How to develop a positive safety culture

There’s a lot of management speak about having a positive safety culture that makes everyone take responsibility for safe working. This is partly because organisations can’t afford to have layers of managers checking on everything all the time. Evidence also shows rule breaking and lack of consideration leads to high accident and absence rates.

But how do you develop a culture within your organisation in which everyone takes Health & Safety seriously?

British Airways used to employ quality inspectors to check the work of aircraft service engineers. Engineers then began signing off their own work. Such “delayering” happens in organisations where there is a culture of people working effectively under their own initiative. Accident prevention works in much the same way. A positive safety culture encourages everyone to take the initiative in making safe work choices.

So what exactly is a “safety culture” and how might your organisation achieve it?

Key elements

There are three key elements to having a safety culture.

  • Shared values. This involves agreement on what’s important, what really matters and what “good work” is. It means putting the emphasis on safe working as well as production and profit.
  • Shared beliefs on how things work. This isn’t just taking and following orders but involves real personal commitments to safety played out in practice.
  • Behavioural norms. This involves agreeing on the way things should be done.

It’s hard to precisely define what “culture” means. When asked, most people tend to say something about “the way things work round here”.

But when you see safety culture, you will recognise it. Much like if you’ve never seen an elephant before – it’s hard to describe but you’ll know one when you see one!

Every organisation has an attitude and a way of working which defines it. Importantly, this can be influenced and developed to support and contribute to safe and healthy working.

The trouble is employees are often tempted to take risks. The thinking is “It’s my life and I’ll take my chances.” It may, therefore, take some time to develop a culture that makes unsafe working completely unacceptable. As Goering supposedly said: “When I hear the word culture I reach for my revolver”!

Factors that promote a positive Health & Safety culture include:

  • strong leadership
  • managerial commitment and involvement
  • high Health & Safety profile including reference to Health & Safety in the mission statement
  • providing Health & Safety information, training and instruction for staff and managers
  • consultation and participation
  • responsibility at all organisation levels
  • setting and meeting of positive targets for all managers and supervisors

Commitment from the top

The most important factor affecting culture is the commitment from the top.

Your organisation needs to be positively led by its directors and managers. They should set the tone and demonstrate their personal commitment to high safety standards. This means being compliant themselves – not “I’m the MD, I don’t need to wear safety goggles”.

Achieving the necessary managerial leadership and commitment may require particular effort. For example, running a senior management workshop to find ways to improve your organisation’s Health & Safety performance. This might be followed up by publishing a draft action plan that invites comment from all staff.

Commitment is shown in many ways. It needs to be formal in terms of an organisational structure, job descriptions and a Health & Safety policy but it also needs to be apparent during stressful times. For example, Health & Safety procedures are often simply forgotten when performance targets are threatened.

Involve everyone

You need to involve all staff. Not only will this tap into the creativity and knowledge within your organisation but it will make compliance more likely.

The amount of consultation and involvement with the workforce in Health & Safety matters is crucial for a positive Health & Safety culture.

No single section or department can develop a positive Health & Safety culture on its own.

Reporting 

Reporting of accidents and “near misses” is essential. This requires a reporting environment in which whistle-blowing on dangerous practice is encouraged.

The big problem is many employees see reporting of hazards and incidents as “stepping out of line” – the penalty for which is the “marking of cards”. Senior management must ensure this is not the case.

Safety climate tool

Employee communication, education and training can be improved using the Health & Safety Executive’s Health & Safety climate tool. The tool gives an objective measure of the “way things are done” in your organisation. It uses an anonymous questionnaire to explore your employees’ attitudes and perceptions in key Health & Safety areas. It then generates a written report and provides hints and tips on improving safety culture.

Organisations are often surprised to learn just how much of a gap exists between what they believe is being done and how things are on the shop floor. While your management may talk about safety being “the number one priority” the big question is “Does your workforce really believe this”?

The problem may be your workers do what they think you want and not necessarily what you say you want!

Poor supervision and an absence of Health & Safety information and training are very significant factors in reducing Health & Safety awareness. This will, of course, affect the culture.

Behavioural norms

You should identify and praise positive Health & Safety efforts.

All too often we report on Health & Safety failures, accident numbers and days lost through sickness.

Reporting on how many of your staff were seen wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) or correctly using work equipment is a way of countering negativity. It will also help develop a positive culture of achievement.

In developing a positive Health & Safety culture, everyone in your organisation needs to understand:

  • the Health & Safety standards expected of them
  • their individual role in achieving and maintaining those standards.

Caution

A good safety culture cannot compensate for poor working conditions, unsafe equipment and dangerous work practices. Your workplace, equipment, procedures, as well as your workers’ behaviour, are all part of the safety mix.

But if you’ve already implemented many ways of making work safer then a focus on improving your safety culture may provide real added rewards.