From Culture to Safety Culture

What do you call someone who likes to spend time with musicians?

The Drummer!

IMG_20140201_105920That old joke came to mind yesterday when the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra held its first “Play Dat” concert, where they allowed amateur musicians to play with the professionals.  I dusted off my triangle and joined the percussion section for a day.  Banged the bass drum, clanged the cymbals,  stuff I hadn’t really done since college.


  • Because you need to do things that make you stretch your skills, especially if they are a little bit scary.    What’s scary about playing a few old tunes?  You don’t know what terror is until you crash the cymbals after everyone else has stopped playing.
  • Because whenever you have the chance to spend time with people who are ridiculously good at their jobs, you need to do it.  A professional classical musician has trained and studied his or her entire life to make this look effortless.

What does this have to do with safety? A lot, I think:

  • Coordination – Look at an offshore drilling rig.  A lot of different people doing a lot of different, highly-skilled jobs that must be coordinated with every other person working offshore.  Simultaneous operation planning, permit to work, safety meetings…those are all tools industry uses to help people work safely, but fundamentally, what keeps everyone safe is their ability to focus their attention on their task without ever losing sight of what the people around them are doing.  For example, we want a worker to carry his tools across the deck without getting squashed by a poorly rigged coxex box.    We use terms like situational awareness and teamwork.

In orchestras they call just call it musicianship.   Nearly 180 of us played together yesterday.  In an orchestra, everyone has a different job that requires different technical skills, but to do that job, they need to work seamlessly with the rest of the players.  They must synchronize their speed, their tuning and the way they play each note with precision.   You might say you use half your brain to focus on what you are doing and the other half on what the people around you are doing.

  • Mentoring and Leadership – People on job sites represent every flavor of experience, from expert to short service employee.  What we all have in common is that every one of us started as a new hire and  learned  about our jobs from our more experienced co-workers.   That is especially true on safety.   If veterans take new workers in hand and teach them the right way to work, based on real life experience, then that knowledge is transferred to the next generation.   If the veteran leaves newcomers to fend for themselves or, worse than that, makes them feel like they are too incompetent to ever learn, people get hurt.

Now let’s look at the orchestra.  Yesterday, about a quarter of the players were professionals from the symphony.   The rest of us were amateurs.   We made some huge mistakes, but that is when the pros would step in and guide us, usually by explaining or demonstrating how the part should be played.   They could have showed off or made us feel incompetent, but they didn’t. They kept the focus on the performance of the overall orchestra by helping each of us play to our full potential.

The conductor of the orchestra is the undisputed leader.  He decides what music you play and how fast you play it.   He expects you to  follow his lead so closely that you the players can change course with a literal wave of the baton.  But he never raised his voice.  During the rehearsal, he praised a lot and when we messed up  he understood that you knew we had messed up and gave us a chance to get it right without humiliating the guilty party.  How many of us wish all our bosses were like that?

  • IMG_20140201_120738Fear Vs. Pride – I save this for last because it may have been my biggest takeaway from the concert.  There are two basic ways to push safety.   We can scare workers (graphic pictures of accidents, threats to fire people who ignore safety rules) or we can stress the positives of safety (we take pride in our safety record and we work as a team).   Both approaches are necessary.  Sometimes people simply don’t change negative behaviors unless they understand the consequences of those behaviors.  But companies with great safety culture move beyond just scaring workers and instill a sense of pride in doing things right.   It is a shared value that makes people want to stay with a company.  One way to look at it is, if the man who invented fire only learned that it could burn him, we would never have mastered cooking.

Ok, I would be lying if I didn’t admit I was scared to death most of yesterday.   Scared I would play a wrong note.   Scared I would come in too soon.   All musicians feel a little of that.   But just not playing the wrong notes doesn’t make someone a musician.   You become a musician when you take pride in your ability and in your knowledge.   It is recognizing that, while you are just one of several dozen people, you are a vital part of the group and doing your job to the best of your possible ability makes everyone else better.   That’s the message and it is a vital one for a successful safety program.

One Reply to “From Culture to Safety Culture”

  1. Very good message, Ken. On point to help create a new atmosphere for safety. I’ve found it a big challenge in the inland towing industry even with management who should more easily realize the advantages of a “good” and “growing” safety culture.

Leave a Reply