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  • Richard Nichols

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.


The impact on people

Aside from the business benefits, it is essential to recognize the impact that poor safety culture can have on people since they are the outcome of your safety culture and leadership. Unfortunately, 142 people died last year as a result of their work. Remember that a workplace accident can have devastating effects on not only the injured person but their families as well.


According to Abraham Maslow, in his 1943 paper "A theory of human motivation", safety is similar to food, water and shelter as the second of five basic human needs. Without this need for safety, we cannot satisfy more complex needs and cannot achieve self-fulfilment and growth. The lesson learned here is one that many managers have put into practice when trying to motivate their staff.


The role of leaders


Successful organizations lead by example, taking a top-down approach to health and safety. As a result, the HSE points out that although many companies refer to the word 'safety culture' as referring to employee inclination to comply with rules or act safely, it is in fact the company culture and management style which has the biggest impact. Managers may do the following, for example:

  • Have a natural, unconscious bias for production over safety.

  • Tend to focus on the short-term and be highly reactive.

  • Ignore health and safety policies and procedures.

These attitudes and behaviours can filter down to employees and encourage apathy and risk-taking behaviour. Leading by example is therefore crucial, with leaders embodying the values of the organization through their own behaviour and leadership practices, and understanding how they affect health and safety culture positively (and negatively).


Practical ways to lead from the top

Leaders should:

  • Set the direction for effective health and safety management.

  • Implement a health and safety policy that goes beyond a simple document (it should be part of the organization's culture, values, and performance standards).

  • Take the lead in ensuring the communication of health and safety duties and benefits throughout the organisation.


Examples of good practice include:

  • Ensuring health and safety appears regularly on the agenda for senior managers meetings.

  • Appoint a senior manager as the health and safety ‘champion’.

  • Appointing a health and safety director sends a strong message that the issue is being taken seriously and that its strategic importance is understood.

  • Setting targets to define what the company is seeking to achieve.

A good leader should also possess the following qualities:

  • Has the motivation to prevent harm to anyone.

  • Provides a safe working environment for employees.

  • Has to respect the law and regulations.

  • Develops and maintains skills, knowledge, and experience in themselves and others.

  • Is objective, fair and reasonable.

  • Takes responsibility for his own as well as others’ actions.

  • A person who acts with conviction.

  • Provides clear direction and communicates effectively.

  • Discharges a duty of care to customers, clients and staff.


Improve your Safety culture with these 3 simple steps:


1. Engage your workforce and consult them


Participants in the health and safety policies are encouraged to take ownership, thereby reducing risks. As a result, it establishes the understanding that the organisation as a whole, and its employees, benefit from good health and safety performance. The sharing of knowledge and experience through participation, commitment, and involvement really make health and safety everyone's business.


2. Benchmark your performance


The objective of benchmarking is to learn from others, identify your organization's strengths and weaknesses in the process, and act upon the lessons learned - leading to real improvement. Look at your staff survey return rate. This is a good way of gauging engagement in the business.


3. Adapt to your environment


An organisation's safety culture exists on a dynamic level - it responds to experiences, organizational changes, and external and internal stakeholders' expectations as they arise. It is important to manage change dynamically, and safety culture is no exception.


In summary, remember that your safety culture/organisational culture is as diverse as the people you manage, with different backgrounds, cultures, and tolerances. Because people are unique, your safety culture approach should also be unique.