War and Other Crises: How Companies Can Build a Culture of Safety and Prevention

Turmoil in the airline sector has prompted questions about safety protocols from both governmental and industry organizations. Some airlines have taken proactive steps to ensure the safety of their passengers during the war in Gaza; Delta and United suspended flights to Israel even before the FAA ban was handed down that restricted all U.S airline travel to the country. And Delta prolonged its suspension even after the ban was lift.

Due to safety concerns, Korean Air, Qantas, Air Berlin and many more airlines rerouted their flight paths away from the Ukraine war zone months before the downing of Malaysia Flight 17.

In particular, Delta’s safety strategy proves to be an excellent case study of safety culture in business. Delta CEO Richard Anderson, said, “We have a much higher duty of care, and we’ve got to make the right decisions for the flight attendants, customers and pilots on our flights.” If you were in his position, what would you have done?

Whether we agree with the decision or not, Anderson exercised leadership and judgment in the face of tremendous uncertainty. Through his actions, he demonstrated why having a culture of prevention in place is so important, especially in industries with inherently high risk.

Nearly every industry is exposed to a certain degree of risk. When it comes to accident prevention and safety, how can companies do better?

Stop seeing safety as a cost. If you think an investment in safety is too expensive, consider the opposite. Ignoring safety ultimately will lead to accidents, litigation, increased insurance cost, product failures and damaged reputation. Like reputation management, building a safety culture is a tangible investment with a measurable return.

Values vs. priorities. Your values always guide your priorities. You must ensure that values are never compromised. Safety—and safe behaviors—must be non-negotiable values in a culture of prevention.

Be proactive. Accidents arise when a healthy company culture does not exist. Take for instance GM’s CEO, Mary Barra, when she pointed to the “culture of cost” as the culprit which lead to the company’s deadly decision not to upgrade a 59-cent part. There were employees who thought that cutting cost was the most important objective. In a true safety culture, red flags would have been thrown and the recall would have happened at the time of the discovery.

Behavior trumps compliance. In a culture of prevention, safety is not a department; it’s a way of life. Companies often use “safety and compliance” in the same breath, yet these are separate, albeit related, functions. Only operations can execute on safety.

Take a look around your company; do you see signs of a rich or poor safety culture? For most of us, signs of both exist. For instance, what decision would we make if meeting the deadline or budget forced us to violate the law or put people at risk? In a rich safety culture, nobody has to think about that answer. The entire team understands that safety is a core value and is never compromised. There is a universal mindset that “zero tolerance” is the only goal when measuring accidents. If you accept one accident, you might as well accept a thousand. Better to prevent them all, no matter the up-front cost.

" Brian Fielkow : Corporate culture and management advisor Brian Fielkow is the author of Driving to Perfection: Achieving Business Excellence by Creating a Vibrant Culture, a how-to book based on his 25 years of executive leadership experience at public and privately held companies. With a doctorate in law from Northwestern University School of Law, he serves as owner and president of Jetco Delivery, a logistics company in Houston that specializes in regional trucking, heavy haul and national freight.."