Building a safety culture needs an oblique approach

Former editor, IOSH Magazine

At the autumn EHS Congress in Berlin, more than one delegate asked the panels of leading OSH professionals and theorists how they could create strong safety cultures in their organisations.

It’s an understandable desire; a strong safety culture takes a weight off the shoulders of an OSH practitioner because safeguarding themselves and others becomes every worker’s concern and helps make poor risk control exceptional rather than a constant fear. (When the management guru Peter Drucker famously said culture “eats strategy for breakfast” he was only stating the fact that things as they are usually trump things as you would like them to be.)

But I’d argue that focusing on achieving a robust safety culture is unlikely to get you one. There are some pursuits – individual happiness is another one – where a head-on approach is seldom successful. Because culture, like happiness, is a by-product of other conditions.

In safety and health, those conditions will be familiar to most practitioners and crop up over and again in the pages of our magazine. They start with the foundations of basic legal requirements: policy and arrangements, supply of personal protective equipment, training, instruction and supervision and end with the roof tiles of senior management commitment and employee involvement.

Helping to maintain these elements is the safety professional’s job, but that work is not directed towards the end of generating a safety culture, it’s to discharge an organisation’s duty of care and to make its workforce more healthy and productive.

That said, all those components, well managed, are most likely to result in a cultural shift.

How would you know when it happened? People who work in such organisations say it’s evident in every meeting and conversation they have. But there are firm indicators as well. In our Thames Water feature last month it was clear that when 90% of the workforce say they believe their employer cares about their safety and welfare, the highest percentage for any question in a company poll, something is going right.

More importantly, the safety and health metrics describe virtuous curves: near-miss reports, lost time accidents, days lost to ill health. These are the signs that employees have taken all the encouragement the organisation provides and run with it.

If people believe that their employer and most of their colleagues care about doing things safely, they are more likely to do them that way even when no one is watching – another common definition of a strong safety culture.

OSH practitioners can’t make that happen but they are well placed to cultivate the soil from which it grows.



Louis Wustemann is former editor, IOSH Magazine. He was previously editor of Health and Safety at Work magazine and Environment in Business. He has written, edited and consulted on health and safety, environmental and employment matters for more than 25 years.


  • Louis, I couldn't disagree

    Permalink Submitted by Chris Jerman on 29 January 2019 - 12:28 pm

    Louis, I couldn't disagree with a word of that. Culture is a result, an output, a consequence of the collective efforts that you put in. It's like changing opinion; you have to work on the factors that give rise to the opinion in the first place rather than simply tell people they're wrong.


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