Safety Culture & Behavioural Patterns

In this article, we establish what safety culture is, explain why it should be led from the top, and share some examples of good practice.

As the link between worker attitudes and workplace incidents becomes increasingly evident, the concept of building a positive 'safety culture' has gained momentum recently, particularly in higher-risk industries. It is estimated that 95% of workplace accidents involve unsafe behaviour and that poor safety culture can affect safety outcomes just as much as an organization's safety management system.

What is a safety culture?

The word 'culture' refers to the general customs, beliefs, and way of living of a group. The concept of 'safety' can be defined based on individual and group attitudes, perceptions, values, competencies, and patterns of behaviour. The outcome is a combination of the experiences within the organization, whether it is planned or not, and whether it is the one the organization wants.

Many studies have identified the existence of subcultures within organizations, so it is naive to assume that each organization has a single, uniform culture. Different workgroups will likely experience these when faced with different tasks, different levels of risk, and different working conditions.

Think about a school, for example, with various departments, including maintenance workers, cafeteria workers, teachers, and cleaners, all of whom carry out different tasks under different levels of risk. There is no doubt there would be subcultures born out of this.

How to measure safety culture

Safety cultures don't emerge overnight; instead, they progress through different stages of maturity. An organisation's safety culture can be seen as a continuum that ranges from those that have unsafe cultures where workers are more concerned about not getting caught to those that set very high standards and strive to exceed them.

How would you describe your organization? Consider what employees, customers and the general public may say. In most cases, your organization is at some point in the process of establishing a safety culture. Considering that subcultures exist, you may even be at multiple levels on the maturity scale of safety. The HSE provides a useful checklist that could help to simplify this process.

The impact on organisations

A poor safety culture can result in:

  • Accidents - attributable to risk-taking behaviour, shortcuts, delayed production, lower staff retention, and personal injury claims.

  • Inflated insurance premiums - if your performance drops, you are a higher ‘risk’ to insure.

  • Fines - If regulatory attention is drawn due to concerns being raised or to an accident that leads to an investigation and possible prosecution, fines may be imposed.

  • Reputational damage and loss of revenue - Consumers and business owners are becoming more aware of who they are buying from and how the company operates or treats its employees.

All of these are detrimental to business. The truth is that improving workplace standards can bring substantial financial benefits to organizations, even if health and safety are seen as outside of core business objectives.

Investments in Health and Safety can:

  • Enhanced productivity and efficiency

  • Reduced staff absence

  • Reduced staff turnover

  • Increased worker morale

Health and safety investments are as valuable as any other investment in your company and addressing the causes of accidental losses should not be viewed as an unnecessary overhead but as an investment in your business.