Does safety compliance contribute to a safe work culture? Safety compliance comes from a regulatory mindset from which a particular way a society should behave is codified into law. Within this framework, achieving compliance means that you must be justifiably doing the right thing. Therefore, it is not surprising that safety compliance is often associated with safe work environments. Difficulties arise, however, when we must distinguish among questions of safety that are either not addressed by the law or where the law isn't helpful for creating and sustaining a desired behavior.

For sake of discussion, consider that according to a recent GMAC Insurance National Driver's study published by CNN in May 2005, one out of ten drivers regularly exceeds the speed limit by 11 or more miles per hour. The number increases dramatically when drivers are asked if they speed on occasion. The fact is that most drivers speed despite warnings from a Federal Highway Administration warning that one in three traffic fatalities are caused by speeding. The threat of a speeding ticket can act as a deterrent, but at what point is egocentricity replaced with rational thinking?

It is the job of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to provide a legal basis from which rational thinking and behavior can find a foundation. In an effort to persuade certain types of behavior, OSHA conducts workplace inspections and issue fines. In the manufacturing sector alone, OSHA issued almost $27 million dollars in fines from October 2003 to September 2004. Figure 1 shows the top six citations in the manufacturing sector ($11.4 million of the $27 million in fines) issued by OSHA during that year.

Figure 1 Top six cited OSHA penalties in the manufacturing sector between October 2003 and September 2004

However, OSHA compliance is not a panacea. Any safety conscience professional will tell you the question they dislike the most is: "Does a regulation require us to do this?" More often than not, OSHA compliance is used as a litmus test for action, which is why many companies often go astray. I have had the unfortunate responsibility of investigating six workplace fatalities over the past ten years. In nearly every case, compliance with the general OSHA rules wasn't the issue. Actually, the companies having the two most recent fatalities were fined less than $5,000.00 apiece by OSHA. This is not because OSHA didn't want to fine them more, but the fact of the matter is that a specific compliance related rule was not violated or identified as the root-cause of the incident. (Note: other costs associated with a fatality include defending and settling the personal lawsuits, lost and/or decreased productivity, increased administration, increased insurance premiums and deductibles and other ancillaries, all of which can easily exceed the $1 million mark, even for small companies).

Therefore, the usefulness of OSHA as an omnipotent tool for safety is being called into question. OSHA compliance is helpful for structuring or providing guidance for a safety program, but if used exclusively, the company is ultimately foreclosing opportunities for constructing an effective safety program. The creation of a safe work environment is more about a safe-work culture. It requires a level of commitment that goes well beyond compliance to involve organizational change that begins with company leadership. These leaders must possess the wherewithal to avoid the most critical mistake companies can make; that is, the myopic act of rationalizing company profit as some sort of excuse or scapegoat for pursuing a safety culture. Some company leaders know this by practice, while others have learned the hard way by experiencing a fatality and accepting responsibility regardless of what the lawyers say.

At the end of the day, it is company culture, not compliance that portrays who or what a company is. Creating a safe work culture is not unlike creating a quality or customer focused culture. It requires commitment, resources, planning, and desire and in the long run, will return more than compliance.