After the Pandemic: Building a Safety Culture

As America begins its comeback — a tentative and lurching return to some kind of normalcy — one of the biggest challenges will be the workplace. Whether it’s a retail shop, a factory floor, an oil rig or an office, the new workplace will require fundamentally new ways of working.

Telecommuting, of course, has moved from the fringe to the mainstream and it will be interesting to see how much of it continues in the new workplace. Even so, there will be plenty of reasons for a physical return — you can’t manufacture car parts in your bedroom nor can you replicate the infrastructure of a 21stcentury office in your living room. So managers everywhere are asking the same question: “How do we do this safely?”

Some things are obvious. We need to continue physical distancing and wearing masks indoors; there must be adequate testing; quarantines and contact tracing will be compulsory. But the successful post-virus workplace will need an approach that is even deeper and more durable. It’s easy enough to think of safety measures in terms of compliance — check the test box, check the mask box, etc. But successful companies will move beyond that. They will approach safety not as compliance, but as culture. Compliance is ultimately negotiable and expendable; culture endures. Here are two examples.

Over the past two decades, PG&E, the West Coast utility mired in bankruptcy and litigation, treated safety as a compliance issue. While it was focused on shareholder returns, politically expedient policy positions or executive compensation, it cut corners on even the simplest acts of preventive maintenance, such as climbing a tower to inspect hooks that hold up transmission lines. The result of these safety lapses were catastrophic. There were many reasons for PG&E’s safety lapses, but the root cause was approaching safety as compliance, so that it ended up being negotiated away when other needs (justified or not) prevailed.

On the other hand, Chevron, the West Coast-based energy company where I worked for more than a decade, understands that safety can’t be effectively sustained unless it’s part of the fundamental culture of the company, particularly when your operations span the globe and rely heavily on a constantly shifting contractor workforce.

Here’s a story: When I joined Chevron in 2004 one of my jobs as part of managing executive communications was editing the CEO’s monthly letter to employees. It was usually a folksy letter, but always with two or three critical business messages for the month. Employees enjoyed the frequency and informality of the note. After a few months, I noticed that if the letter went up to the CEO for approval without a mention of safety, he added a safety message in red ink and sent it back. I finally got the idea. Later, I read a passage in Jared Diamond’s book, “Collapse,” in which he discussed Chevron’s approach to environmental management. He referenced the CEO’s monthly letter and its repetitive messages about safety as an example of how to build a culture. Lesson learned.

Or this: In 2008, after Barack Obama was elected President, the CEO asked the head of our Washington office to draft a letter of congratulations, to which he added his own unique twist. At the end of the letter, he gently chided the President-elect for not holding on to the hand rails when he went up and down the air stairs while disembarking from an plane (Obama would sort of jog up and down the stairs). Writing a letter like that springs from a deep well of culture. The CEO was not impressed with the vibrancy of a young new President — he was more concerned about the leader of the free world slipping and falling!

These are two minor examples of a safety culture that is rooted in deep commitment and discipline, one that has lessons to teach other businesses when they return to the workplace. Safety discipline is a science and has to be adapted to particular businesses — a factory floor is not the same as the marketing offices at Apple, for instance — but the fundamentals of a safety culture are nearly universal: there is always time to do it right, and do it safely or not at all.

Practiced this way, safety becomes a kind of institutional “mindfulness.” It creates a workplace where people are more aware of their actions and their impacts on others. The workplace becomes a learning environment, where mistakes or lapses are noted, but then reviewed so the mistake can be identified and corrected going forward. Employees become stewards of safety and in the process become empowered for themselves and each other. One of the strongest safety tools at Chevron is stop-work authority. Any employee, anywhere, has the authority to stop work — whether in an office or on a deep water platform — if they witness unsafe practices. Decentralizing safety oversight and distributing it to every worker is empowering and can only happen in a strong culture

As we build this culture — and communicators will be at the heart of building it — we’ll see all sorts of collateral benefits radiate out. Because a true safety culture is built on some fundamental values — integrity, respect, confidence, honesty and discipline — that support not just safety, but efficiency, productivity and sustained success.

One of the silver linings in this tragedy we are undergoing right now is the lessons it’s offering up about how we can do better. American businesses, large and small, have a huge opportunity to put these lessons into practice and build a culture of safety and caring from the ground up. Let’s get back to work — carefully and safely!

I believe in the redemptive power of love, the fundamental common sense of "we the people" and the enduring brilliance of the Grateful Dead.