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Safety Culture

“Safety systems are not effective unless accompanied by a positive safety culture in the workplace” (Kim, Park & Park, 2016)   Safety culture was first coined in 1986 by Atomic Energy Agency who introduced the term to describe the thinking and behaviour of those responsible for the Chernobyl accident (International Nuclear Safety Advisory Group).  In 1993 the ACSNI Human Factors Study Group defined safety culture as “the product of individual and group values, attitudes, perceptions, competencies and patterns of behaviour that can determine the commitment to, and the style and proficiency of an organisations health and safety management system” (Health and Safety Commission).  This culture is made up of multiple factors including psychological – values, beliefs, attitudes; behavioural – methods regarding safety; and situational – policies, procedures, and management systems.  Although there is some subjectivity, safety maturity models are often applied to assess safety culture. Models suggests safety culture can be “pathological / no care” – where employees and employers blatantly disregard safety; or “reactive / blame” – where safety is only considered following an incident; or “calculative / planned” – where some systems are in place to manage hazards; or “proactive” – where there is a focus on safety improvement; and “generative” which is the most advanced and dynamic culture where safety systems are effective and worker engagement is high.  The changing nature of work in the twenty first century and the introduction of new workplace health issues such as mental health and bullying and harassment, provides an opportunity to consider alternative leadership styles to build a positive health and safety culture.

True culture change requires changing core beliefs which is not simple to achieve and takes time.  Edgar Schein is a well-known psychologist instrumental in shaping our understanding of how change occurs in workplaces.  Schein extended on a change model defined by Kurt Lewin which has three steps: unfreeze, change, refreeze.  Unfreezing is difficult as a stimulus activates a change or a need to change the current state which can cause anxiety or guilt.  It is important to maintain individual psychological safety so that people feel comfortable enough to learn rather than becoming defensive.  Organisational culture change first requires change at the individual level.  Studies show that transformational leadership inspires change and directly correlates with improved safety culture.  Sarkus explains: “The evolution of safety culture stems from the beliefs, values, behaviours and assumptions of executives, managers and supervisors.  These beliefs and values are shared with others who interact and create the organisations safety culture” (1996).

To change a safety culture, organisations must first start by defining safety culture as a value within the and requiring leaders to model this value, thinking about safety as a competitive advantage and organisational benefit rather than simply a compliance cost.  Such benefits include increased effectiveness of the Health and Safety Management System, an increase in safe behaviours and a reduction in incident rates.  This would minimise harm to individuals, reduce costs associated with managing incidents, and reflect positively during the tender management process.  Once safety is a defined value and priority, improving safety participation through engaging or consulting with the workforce on what safety means to them and their current perception of the safety culture is key.  This would also help to establish a baseline score for safety culture within the organisation and would assist with driving improvements in the environment, equipment or systems.  A good tool for this is a safety climate survey that collects data from the workforce around safety culture at a single point in time. Such a survey would measure factors such as communication, workload, leadership, teamwork, safety systems and learning.  This would provide helpful insight from the frontline teams to ensure that safety programs and initiatives are targeted to the needs of the workforce.  A similar method of obtaining feedback from the workforce and empowering them to become involved in risk management and providing solutions to safety issues would be to promote an effective observation card system.  This would provide a mechanism for employees to provide safety recommendations, report unsafe conditions, or recognise one another for safe work practices.  In this way, senior managers can demonstrate they are truly listening to what is important to workers and can demonstrate they care by being interested and sensitive to the needs of the workforce.  This would involve obtaining information from the workforce and not waiting for incidents to happen before addressing concerns, but preventing problems before they happen.  An effective safety culture requires delegated management of risk and employees closest to the risks should be empowered to find solutions to eliminating and minimising these risks without the need for constant management intervention.

Further extending on this idea of empowerment would be to harness the influence of supervisors and middle managers and support them to understand their delegated obligations and role in leading safely.  By leading with purpose and building trust this promotes decision making at lower levels of the organisation which leads to better safety outcomes and improved engagement and productivity.  Lastly, leaders that understand safety culture also understand the importance of recognition and reward.  They show appreciation and encouragement through positive reinforcement.  This involves genuine engagement with the workforce, developing personal connections, understanding employees needs and communicating effectively through empathy, gratitude and support.  This approach ultimately inspires people to instinctively care about their own and others safety in the workforce which is fundamental to a positive safety culture.

How does your workplace maintain a generative safety culture? How do HR and HSE professionals support positive culture change? I would love to hear from you

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