Journey Beyond Compliance: Building a World Class Safety Culture

ISS Facility Services considers safety and health in the workplace a core value and we are committed to building a culture of safety for our placemakers.

As you can see, we follow this working plan here!

A safe workplace is defined by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) as being “free of known health and safety hazards.” Employees are entitled to a safe workplace by federal law, and at ISS Facility Services, we know that a safe work environment goes far beyond a space free of health or safety hazards.

Naturally, there are physical aspects of a safe environment. Slippery floors, hot surfaces, icy walkways, and other physical factors can contribute to unsafe conditions. Over the course of the last two years, a heightened awareness of individual health has changed the way we approach safety, too. Sanitizing high-touch surfaces, filtering airborne germs, and social distancing have all become important aspects of creating a safe space.

While physical elements can be controlled by procedures and processes, employers can create a culture of safety by treating employees fairly and ensuring they feel valued each day—fostering an environment of shared accountability and people who care. Regulations and procedures allow management to point to a “30 days accident-free” safety score, but they don’t necessarily ensure a safe work environment. A truly safe workplace is one where employees at every level of the organization willingly take ownership of safety practices. ISS believes that people aren’t the problem, but the solution, and that a successful safety program is one that’s employee-led and built from the bottom up by the true experts—placemakers in the field who do the work every day.

Making Safety Work

Safety issues at work are no longer solved by simply tacking up another poster of OSHA guidelines in a high-risk area and signing off on a monthly report. Too many rules and regulations do nothing more than cost employees their autonomy, while failing to prevent accidents. Frankly, top-down safety alone accomplishes little when it comes to real impacts on worker health and wellbeing. Often, these types of safety cultures leave accidents unreported, workers hurt, and people feeling unjustly treated. There are several important aspects to cultivating an employee-led safety culture built on trust.

Employee-led Safety

Once employers establish a management system’s framework, focus can be turned to employee-led safety initiatives and programs. Managers who don’t work in the field simply aren’t safety experts in specific work environments. Instead of viewing employees as the safety problem employers should see them as the solution. Sydney Dekker, a thought leader on safety, explains that people aren’t a problem to control, but “resources to harness—that expertise and practical experience matters.” That’s not to say that management can’t provide some guidance, but when workers are given the autonomy to create their own safety plan, they quickly take ownership.

As operators in the field, they understand better than anyone what the daily risks are and how to avoid accidents. Often, additional rules and regulations get in the way of good safety practices, which workers already execute regularly. Of course, training and practice contribute to success as an operator and its importance shouldn’t be understated. However, at a certain point, operators must be trusted with their individual safety and the safety of those around them. One way that management can help build this culture of trust is by clearly defining where discretionary space of employee autonomy begins and ends.

For instance, ensuring that airborne germs pass through HEPA filters in a building’s HVAC system is an example of the role management plays in an employee-led safety program. On the other hand, sanitizing high-touch surfaces in an employee’s immediate workspace is an example where employees should have full autonomy beyond initial training. On occasion, some behavioral nudging will be needed and learning curves will need to be met, but frequently, this will occur at the employee level and management will never need to be involved.

Just Culture

Accidents happen. Everyone makes mistakes, and accidents will always exist in the workplace. There’s a lot that employers and employees can do to actively prevent accidents, but on occasion, they will occur. One way that employers can reduce workplace accidents is to change the way that accidents are dealt with. Instead of laying blame on employees and disciplining them, it’s more valuable to approach the situation with a shared accountability. By renavigating the situation with the employee and identifying the failures of risk management together, employees will be actively engaged in changing their behavior. This will be far more valuable for the worker, manager, and organization than suspending the worker, withholding pay, etc. By removing complicated disciplinary processes for failure to follow a rule or regulation, and replacing that process with an engaging learning experience, workers are more receptive and apt to work hard at not missing the mark again.

This creates a just culture, one where employees feel they are treated fairly and valued. A just culture is not about a new approach to discipline, but a new approach to accountability at the ground level. If employees have confidence that they will be treated fairly when they make a mistake—as everyone does at one time or another—they are less likely to be involved in an accident. It’s as simple as that. Why? Because without the fear of having to back-track through their actions in a disciplinary hearing for failing to follow 1 of 400 regulations, workers can focus on holding themselves accountable each day.

In Closing

As workers take ownership of their own safety, the just culture will continue to evolve. It’s important for management, at this point and throughout, to employ positive reinforcement when employees do the right thing. Doing away with negative recognition of failures is a great step, but it’s important to instill a culture of positive recognition, too. This will build trust between the employee and employer and continue to shape the employee’s positive perception of the organization. Before long, a just culture and people who care will be at the epicenter of your organization’s safety program.

As the culture of safety continues to take hold in the organization, take notice of how a just culture drives innovation and advances the safety program with little input from management. More importantly, watch closely how employees become people who care, evolve their own safety habits, nudge coworkers in the right direction, and maintain accountability when rules and regulations are lifted, and a culture of safety is built.


40,500+ customers across 30+ countries