A continuous improvement guide to safety culture in the workplace

Improving workplace health and safety (WHS) is a key performance focus for manufacturers, especially in higher risk jobs or industries. But it’s not a “fit-and-forget” solution. Instead, leaders need to nurture and create an environment where a world-class safety culture in the workplace can flourish.

That itself requires an ongoing, agile approach that operationalizes an ethos of incremental improvements and empowers employees to constantly identify and action new processes and ways of doing things to make their workplace safer.

Because while all employers undoubtedly need to prioritize harm reduction and safeguarding the physical wellbeing of their staff through safe work, a continuous improvement approach to optimizing safety can simultaneously unlock a host of tangible benefits that impact a business’ productivity and bottom line.

In a time of unmatched global competition, where the need to do more with less seems to only get more acute, it’s an opportunity all organizations should seize.

This article discusses why a culture of continuous improvement should frame an organization’s journey to improving operational safety and how this can optimize overall business performance.

What is safety culture in the workplace?

Workplace safety culture describes how employees collectively view, understand and value their occupational safety, and how these attitudes and beliefs inform an organization’s processes and approach to work. A positive safety culture is where safety considerations underpin the “way things are done” around the work environment.

The obvious aims of a strong safety culture are to lower workplace injuries and mortality among employees, by identifying and understanding all potential safety hazards and on-site risks, and designing systems and working processes that mitigate them. But organizations that score highly on safety have also demonstrated that:

  • Employees who feel safe are happier and more motivated at work
  • Employees who are confident in their safety environment can focus more of their attention on their workflow, which improves productivity
  • Strong safety values create goodwill toward a brand; a strong reputation helps not only in improving demand and sales, but also by attracting top talent to the organization
  • Compliance to the highest operational safety standards lowers any potential legal culpability

Then there are leaders that have leveraged safety itself to improve business performance.

Consider the performance impetus created by Paul O’Neill when he took over as CEO of loss-making industrial giant Alcoa (Aluminum Company of America) in 1987.


The varying vectors of improvement

O’Neill identified the company’s subpar safety record as a direct consequence of its flawed systems and processes, and poor management. He believed he could transform the company by prioritizing safety:

“Focusing on worker safety can transform an entire organization and dramatically improve culture, quality, productivity, communication, and ultimately profits,” he told shareholders at the first meeting of his tenure. “I intend to make Alcoa the safest company in America. I intend to go for zero injuries.”

He introduced small but important new safety procedures and protocols to be followed at the commencement of every job. Managers were held accountable for detailed task instructions, which had to include visual leaderboards with safety checklists. Quick improvements in safety systems led to incremental gains in labor productivity; better precautions contributed to improved machinery and equipment usage; material waste was reduced; inventory levels stabilized at more efficient levels, leading to improved customer fulfilment.

Download the how-to guide: Developing a visual factory to find out more about ensuring key safety information is instantly available in the workplace.



Employees felt safer, and were more engaged, sometimes calling O’Neill directly not to report safety problems, but to propose improvement ideas of their own unrelated to safety, including innovations.

O’Neill had succeeded in creating a culture of continuous improvement within Alcoa. He understood that embedding continuous improvement culture and lean thinking within the organization is a pathway to holistic enterprise development, including top-line revenue growth and future-proofing. Within a year, he transformed the company into profitability, and when he retired in 2000 Alcoa’s revenues were $1.48 billion, nearly eight times what they were when he started. Alcoa’s market capitalization had skyrocketed from $3 billion to $27.5 billion.


How to create a safety culture in the workplace

Beyond the financial success of the organization’s turnaround strategy, Alcoa also provides a blueprint of how an overhaul of company safety culture was the catalyst for broader value chain optimization.

And, it demonstrates how ongoing, incremental gains form the threads that create sustained cultural momentum that can inspire an organization to reach new heights.

That should come as no surprise for advocates of continuous improvement, where the guiding methodologies of Lean, kaizen and the Toyota Production System emphasize how small changes now can have big impacts in the future. One area of incremental gain enables others, as employees see the benefits of continuous improvement and are thereby motivated to improve further. The central philosophy of continuous improvement is that striving for excellence throughout the company’s supply chain creates more value, faster, in multiple ways – and in opposite vectors.

This is why organizations seeking to instill a world-class culture of safety in the workplace should design a strategic framework based on the continuous improvement blueprint.


Continuous improvement means that everything matters

Fundamentally, continuous improvement drives culture change. By definition, improvement requires initiative. It keeps the organization dynamic – not resistant to change, but willing and able to embrace challenges and the inevitability of yet further flux.

Today, leading organizations apply continuous improvement in extended ways. Alongside safety, they seek benefits in customer service and satisfaction metrics, in innovation and time-to-market, in an inspired workforce displaying cohesive teamwork, discipline, knowledge-sharing and agility. The central principle of a continuous improvement culture, in this broader sense, is a state of preparedness to cope with challenges and to keep finding a better and safer way – to do anything and everything.

Download the eBook Driving employee engagement on the CI journey for more on how to ensure your people stay committed to your continuous improvement vision.

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