we have the most diverse workforce we have ever had.”

Five generations are in the workforce: Traditionalists or Greatest Generation, born 1925 to 1945; Baby Boomers, born 1946 to 1964; Generation X, born 1965 to 1981; Generation Y or Millennials, born 1982 to 2002; and Gen Z, born 1995 to 2012.

“That has never happened before,” she noted. “This is making for a lot of challenges, but the diversity provides clues on what to do to get through what is now going on.”

GENERATIONAL DIFFERENCES

“A generation is a group of people who were programmed at the same time in history,” explained Vandervert. “Whatever generation you are in, is different from the others.

“Research shows that there five distinct categories of variables related to work, employment and organizations that differ significantly across generations. These are: work and life related values; motivators; professional growth; attitudes toward rules, authority and hierarchy; and attitudes about learning, training and the work environment. How the generations are dealing with this pandemic is also very different.”

An Arab proverb that says: “People resemble their times more than they resemble their parents.” This, Vandervert said, means a generation is a group of people who were “programmed” at the same time in history and are “marked” by certain events, such as the Great Depression, 9/11, the day President Kennedy was assassinated.

“You are who you are because of where you were when,” she observed. “This means that a signature event causes the world to change and nothing is the same anymore.

“The coronavirus is another game-changer. We can’t let it be an elephant in the room. We have to come up with a plan for dealing with it. When employees return to work, remember they are going to be focused on the Physiological and Safety and Security issues – the need to be safe and to survive.”

When businesses open, she says employers, along with providing physical protection, will have to work within the cultures of their employees and comprehend that different generations are going to be more open to changes than others because of cultural norms that people have.

CULTURAL RULES 

In the 1970s, Geert Hofstede, a Dutch social psychologist, conducted a major study of 53 countries to try and understand cross-cultural groups and organizations. This study, Hofstede’s Framework for Assessing Cultures, was replicated between 1990 and 2002.

“It is the most widely used information for global companies that are preparing people to work in multi-national environments,” pointed out Vandervert. “If you don’t understand what the cultural rules are, it is very easy to misstep and there can be severe consequences.”

Among the value dimensions of culture Hofstede came up with are:

  • Power Distance
  • Individualism versus Collectivism
  • Masculine versus Feminine
  • Uncertainty Avoidance

“Power Distance is the degree of inequality in a culture and the members’ willingness to accept it,” Vandervert said. “In other words, certain members have more privilege than others and that is okay.”

The United States and Canada have a very low power distance, whereas a lot of the Asian, Arab and Hispanic cultures have a high power distance.

“In low power distance cultures, there is an expectation of equality among the members and individuals can move up into positions of power by their own actions,” she explained. “Children are treated as equals. In high power distance cultures, there are very well-defined rules for who can do what. You are either born into power and wealth or you are not. Children are taught obedience.”

By way of example, in high power distance cultures, workers are not going to question a supervisor, even if they are told to do something they know is not going to work. This would look like disrespect – the boss cannot be questioned – and that is against the cultural norm. In contrast, in lower power distance cultures, workers are much more likely to challenge a supervisor if they think he is wrong.

“What (went) going on in the U.S., with all the protests to open the economy, is directly related to the power distance,” observed Vandervert. “You do not see this in cultures that have a high power distance because that is not allowed.”

INDIVIDUALISM VERSUS COLLECTIVISM

Individualism versus Collectivism means the degree to which individuals are integrated into groups. For example, does a person think of themselves as an alumnus of a school or an employee of a company

“The U.S. is the most individualistic culture on the planet,” noted Vandervert. “Asian, Arab and Hispanic cultures are almost all collectivists.

“In collectivists cultures, team accomplishments are more important than individual ones,” she said. “Social harmony is more important that success. Members in collectivist cultures make decisions as a group and everyone goes along with them. Members are very loyal to the groups they are part of.”

In individualistic cultures, she says ties between individual are loose. Personal accomplishment is important. Everyone is expected to look out for themselves first and then for their immediate family. Individuals value independence to adopt their own approach and want challenging work that offers personal sense of accomplishment.

“In this pandemic, people that are from collectivists cultures are going to be much more concerned about the general welfare then they are about themselves. Those from individualistic cultures are worried about their own health.”

MASCULINE VERSUS FEMININE

Hofstede’s Masculine versus Feminine value dimension of culture says that in a masculine culture, the focus is on productivity and competition. In a feminine culture, the focus is on collaboration and worker well-being.

UNCERTAINTY AVOIDANCE

This value dimension of culture deals with a culture’s tolerance to uncertainty and ambiguity. The U.S. and Canada are quite low. Greece, Mexico and Japan are quite high.

“Cultures with a high index for Uncertainty Avoidance will have a much stronger set of written and unwritten rules about what people can do, wear, where they can go, who they can go with, etc.,” Vandervert explained. “They are expected to follow the rules without question. If they break those rules, the penalties are severe.”

She noted that uncertainty is an emotion and not based on rational thought. “It is more about fear, reacting accordingly and doing irrational things. This seems to be what is happening now across the world because the belief that we could handle uncertainty and ambiguity has been diminished.

“What is going to happen when things get back to normal depends on what normal looks like. More than likely, we are going to see a lot more Uncertainty Avoidance in the world.”

There are going to be culture clashes and conflict as we get back to work, Vandervert said, because people are stressed. They don’t know what the rules are. They want to get back to where things were and that will never be.

NON-NEGOTIABLE RULES OF CULTURE 

Vandervert says there are three non-negotiable rules of culture:

  • You cannot be a member of a culture if you break its rules.
  • Cultural norms do not translate to other cultures.
  • Culture changes very slowly because it is created and protected by the members of that culture.

“Things are changing and we don’t know what those changes are going to look like,” she said. “Culture controls what we do and how we do it. There are no exceptions to this.

“As you get back to whatever normal looks like for you, start looking at how your employees and colleagues are handling things. Understand that everyone has culture controls, whether they are national culture, gender culture, generational culture. It doesn’t matter. These controls are what gives people their guidelines and rules to move forward.”

Culture is an especially important key to creating a safe and productive workplace because you cannot force people to do things without their buy-in, especially something like safety, she concluded.

“Unless you are standing there all the time, like a policeman, what you want is for them to willingly and permanently choose to work safely and productively, and the only way to get them to do that is to work inside their culture.”

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