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How Infectious Is Your Safety Culture

Tuesday, 19 May, 2020


Viral Spreading of Safe Behaviors Equals a Sound Safety Culture

Every employer, manager and supervisor is aware of how quickly negative behaviors and attitudes can spread through a work culture. What if healthy supportive behaviors and attitudes would spread the same way?

We can apply the model of how diseases become viral for an example. In fact, this is the same model that was used to project and confirm the infection rate of the SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Today we are in the midst of a global pandemic because this virus found the weak point – those without immunity – and was able to sustain a community spread. For most, the virus remained asymptomatic. For many others, the virus created symptoms. That they were infected was obvious.

From an infectious positive behavior and growth perspective, some very interesting insights can be gleaned from a parallel point of view of contagious behaviors and contagious diseases. Please allow a very scientific description and definition with a target understanding being towards sustaining a sound safety culture. Proven principles apply no matter the subject or situation. The simplest description of the contagion process and impact for laypersons I could find is in an article at, “What Is R0? Gauging Contagious Infections”, written by Vanessa Bates Ramirez and Medically reviewed by Alana Biggers, M.D., MPH.

R0, pronounced “R naught,” is a mathematical term that indicates how contagious an infectious disease is. It’s also referred to as the reproduction number. As an infection is transmitted to new people, it reproduces itself.

R0 tells you the average number of people who will contract a contagious disease from one person with that disease. It specifically applies to a population of people who were previously free of infection and haven’t been vaccinated.

For example, if a disease has an R0 of 18, a person who has the disease will transmit it to an average of 18 other people. That replication will continue if no one has been vaccinated against the disease or is already immune to it in their community.

What do R0 values mean?

Three possibilities exist for the potential transmission or decline of a disease, depending on its R0 value:

If R0 is less than 1, each existing infection causes less than one new infection. In this case, the disease will decline and eventually die out.

If R0 equals 1, each existing infection causes one new infection. The disease will stay alive and stable, but there won’t be an outbreak or an epidemic.

If R0 is more than 1, each existing infection causes more than one new infection. The disease will be transmitted between people, and there may be an outbreak or epidemic.

Importantly, a disease’s R0 value only applies when everyone in a population is completely vulnerable to the disease. This means:

    • no one has been vaccinated

    • no one has had the disease before

    • there’s no way to control the spread of the disease

So, how does this apply to creating and sustaining a sound safety culture?

At the very beginning, for employers in the US, Federal OSHA and the many State OSHA Plans set forth the minimum expectations:

  • Provide a workplace free from serious recognized hazards and comply with standards, rules and regulations issued under the OSH Act.

  • Examine workplace conditions to make sure they conform to applicable OSHA standards.

  • Make sure employees have and use safe tools and equipment and properly maintain this equipment.

  • Use color codes, posters, labels or signs to warn employees of potential hazards.

  • Establish or update operating procedures and communicate them so that employees follow safety and health requirements.

  • Employers must provide safety training in a language and vocabulary workers can understand.

  • Employers with hazardous chemicals in the workplace must develop and implement a written hazard communication program and train employees on the hazards they are exposed to and proper precautions (and a copy of safety data sheets must be readily available). See the OSHA page on Hazard Communication.

  • Provide medical examinations and training when required by OSHA standards.

A sound safety culture goes further than basic rule setting and disciplinary actions, to promote an atmosphere that embraces and encourages safe behaviors and practices. The ISO 45001:2018 provides an outline to proactively improve an organization’s Occupational Health & Safety performance by developing and implementing effective policies and objectives. Even personal behaviors are considered such as absenteeism and employment turnover.

There are steps you can take, using the RO>1 model to impact your safety culture. Given enough consistent exposure, the population (workforce) should be infected (affected). It is understood that very few readers of this guidance are brand new or starting from scratch. The “New Normal” after this pandemic experience is an ideal time to focus on the health and well being of the workforce.

  • New employees and new starting points for all employees will provide the best opportunity for change and growth.

  • Concentrate on developing a strong unit. This can even be done through Safety Committees. Slowly introduce small numbers of less positive personnel into the stronger positive unit.

  • Utilize strong individuals to infect work groups with positivity.

  • Recognize the leaders among work groups and guide those persons into a healthy mindset. Even if these persons are reluctant to wear the mantle of leader, the workers that they influence will still embrace the positivity.

There is an equal parallel to vaccination in the context of workers who are reluctant to, or even opposed to, embracing any improved safety culture and behavior. It is always easier to infect those who have not been vaccinated. Management must have a means to socially isolate those negative behaviors and attitudes in an encouraging way until the positive behaviors and attitudes can take root. At some point the paradigm needs to shift so that the benefits of embracing the sound safety culture outweigh the benefits or consequences of the negative behavior and attitudes.

The diagram at the top of this article is a very real example of how to consider the infectiousness of your safety culture. To be sure, workers influence (infect) each other far more than management or supervisors can. If you read the last article, the word cultivate was defined as “to grow in a prepared medium.” Your workplace is the medium and it must be prepared for the safety culture to go viral. Certain characteristics are required for specific things to grow – biologically, moisture, temperature, lighting, oxygen, etc. For a sound, infectious safety culture there should be: clear examples of concern for all employees’ safety and health from the employer and leadership; ease of access to training and PPE; concerns that are raised should be quickly and adequately addressed – correct hazards on the spot; suggestions taken into consideration and acted upon; housekeeping is a priority; and inclusiveness is key.

Once the viral safety culture has affected (infected) the vast majority of the workforce, antibodies that fight off negativity will become self-sustaining. The most important component of the equation as it relates to a sound and growing safety culture is that the R0 value is greater than one. Each worker influences at least one other worker. With the right mix of preparation, guidance and nurture, there will be an epidemic of positivity in an infectious safety culture.

Jon Isom is a partner and Sr. Consultant of 3836 Safety, LLC, a Safety Consulting, Training, and Safety Management System Implementation firm with concentrations in OSHA compliance and the ISO Standards. OUR MOTTO IS: We manage your safety compliance so you can manage your business. 3836 Safety can provide you with the guidance and tools to get on track to a robust Occupational Health and Safety Management System. He can be reached at: or 901-600-6746