It’s a well used phrase, but many organisations still don’t entirely understand what a Safety Culture is, if they even have one, how to measure and improve it if they do, and why it matters.
In fact, every organisation has a Safety Culture – it’s just that some Cultures are good, some are bad and some are mediocre. The Safety Culture in your organisation is the sum total of the beliefs, attitudes and behaviours of everyone in the organisation and any others who interact with it on a meaningful basis (such as suppliers, contractors and frequent visitors).
Improving your Safety Culture will give your organisation many benefits, such as:
- reduced injury and ill health
- reduced sickness absence
- reduced environmental damage
- reduced risk of enforcement action
- reduced risk of personal injury claims
- cost savings
- reduced property, equipment or WIP damage
- improved recruitment and retention
- improved morale
- improved quality
- higher productivity
The simplest explanation of a Safety Culture is ‘the way we do things round here’. This explanation can be applied to many other parts of an organisation too of course, such as quality, customer service, housekeeping, equality, work ethic and so forth. This article is all about Safety Culture however, and in this context, let’s include health and environment too (EHS).
While we’re defining, it’s important to clarify that ‘how we do things round here’ also should include ‘all of the time, even when nobody is looking’! As managers, it’s easy to falsely convince ourselves that we have a strong Safety Culture if workers always behave properly while they are being watched. But if they quickly revert to bad habits once our back is turned, our Safety Culture is poor.
Belief, Attitude and Behaviour
As Safety Culture is most easily visible as workplace behaviour, let’s start with the basic psychology behind that first. Every employee has many thousands of embedded beliefs. These beliefs have slowly evolved throughout the persons life – from interactions with others (parents, teachers, friends, bosses and colleagues), personal experiences and other influences such as exposure to films, TV and media etc.
These beliefs will directly affect their attitude towards a thing that happens in the workplace. Their attitude in turn will influence the behaviour that they display when that ‘thing’ happens to them. Some beliefs are fairly universal, e.g. ‘fire is hot’. Other beliefs depend a lot on the individual, e.g. ‘cars are dangerous’ or ‘safety glasses matter’.
Changing employee behaviours in a meaningful and embedded way is quite difficult unless you also address the underlying attitudes and beliefs. For example – if an employee believes that the safety guard on their machine is pointless (regardless whether they are right or not), they are not likely to use it when nobody is watching. As their Manager, simply telling them to use the safety guard is not going to be effective because your instruction is not congruent with their belief (that safety guards are pointless and just get in the way). You will need to change their attitude towards safety guards by providing them with with highly persuasive information and training for example. You’ll probably need to do this several times for it to embed effectively too – it isn’t easy!
Improving Your Safety Culture
We’ve covered what Safety Culture actually is, but what can you do to influence and improve it? There are many companies out there who will deliver you a great Safety Culture improvement programme, and this is arguably the most effective approach, but there are several things you can do yourself.
Before you can improve anything of course, you need to know your start point, your baseline. There have been numerous models proposed over the years to identify the various elements of a Safety Culture, so that organisations can break things down, assess their performance and create meaningful improvement plans.
Here are eleven of the common elements that you might wish to explore in your organisation:
- How committed, vocal and visible are your managers and supervisors on EHS issues?
- What does your current EHS performance look like in terms of accidents and incidents, investigations, risk assessment targets, training attendance and so forth? Is the performance improving or getting worse? How does it benchmark against other organisations in your sector?
- How well does your organisation communicate EHS issues (both day to day activities and longer term improvement campaigns), from bottom to top and also outwards to external stakeholders?
- How do the prioritisation levels of EHS and Production compare against each other and does this change much (e.g. when your ‘month end’ hits, is EHS shelved)?
- How much resource is devoted to specific EHS learning and development? Is there a specific budget for it?
- How much resource is devoted to specific EHS improvements (on both a physical and organisational level)? Is there a specific budget for it?
- How deeply do your employees voluntarily participate in your EHS systems?
- How freely are your employees able to share their views about EHS with management and external stakeholders?
- What do your employees actually think about how well EHS is managed in their workplace, and why do they think that?
- How much do your employees trust their managers to ‘do the right thing’, in terms of EHS?
- What do your suppliers, visitors, contractors and any other external stakeholders think about the standard of EHS in your workplace and why do they think that?
Can you actually measure any of this? To some extent, yes, but generally you’ll only manage a qualitative impression – you can start by scoring each element as either strong, ok or weak. This is a good start, but will only give you a ‘snapshot in time’ of course (often referred to as a Safety Climate Survey).
Monthly key performance indicators (KPI’s) are usually not very useful in this context, because any changes are likely to be quite slow; you’re trying to change ingrained beliefs and attitudes after all. Expect to implement a three to five year strategy if you need to develop a robust Safety Culture from a standing start.
Safety Climate Surveys are still a useful exercise and will give you a great line in the sand to compare against, year on year. There are three ways to approach a Safety Climate Survey:
- Use an ‘off the shelf’ questionnaire – this can be a limiting approach and is the least effective. The template might sometimes fit your organisation, but it might not.
- Develop your own – this is better. Tailor the questions to fit the specific things you want to know. Be especially careful not to tailor the questions to avoid outcomes which might be difficult to manage!
- Interview employees and other stakeholders – this is the best approach. Generate a strong question set and talk through it with a fully representative cross section of your team. Engage them fully and probe their responses using open questioning techniques to get maximum useful feedback. Whilst this might seem a lot of work, if you feel you can’t directly interview employees and stakeholders, then this in itself might indicate some trust, engagement or EHS resource issues within your organisation!
Facing all eleven elements honestly and combining this analysis with the results of your questionnaires or interviews will enable you to design a robust, effective and meaningful Safety Culture improvement programme.
Director, Haysman Consulting Limited
Chartered Safety and Health Practitioner