Building a strong safety culture
Article prepared: 28 January 2014
Successful organisations rely on building a culture of safety in the workplace, in which everyone collectively strives to achieve. A strong safety culture is one in which safety is valued and prioritised within an organisation, and there is a real commitment to safety at all levels, even when no one is watching.
I already have systems in place. Why do I need a safety culture?
Research has shown that a Safety Management System (SMS) incorporating workplace inspections, policies, procedures, roles and responsibilities, cannot achieve safe performance alone. In fact, without a safety culture even the best designed systems will fail. For example, if a person believes that safety is not important, then they are likely to cut corners, or make unsafe decisions or judgements, especially when the perceived risk of harm is small. Therefore, an organisation’s safety culture has a direct impact on safe performance, and is important in understanding why systems fail or succeed.
How can I build a strong safety culture?
The safety culture of an organisation is the product of the people’s values, beliefs, behaviours, attitudes, and commitment towards safety. Building a safety culture is not as easy as calling a meeting and saying, “Ok, now we’re going to have a strong safety culture.” What you can do is create a framework that guides your organisation towards achieving a strong safety culture and defines the behaviours of each member of your organisation.
Building your framework
First, you need to define what a safety culture looks like in your organisation. Psychologist James Reason’s (1998; 2000) framework suggests that building a strong safety culture consists of combining five cultures, including (1) an informed culture, (2) a reporting culture, (3) a just culture, (4) a flexible culture, and (5) a learning culture.
In an informed culture there is a level of awareness by those who manage and operate the organisation on factors such as people, jobs, and the workplace environment that could impact safe performance. In an informed culture the organisation collects, analyses, and disseminates safety information such as near-misses and errors.
In a reporting culture there is an atmosphere in which people have the willingness and confidence to report any safety concerns (such as near-misses and errors) without any fear of blame. It is important in a reporting culture people know that the confidentiality of their information will be maintained, and the information they submit will be acted upon. Otherwise, people may decide that there is no benefit in reporting.
Similar to a reporting culture, a just culture is where reporting safety concerns are encouraged with an emphasis on learning rather than blame. For example, in a just culture a person performing an unsafe act will not be punished if their act was unintentional. However, it is important to understand that having a “no-blame” culture is not possible. For example, a person who acts recklessly or takes a deliberate risk should be subject to disciplinary action. Therefore, in a just culture people still need to be aware of what is acceptable and non-acceptable behaviour.
In a flexible culture the organisation and its people are capable of adapting effectively to changing demands. Such adaptability is an important feature of organisations striving towards a strong safety culture.
Finally, an organisation must have a learning culture, in which they are able to analyse safety data, draw the right conclusions, learn from mistakes, and act upon recommendations.
Defining your behaviours
To complete your safety culture framework, it is important to define what behaviours are required at every level of your organisation, so that each member knows what they need to do as part of that culture. There are a number of ways all levels in the organisation can contribute to building a strong safety culture. At the managerial level, these are:
- Communicating safety and health related information to everyone.
- Being honest.
- Communicating the organisation’s vision.
- Implementing safety and health related solutions.
- Providing safety and health related training for everyone.
- Being visibly committed towards safety.
- Avoiding silos through poor communication channels.
- Being just and holding people accountable for non-acceptable behaviour.
- Confronting the inherent risks within their operations.
- Taking part in systems such as risk assessments and inspections.
At the supervisory level, these are:
- Encouraging upward communication.
- Reinforcing the team on safe performance by providing feedback.
- Learning from mistakes.
- Listening to the team’s safety concerns and managers, and providing feedback.
- Actively involving the team to participate in safety.
- Encouraging team collaboration.
- Sharing responsibility for non-acceptable behaviour.
- Promoting risk awareness in the team.
- Taking part in systems such as risk assessments and inspections.
At all levels in the organisation, everyone can contribute to building a strong safety culture. These are:
- Speaking up to raise health and safety concerns.
- Listening to safety and health related information.
- Reporting errors, near-misses and incidents.
- Suggesting safety and health related solutions.
- Accepting feedback.
- Actively participating in safety.
- Taking responsibility for non-acceptable behaviour.
- Being mindful of risks and stopping work if the job is unsafe.
An example of combining the elements of your safety culture framework and defining behaviours might look like this:
What are the benefits of a safety culture framework?
The benefits of incorporating a safety culture framework go way beyond reducing compensation claims, insurance premiums, decreasing absence from work, and reducing fines and lawsuits. A safety culture framework also:
- Creates clarity at all levels in the organisation on how to achieve a strong safety culture.
- Creates a common safety language throughout the organisation, which aids in building a strong safety culture.
- Allows for the integration of an existing Safety Management System (SMS) and a Human Resources System. For example, performance management systems can include behaviours from a safety culture framework.
- Allows for any gaps in a Safety Management System to be identified and managed.
- Can be given to independent contractors to support their own efforts in improving their own health and safety. This allows for contractor led initiatives to complement the organisation’s safety culture.
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