Sometimes Your Safety Culture Cannot be Quantified

As I started my PhD journey, I really felt comfortable with numbers. My background of chemistry and business made numbers familiar useful to me. I was fully planning to run a quantitative research plan. I was going to collect the data, crunch the numbers, and report the findings.
I was about one year ago that the idea was turned completely over. The lack of safety knowledge from a psychological standpoint is limited. There is not a ton of information that relates to the behaviors and processes that really create culture. The professor offered that I should really look at qualitative work.
As I have been diving deep into the work, research, and processes, I have found that when talking about safety culture sometimes it makes perfect sense to see things from a qualitative standpoint. What are the themes, philosophies, feelings about safety without grading them through a survey?
I then wondered: As a safety professional I am always justifying my work through numbers and analysis and yet behaviors and culture sometimes have no numbers associated with them . . . Why is that?
I think there are a number of reasons that as safety professionals, we turn to the numbers rather than the underlying culture. The first reason is that we are always presenting the business case to justify our job, our work, and our processes. Want to implement a new safety mechanical assist? We inherently know that we will be answering questions: How much will it cost? How many injuries have their been? Is there quantifiable risk? How much would the workers’ compensation claim cost? What’s the return on investment? Are there time savings? Will it improve the audit score? Will it improve the employee survey scores? How much time will it save?
We have turned safety in to a business metric rather than the legal and behavioral process that it really is. Here is my disclaimer: Having safety as a business justification is not a bad thing. There are many positive aspects of integrating safety into the business and cost metrics of an organization. BUT, it does not work all the time.
There are limitations to always quantifying safety data. The surveys can be skews based on other cultural aspects of a company. If the employees do not feel the survey is effective or will make a difference, the answers may not be accurate. The process of affixing a dollar amount to safety improvements or the lack thereof does not take into account the full view of morale and culture. If every improvement has to yield cost, it may not even seem worth the effort to work the solution. There can be a great sense of apathy because it is hard to create the business (quantitative) justification for the work. 
We as safety people have had to learn to speak business. Most of the people that we report to or justify our work to may not understand the people aspects of what we do. They understand cost, productivity, inventory, quality. The soft people part of the process is not part of their everyday vocabulary. We have adapted out processes to be better effective as leaders through learning their language and presenting the data that will best help us effectively do our job.
There are times where as safety experts, we have to rely on the qualitative skills of learning a culture and seeing behaviors for what they are. Of course this is not a full proof process either. One of the hardest aspects of learning psychology is eliminating my bias while performing qualitative work. I have learned that I have many biases. I want the information that I am seeing, hearing, and evaluating to fit my pre-conceived notions of what the culture is. There are also times to see trends and there are times to say that that the information may be an outlier. The most difficult part is knowing what to accept and what to need more evaluation for. Qualitative work does not solve a problem. It only helps to evaluate the experiences, feelings, and behaviors. We want to always be fixing rather than learning. Too many times small interview sessions will yield big changes or opinions. Sometimes they are right and sometimes they are not. One of the biggest obstacles that I have encountered in studies qualitative psychology is taking the information, getting rid of the bias, and seeing the elements for what it is.
The overall idea is that we cannot simply rely on one method of evaluating behaviors, cultures, and programs. The simple nature of being human makes it more complex than just counting the numbers and calculating the statistical certainty.

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