Oliver Williams CMIOSH, regional health and safety manager at Ellis Whittam, takes a deeper look at safety culture in the next of our series of articles on managing core OSH risks.
When it comes to workplace health and safety, most would agree that physical controls can only go so far. In recent years, the concept of building a positive ‘safety culture’ has gained momentum, particularly in higher-risk industries, as the link between workers’ attitudes and workplace incidents becomes ever clearer.
In fact, it is suggested that 95% of workplace accidents have an element of unsafe behaviour attached to them
(see Resources, below), and that a poor safety culture can be just as influential on safety outcomes as an organisation’s safety management system.
In this article, we establish what safety culture is, explain why it should be led from the top, and share some examples of good practice.
What do we mean by safety culture?
‘Culture’ can be defined as the way of life, general customs and beliefs of a group of people. By extension, a ‘safety culture’ can be seen as the product of individual and group attitudes, perceptions, values, competencies and patterns of behaviour with respect to workplace health and safety. This develops from the combined experience of the people within the organisation, whether or not it is planned, and whether or not it is the one the organisation says it wants. Investigations into high-profile health and safety disasters have shown that a poor safety culture can be a significant factor in incident causation. For example, following the King’s Cross fire in 1987, the Fennell report stated that ‘a cultural change in management is required throughout the organisation’. Similarly, in the aftermath of the 1988 Piper Alpha oil rig disaster, Lord Cullen stated in his report that ‘it is essential to create a corporate atmosphere or culture in which safety is understood to be, and is accepted as, the number one priority’.
In truth, it is naive to think of any organisation as having a single, uniform, cohesive culture, and many studies have identified the presence of subcultures within organisations. These are likely to develop where different work groups are faced with different tasks, different levels of risk and different working conditions.
Measuring safety culture
A positive safety culture doesn’t happen overnight; instead, organisations progress through different stages of maturity. This can be thought of as a continuum, ranging from organisations that have unsafe cultures where workers are more concerned with not getting caught (‘pathological’ organisations) through to those that set very high standards and attempt to exceed them (‘generative’ organisations). In generative organisations, safety becomes second nature to everyone.
Your organisation will be somewhere on its safety culture journey. In fact, given the presence of subcultures, you may even find yourself in multiple places on the safety maturity scale. When trying to pinpoint your position, rather than look at your organisation as a whole, consider regional, perhaps departmental, differences in culture. It can sometimes be easy to overlook this, as maybe on the whole you are ‘good’.
Ask yourself where you think your organisation is, then really self-reflect – are you really there? Then ask yourself what your employees, customers and the general public might say.
This maturity model can be used both as an assessment tool and as an improvement tool. If you are interested to know where your organisation currently places on the ‘ladder’, our safety culture survey (see Resources) can provide you with an objective measure of your health and safety culture, and serves as a great starting point for any organisation looking to delve deeper into the way things are done and bring about positive change.
The impact on organisations
A poor safety culture can result in:
- Increased accidents due to risk-taking behaviour and shortcuts being taken, leading to production delays, higher rates of absence, poor staff retention and personal injury claims
- Inflated insurance premiums – if your performance drops, you are a higher risk to insure
- Fines – as less than favourable working conditions may attract regulatory attention due to concerns being raised or an accident that leads to an investigation and possible prosecution
- Reputational damage and loss of revenue – commercial and domestic buyers are becoming increasingly aware of who they are buying from and how they operate as an organisation or treat their employees.
All are bad for business. While health and safety is often viewed as sitting outside core business objectives, many organisations have found improving workplace standards provides financial benefits. Investments are repaid by, for example:
- Enhanced productivity and efficiency
- Reduced staff absence
- Reduced staff turnover.
Contrary to what some might believe, cost-effective investment in health and safety is as valuable as any other investment in your company, and tackling the causes of accidental losses should not be viewed as an unnecessary overhead but rather an investment in your business. Indeed, a combination of reducing accident costs and prevention costs can lead to dramatic savings in your company’s bottom line.
This was the key message of IOSH’s The healthy profit report (see Resources), which aimed to demonstrate to organisations that good health and safety management doesn’t just save lives, but money too. It should never be about just ticking a box to say, ‘I’ve investigated that’, then moving on – really think about the value this can bring.
Again, all of this comes back to the culture of the organisation, as only by getting that right will you see positive results.
The impact on people
Business benefits aside, it’s important to acknowledge the impact that a poor safety culture can have on people, as they are the outcome of your safety culture and leadership.
Everyone should return home at the end of the day in the same condition they left home that morning. Unfortunately, 142 people in Great Britain died as a result of their work last year, according to the GB Health and Safety Executive (HSE) (see Resources). It’s important not to lose sight of the fact that a workplace accident can have devastating effects on not only the injured person but their family too. Crucially, in his 1943 paper A theory of human motivation, the psychologist Abraham Maslow identified safety as the second of five basic human needs, just behind physiological needs such as food, water and shelter. Without satisfying this need for safety, we cannot satisfy more complex needs, and cannot reach our potential and achieve self-fulfilment and growth. This is a lesson many managers have taken on board when trying to motivate staff.
The role of leaders
The most successful organisations lead by example, ensuring they take a top-down approach to health and safety.
In fact, the HSE points out that although many companies use the term ‘safety culture’ to refer to the inclination of their employees to comply with rules or act safely or unsafely, it is the culture and style of management that is even more significant (see Resources). For example, managers may:
- Have a natural, unconscious bias for production over safety
- Tend to focus on the short-term and be highly reactive
- Ignore health and safety policies and procedures that are in place.
These attitudes and behaviours can filter down to employees, and encourage apathy and risk-taking behaviour. It is therefore essential that leaders walk the talk, embody the organisation’s values through their individual behaviour and management practice, and understand the power they have to positively (and negatively) influence health and safety culture.
Lead from the top
On its website, the HSE talks about the importance of directors and boards leading and promoting health and safety (see Resources) and quotes several health and safety leaders in the public and private sectors. One says: ‘Board members who do not show leadership in this area are failing in their duty as directors and their moral duty, and are damaging their organisation.’
Indeed, the board should:
- Set the direction for effective health and safety management
- Establish a health and safety policy that is much more than a document (it should be an integral part of your organisation’s culture, values and performance standards)
- Take the lead in ensuring the communication of health and safety duties and benefits throughout
- the organisation.
Examples of good practice include:
- Ensuring health and safety appears on the agenda for board meetings on a regular basis
- Appointing a board member as the health and safety champion
- Appointing a health and safety director to send a strong signal that the issue is being taken seriously and that its strategic importance is understood
- Setting targets to define what the board is seeking to achieve
- Appointing a non-executive director to act as a scrutineer – ensuring the processes to support boards facing significant health and safety risks are robust.
In addition, those responsible for leading your safety culture should possess certain qualities.
A good leader:
- Has the motivation to prevent harm
- Ensures a safe place of work for staff
- Has respect for the law and regulations
- Maintains and develops skills, knowledge and experience in themselves and others
- Is objective, fair and reasonable
- Takes responsibility for his own and others’ actions
- Acts with conviction
- Provides clear direction and communicates effectively
- Discharges a duty of care to customers, clients and staff.
Three things you can do now
1. Consult with and involve your workforce
Participation by employees supports risk control by encouraging their ownership of health and safety policies. It establishes an understanding that the organisation, and people working in it, benefit from good health and safety performance. Pooling knowledge and experience through participation, commitment and involvement means health and safety becomes everybody’s business. Moreover, successful organisations often go further than what is strictly required by law and actively encourage and support consultation in different ways. Consider involving employees at all levels in activities such as:
Helping to set health and safety performance standards
- Devising operating systems, procedures and instructions for risk control
- Monitoring and auditing
- The chance to participate in ad hoc problem-solving teams.
2. Conduct benchmarking
The objective of benchmarking is to learn from others, uncover your organisation’s strengths and weaknesses
in the process, and then act on the lessons learned – in turn leading to real improvement.
- Benchmark internally and externally within your industry, as this will really challenge your perception of what good looks like
- If you have past reference points to score against, use those; if you don’t, it’s useful to look externally within
- your industry. Also consider those subcultures and benchmark against the appropriate industry
- Consider how your safety performance impacts on your culture, engage with your workforce, and benchmark your result
- Look at the return rate on your staff survey; this is a good indicator of engagement across your business and could be a good place to start.
3. Be dynamic
Safety culture is dynamic – it’s about reflecting on and reacting to experience, changes in organisations and expectations of both internal and external stakeholders. The last 12 months have emphasised the need to be dynamic in how we manage change, and safety culture is no different.
Finally, above all, remember your people: safety culture is as broad and diverse as your workforce, with different backgrounds, cultures and tolerances. People are unique and, as such, your safety culture approach
needs to be too.
Image Credit | Shutterstock
- Think Insights, Heinrich law and industrial safety: bit.ly/heinrich-law
- Ellis Whittam safety culture survey: bit.ly/EW-climate-survey-introduction
- IOSH, The healthy profit: bit.ly/iosh-healthy-profit
- HSE, Workplace fatal injuries in Great Britain, 2021: bit.ly/HSE-2021-fatalities-at-work
- HSE’s information on safety culture: bit.ly/HSE-safety-culture-checklist and leadership: bit.ly/HSE-leadership