Safety Across Cultures

Posted on by Michael Flynn, MA

As businesses become more global, safety professionals must develop and carry out work-based safety programs in cross-cultural settings. A recent article in Professional Safety, “Safety Across Cultures: Understanding the Challenges,” discusses the challenges of cross-cultural safety and health and offers suggestions on how to approach these growing responsibilities.

Occupational safety and health (OSH) professionals work both in companies that send safety professionals to oversee operations in a foreign country and for foreign companies who employ local safety personnel. Safety professionals must adjust their own approaches to safety, and that of their organizations, to effectively adapt to the global economy.

In safety and health, culture can be defined as a system of shared beliefs and behaviors that affects how workers from different ethnic and social groups perceive, understand, adapt to and address safety concerns at work. Examples of cultural factors that can affect safety at work are how:

  • a coworker and a boss understand safety and who is responsible for it;
  • subordinates, equals and superiors can appropriately interact with each other;
  • people say work is done and how work is actually done;
  • employees perceive work dangers relative to other risks they face in their daily lives;
  • employees adapt to workplace dangers; and
  • these understandings are similar or different for workers with different cultural backgrounds.

When working in different cultures, OSH professionals need to first recognize their own cultural bias and that of their coworkers. OSH professionals often focus on carrying out the technical aspects of the program in the same way they do in their home country to attempt to improve safety in new locations. This focus often ignores the need to adapt programs to local conditions. Safety professionals would benefit from seeking input on local context and meanings, and on the appropriateness of programs and initiatives.

For safety professionals working in their home cultures with foreign companies, it is important that they are able to appreciate and navigate the cultural differences inherent in their workplace interactions. Those in supervisory roles may find themselves as a cultural translator, positioned in between local employees and a foreign firm. In this position, they need to be particularly sensitive to their own cultural biases and those of their employees so they can effectively communicate these differences or barriers to the company with which they work.

The following steps provide a starting point for adapting multiple cultures into workplace safety and health.


  • How are ideas presented? Pay attention to tone, body language and metaphors.
  • How are decisions made, in or out of official settings?
  • Look for congruence or inconsistency between what people say and what they do.

Ask Questions

  • Ask questions about things that seem to be common sense. Assumptions are how most misunderstandings happen.
  • Ask questions more than once. Make questioning a normal part of interactions.
  • Ask for specific examples of positive and negative interactions. In the answer, listen for clues about:
    • employer-employee relations;
    • how conflict is addressed in this setting (e.g., directly, indirectly);
    • expectations and understandings of safety;
    • the priority of safety in relation to other company priorities.

Be Open

  • Be prepared to have your assumptions questioned.
  • Make sure colleagues feel comfortable communicating with you about cultural differences.
  • Be aware that power dynamics can impede communication, and may take time and concerted effort to overcome.

Cultural training for safety and health professionals will become increasingly important as the global economy grows and diversifies. Safety professionals who develop the ability to work effectively in cross-cultural settings will be better positioned to promote workers health, safety and well-being in the increasingly global economy . Have you faced challenges associated with culture in your OSH role? If so, please share your experiences below.


Michael Flynn, MA, is a Social Scientist in the NIOSH  Education and Information Division and Coordinates the  Occupational Health Equity Program.



Flynn, M.A., Castellanos, E., Flores-Andrade, A. (2018). Safety across Cultures: Understanding the Challenges. Professional Safety 63(1): 28-32..


Posted on by Michael Flynn, MA

9 comments on “Safety Across Cultures”

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    For me, I can understand recognizing how an employee from different cultures perceives risk, relative to other risks in their environment will help with conveying the value of safety and health. However, this would benefit from two or three concrete examples of how these observations (form of ideas, decision making, and perceived inconsistency) have informed policy or communication and what cultural biases EHS professionals have needed to recognize in themselves.

    The article contains several examples. One example safety professionals need to be aware of different expectations of coworkers and leaders. A study of professionals across several countries discovered the concept of “team” differed significantly from one culture to the next, even when the subjects worked in the same company. In some cultures individuals expected their interaction with their work team members to consist only of meetings at work. In contrast, people from other cultures expected to have more social interactions outside work, where team members could share other aspects of their lives (Gibson & Zellmer-Bruhn, 2002). This example suggest that different cultural approaches to work can affect how team members:
     contribute to a group’s work;
     relate to one another;
     make sacrifices for and commit to the project and to one another;
     expect other group members and the team leader to behave;
     reward behaviors meeting cultural expectations; and
     correct members whose behavior is inconsistent with cultural expectations.

    The researchers concluded that to effectively work cross-culturally, a professional must understand the local perceptions and approaches to key concepts and core issues. This includes work, safety, and relationships with coworkers and supervisors (Gibson, Szkudlarek, & McDaniel, 2012).

    I’ve always thought Culture played a part in how safety is adopted and understood, but this article and the one in the Professional Safety Journal brought it to the forefront for me.

    I do have a question, however, as you stated “A fish may not know that it swims in water”; Where can we learn more about cultural differences between for example the USA and Latin American Countries like Colombia, South America?

    As the article mentions, the most important step in working effectively across cultures is to develop an awareness of the cultural perspective you bring to the relationship and the power dynamics related to your social position and that of those you are working with. Developing practices and relationships that encourage open and honest feedback from your partners in the foreign country is probably the best thing you can do to overcome the cultural barriers. If you want to read more on this I encourage you to search for articles on the topic of “cultural humility”. Another approach would be to enter into conversation with safety professionals from the foreign country or others who have worked there. The American Society of Safety Professionals has an interest group of Hispanic Safety Professionals. They may be able to put you in touch with some safety professionals who have the experience you are looking for.

    How about the cultural differences between men and women and that relationship around electrical and electronic safety? There are differences that I have experienced.
    And, too the differences between the US forces for instance, Marines compared to Air Force or Army, let say. These issues arise but it seems none seem to be interested in discussing how to smooth out these issues. Instead they’re swept under the rug, or the issue is set on hold till someone moves on and nothing really ever gets solved. It’s a sad, true situation that I have seen happen many times.

    Share examples of how working as a team help develop autonomy. Also, the positive and negative ramifications of team work, on both professional and personal growth.

    What is the relationship between corporate culture and safety culture? Are there differences within corporate culture that undermine safety culture? Where does the history of the particular work environment fit into all of this? Some companies have a long history of covering up problems — or not even admitting they have existed. Changing management attitudes, values, may be a critical problem — Workers may reasonably mistrust “culture” change. What do you think of the idea of “creative mistrust” as an element in developing a safety culture?

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Page last reviewed: June 8, 2018
Page last updated: June 8, 2018