The intention of having a culture of safety is that all employees within an organisation understand the importance of safety, are risk aware, and take active steps towards the management of safety. Developing and maintaining a positive safety culture is not an easy task; it won’t happen overnight. So what do we mean by safety culture and is it worth the time, money and effort?
Typically, organisations tend to invest in the strategies that are most effective in minimising the hazards associated with the work environment, such as plant, personal protective equipment (PPE), employing health and safety professionals to regulate the organisation’s safety practices and providing skills-based training. These seem to be reasonable investments, and in some instances are heavily regulated. So what is safety culture if this isn’t it?
Safety policy vs safety culture
While the abovementioned initiatives are very important, they do not in themselves create a safety culture. A safety culture must influence behaviours and ensure employees are ‘present’ and are proactively looking out for potential risks and hazards. The culture in an organisation must be such that employees not only want to comply with policies and procedures but actively want to do better than standardised practices can achieve. A strong safety culture will provide employees with a sense of how they should think and feel about safety, the way safety is approached throughout the organisation and most importantly give them something to be proud of and involved in that is much bigger than themselves.
In order to develop a strong safety culture and improve safety performance, the beliefs and attitudes that employees hold about safety need to be challenged, leadership needs to be overt and on message and the value that is placed on engaging in safe work practices genuinely valued and appraised. It is also critical to understand where these beliefs, attitudes and values originate.
Fatigue management research
Recently, TMS Consulting has been partnering with organisations to research fatigue management. The culture around fatigue in the heavy industries is still undeveloped and dominated by an attitude that fatigued workers should ‘harden up’. Although the message about the importance of fatigue management is being communicated, front line leaders are inadvertently undermining this message by engaging in practices that suggest otherwise. An organisation that wants a strong safety culture must ensure that espoused values are matched by behaviours.
Implementing a culture of safety
Consider the practices on your site and in your office. What messages are managers inadvertently sending through their own actions? Is this consistent with safety priorities and communications on site? These inconsistencies can very quickly unravel the value realised through investments in safety. Where safety is concerned, equal investment in the work environment, safe work practices and people (including culture and leadership) is needed to ensure optimum performance.
Implementing a culture of safety requires robust, top-down and bottom-up processes. Management need to establish a safety vision and priority. They need to be committed, be able to walk the talk, and communicated the importance of safety. Employees need to want participate in safety, provide feedback up through the chain of command, and reflect on why safety is personally important and relevant in a meaningful way. Demanding compliance will barely achieve compliance but encouraging investment and engagement will deliver innovative and previously unrealised benefits.
Safety culture initiatives have a lot to offer in exploring the human elements that contribute to health and safety incidents, that is, understanding why employees engage in unsafe behaviours or more often don’t think about whether a behaviour is safe or not. A strong safety culture can reduce instances of unsafe behaviours, increase risk awareness, reduce tolerance for risk, and increase personal responsibility for and commitment to safety of oneself and for the team. Next time you engage in a discussion about safety culture, ask yourself ‘Are we influencing culture and how effective is ours?’ It’s worth the investment.