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May 6, 2022

Health & Safety – Culture Club

Safety culture is an oft-heard expression but what does it mean? The concept of a ‘safety culture’ is a little vague as there is no definitive model, no single recognised international standard, against which an organisation can compare its safety culture.

In short, a safety culture is the shared attitudes, values, beliefs, and behaviours relating to safety, at all levels, within an organisation. This can be broken down into three distinct and inter-related characteristics:

Physiological: how people feel – the safety ‘climate’ of the organisation (a point I will return to). This is concerned with individual and group values, attitudes, and perceptions.

Behavioural: what people do – safety related actions and behaviours. It has been suggested that a safety culture is defined by what people in an organisation do when they think no one is watching.

Situational: what systems the organisation has in place – safety management arrangements and procedures (e.g. safe working policies), and a safe working environment.

If the existence of a safety culture seems somewhat vague then the lack of one is far easier to identify. Symptoms of it include:

  • non-compliance with safety policies, procedures and safe systems of work is prevalent: employees working unsafely as they don’t know any better (either through a lack of training or their unsafe working behaviours going unchallenged by supervisors and managers);
  • failure of managers and supervisors to lead by positive example;
  • management decisions that place emphasis on productivity, or cost, over safety;
  • a high number of accidents, and the belief that these accidents are merely a result of negligence i.e. that the individual is always to blame;
  • accidents, and crucially, near miss events going un-reported and un-investigated, therefore no opportunity to learn from past mistakes or experiences.

 

I have worked with many organisations whose senior management have claimed to have a ‘good safety culture’. A simple method I use to validate or refute these claims is to observe the working environment and conditions and how employees are working / behaving within it. This can expose divergence between the situational and behavioural aspects of a safety culture, where boardroom beliefs or aspirations don’t match the reality out on the ‘shop floor’. While metrics such as the results of safety systems audits or reviews of accident statistics will provide some information on the safety performance of an organisation i.e. the situational aspects, these metrics won’t give any insight into attitudes towards safety – the psychological and behavioural aspects. A functioning safety culture should encompass all three aspects.

Safety climate / safety culture

What is the difference then between safety climate and a safety culture? While strongly linked, the two are quite different. The former encompasses perceptions and attitudes about safety, measured using surveys or questionnaires, and provides a ‘snapshot’ of what is happening now – the safety climate of the organisation. The latter is more complex, takes time and effort to develop, and reflects more fundamental values. As easier way to differentiate the two is to consider safety climate as the ‘mood’ of the organisation while safety culture is its ‘personality’.

Therefore to quantify the safety culture (good or bad) first the organisation must collect baseline data so that any improvement can be measured. A safety climate (mood) survey (snapshot) needs to be repeated periodically over time to give an indication of the safety culture (personality).

Conducting a ‘safety climate’ survey or questionnaire can be used to establish employee perceptions of safety and how it is being managed – how people feel (the psychological aspect).

A safety climate survey would establish whether or not:

  • the organisations leadership demonstrate a clear commitment to safety – do managers, and staff with specific health and safety responsibilities spend time at the front line dealing with safety related issues?
  • employees participate in safety discussions and are actively encouraged to contribute to safety discussions and initiatives?
  • managers follow through on assurances they make to deal with safety issues?
  • safety is valued over productivity?
  • there is an environment of mutual trust and openness between management and employees?
  • employees have been given training to ensure they understand their safety responsibilities, and to carry out their work activities safely?
  • managers and crucially employees would intervene where they witnessed someone working unsafely?
  • a ‘just’ culture is promoted (i.e. employees are held accountable for their actions, but blame is only apportioned where someone takes reckless risk)?

 

In conjunction with surveys or questionnaires, focus groups could be held to gauge employee perceptions of safety and how it is being managed. Keep in mind who leads or facilitates these sessions as there could be reluctance on the part of attendees to speak out or to raise any negative points in front of management – note earlier comment about mutual trust and openness.

What then about determining the behavioural and situational aspects? Conducting workplace tours and observing how employees are working as well as carrying out safety systems audits can be valuable exercises when carried out in tandem with climate surveys. Using more than one approach to reveal organisational, and individual, attitudes toward safety will provide a more comprehensive picture as to the climate (or mood) within the organisation and point to what actions are necessary to progress the safety culture longer term.

Motivations and foundations

Solely using low levels of reported accidents as a validation of a ‘good’ safety culture may lead an organisation to falsely believe that they do have good safety culture. While low levels of reported accidents could well be a result of effective safety management practices, and a positive working culture, it could also be down to underreporting of accidents. Underreporting of accidents can occur where:

  • the reporting process is not understood or just too complicated;
  • the organisation places little emphasis on the importance of reporting accidents;
  • the organisation does not follow through with corrective actions when accidents have been reported;
  • there is concern that reporting leads to blame.

 

Paradoxically, an organisation with low levels of reported accidents but high levels of reported near misses would be much more indicative of a functioning safety culture, or at least elements of it. The importance of having a near miss reporting system cannot be emphasised enough when building an effective safety culture. A successful near miss reporting system is one which:

  • employees are made aware of;
  • employees are actively encouraged to participate in;
  • the management who are fully in support of it and decisively act on the results of the near misses reported to them.

 

The principal motivation for developing or improving the safety culture for many organisations is to purely reduce accident rates. Unfortunately for some (organisations) it takes a serious accident to recognise that change is required – failing to heed the early warnings given by previous incidents.

An effective safety culture built on mutual trust, inclusion, and respect between management (at all levels) and employees. Employees who feel empowered, respected and part of the decision-making process are more likely to embrace safety rules and initiatives. Employees may disregard, or worse, resent, rules imposed on them which they have had no involvement in and do not understand the value of.

Derailing a safety culture

Ideally to make a safety culture successful it must become more than a just a nebulous concept. It becomes something more tangible – a formal pledge from senior management that the safety of their employees is of equal (or greater) importance to productivity. Backing that pledge up by actively participating in safety meetings and initiatives – being visible. The organisation shares this pledge with customers, suppliers and other stakeholders.

I cannot stress this more strongly, for a safety culture to flourish senior management must be genuinely convinced of the value of it.

Worse are senior managers who set a vision for a safety culture in motion in a blaze of publicity only then to withdraw from it (well because they are more important things to deal with…) leaving their subordinates to lead and drive it. Operational managers paying lip service to safety targets and responsibilities by failing to deliver on them (i.e. claiming insufficient time or resources) is one the quickest ways to break a growing or established safety culture. This is amplified when employees observe their managers dodging safety responsibilities or even breaking established safety protocols, they then start to question their own motivations – ‘if they don’t bother then why should I?’, creating a toxic safety culture.

The journey towards a successful safety culture

The senior management of the organisation must have a clear vision of what they want to achieve from a positive safety culture (for example to reduce accident levels). They need to consider:

  • the psychological, behavioural and situational needs and how these will be met; and
  • the additional resources that may be required to meet them.

 

The vision must then be communicated effectively to employees, highlighting how it will benefit them – ‘what’s in it for me?’.

Senior management need to be be fully committed to investing the time and effort to propel the change toward their vision – to be unwavering cheerleaders for it, encouraging employee participation and vitally to listen to their feedback (good or bad) and to modify the vision as necessary.

The benefit of a safety culture genuinely aimed at improving working conditions, reducing the potential for accidents, where employees are actively involved in decisions regarding their own safety, and one that has the full backing of all levels of management becomes interwoven into the very DNA of the organisation. It simply becomes ‘the way we do things around here’.

If you have any questions on any of the issues raised in the above article, please contact Gary Foggo.

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