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What is a safety culture and how do you achieve it

Unless you’re a start-up business, you will already have a safety culture although you may not be aware of what it looks like. Your safety culture is the product of your employees’ development over the lifetime of the workplace. The key, therefore, is how to develop your safety culture from where it is now to where you want it to be.

“The safety culture of an organisation is the product of individual and group values, attitudes, perceptions, competencies and patterns of behaviour that determine the commitment to, and the style proficiency of, an organisation’s health and safety management. Organisations with a positive safety culture are characterised by communications founded on mutual trust, by shared perceptions of the importance of safety, and by confidences in the efficacy of preventive measure.” 

ACSNI Human Factors Study Group: Third Report – Organising for safety HSE 1993

What does strong culture-based safety mean?

Let’s take a look at each word in turn…

  • Culture: the shared values, beliefs and attitudes of a given group, which show themselves as behaviour.
  • Based: the main principle or starting point.
  • Safety: people not getting injured or killed.

Put simply, safety culture is ‘the way we do things here’. So, to create something more effective, you must first develop and improve the culture you already have. Perhaps it might just be a sense that change is needed from a moral perspective, or maybe your customers are motivating this need for change, or perhaps there are other drivers.

Safety culture is seen as essential for safety, but it can often be seen as intangible, to some extent. By turning to your employees for information, i.e. the people who really know what’s going on, you can take a deep dive into the way your company is actually working.

Positive safety culture

A positive safety culture is about working together in the workplace to achieve positive change instead of blaming each other when things don’t go as planned. Creating a positive safety culture is a journey that requires honesty, commitment and hard work.

Sometimes you know a change in the health and safety culture is needed because of a preventable challenge e.g. a significant accident.

You can only address these issues – and possibly many more – by confronting the reality of where your culture is at present, and by understanding the different views and perceptions around what makes your company tick. Only then can you unlock opportunities to improve as well as understand any barriers to making changes. This ties in with our approach.

our approach to culture change - activate, motivate, cultivate

A culture assessment forms part of this approach. A culture assessment will not only help you at the beginning of your journey but allows you to continuously monitor and improve your organisation’s approach to health and safety throughout your journey.

What contributes to a good safety culture?

By starting with this question, your approach to creating a good safety culture becomes much more meaningful. Instead of sticking to a rigid formula that runs the risk of failing, you can consider changes that need to be made, understand the absolutes, and be very flexible in your approach.

Based on Tribe’s experience, here are our top four attributes for a truly world-class safety culture:

  1. A compelling sense of purpose: clear and inspiring vision, alongside a practical sense of how to get there.
  2. Engaging leadership: people who demonstrate honesty, integrity and create transparency across the business. They are visible, engage with their people regularly and understand what it takes to coach people to give them ownership, rather than just dictating instructions.
  3. Personal responsibility at all levels: individuals who recognise the importance and impact of their own behaviour, take ownership of issues where they can and look out for their team members.
  4. An effective process of continual improvement: belief at every level in the importance of continuous improvement with simple, practical processes to enable it, allowing both shared learning and effective feedback.

Are all four attributes in place at your organisation? Read our examples of strong safety culture for ideas on how to get there.

How to assess your safety culture effectively

Let’s face it: no one looks forward to tackling unsafe behaviour with their workmates but this is where a culture assessment comes in.

What does a culture assessment model look like?

5 powerful ways to change perception of safety at your organisation

At Tribe, we use a range of 16 statements in our culture assessment model which allows us to give a detailed analysis, feedback and recommendations in five safety-related areas across every level of the business, whatever its size:

  • Leadership and organisational Commitment to safety
  • Management behaviours and their effects on safety
  • Employee responsibility for safety
  • Engagement in safety improvement
  • Safety communication, equipment and resources

Three reasons to benchmark the maturity of your safety culture

To know where you’re going, it helps to know where you are – and where you’ve been. That’s the idea behind a culture assessment. Yet there’s more to measuring cultural maturity than meets the eye, and without expert guidance you might stumble into some common pitfalls along the way.

Here’s a helpful introduction to three of the main reasons why you might want to benchmark your safety culture and what to watch out for.

Reason 1: To find out how you’re doing externally

Some organisations find it useful to compare the maturity of their safety culture with other external organisations, often operating in the same industry sector. This is entirely understandable, after all, why wouldn’t you want to see how you’re doing in your industry league table?

Unsurprisingly this can be difficult to arrange and needs comparison with a wide portfolio of benchmarked culture assessments (the kind only an experienced culture change consultancy has…) to facilitate the process.

The major consideration is to benchmark yourselves against the best in the sector. Some industry sectors are notorious for featuring lots of organisations with weak safety cultures so benchmarking against the average in these sectors is a recipe for aiming for mediocrity.

Aim for the best examples in your sector or, failing that, look outside your industry sector.

Reason 2: To find out how you’re doing internally

A site-by-site culture assessment and associated benchmarking within your organisation will let you know how you’re doing compared with your peers. Of course, this implies two fairly obvious requirements:

  • If you carry out the assessment using your own staff then it’s highly likely that the end result will be affected, because people may well respond with what they think the assessor wants to hear. So an impartial third-party is often required to carry out the culture assessment and benchmark, especially if focus groups are involved.
  • Assuming you choose an external provider, the same organisation has to be used to gauge each site according to a rigorous, well-documented and reproducible system.

If the result is favourable compared with other parts of your organisation the temptation might well be to relax and assume your mission is accomplished. Beware though: this attitude means any ambition to improve will be stifled until the other areas of the organisation catch up.

Reason 3: To find out how to improve

The most important reason to benchmark the maturity of your safety culture is to establish how to improve safety culture in the workplace from where you are now. Any worthwhile benchmark must provide a clear definition of the different levels of maturity in safety culture and what’s required to meet the criteria of each level.

Most models feature five levels (like in the primate/man scale table) with brief descriptors. Behind these brief descriptors should lie detailed descriptions of the attitudes and behaviours that prevail at each of the five levels subdivided by director, manager, supervisor and employee.

Inside tips to get more from your safety culture change programme

Make safety culture the norm

You’ve got to get to the point where safety is talked about every day. Then it will become second nature.

Use Ambassadors

Ambassadors are your key to success. They’re the ones who believe in what you’re trying to achieve, they are the people within your organisation who will promote a positive safety culture to their peers. Perhaps because they’ve experienced accidents or understand the positive benefits a safer organisational culture brings.

Ambassadors need to get other employees thinking ‘how will you personally contribute to building a safety culture?’

Read more about culture assessments.

Ten tips for more effective safety culture change

Here’s the advice we’d give to someone about to begin a safety culture change programme:

  1. Think long-term. You’ll see some early benefits but safety culture change takes time.
  2. Plan ahead with short-term actions.
  3. Keep asking basic questions such as: ‘can this accident be prevented?’
  4. Find a safety champion in your business. The more senior the better. They underline the message that people getting hurt just isn’t right. Read more about choosing safety champions.
  5. Remind people regularly about your message in a variety of ways. You can run refresher trainings, workshops, encourage safety conversations and provide new tools too.
  6. Share success with people. Show them statistics to prove it’s working.
  7. Show people consequences. Getting injured affects quality of life – in all areas of their life. That’s hobbies, sport and home life too, not just work.
  8. Work on behaviour because you can see that, but you can’t see attitudes, values and beliefs. Practice safe behaviour and attitudes will change over time.
  9. Make sure the basics are in place first like tidy workplaces, machine guards and audits. It’s no good trying to tackle behaviour if the fundamentals aren’t right.
  10. Choose the right consultancy partner to support you along the way with the right knowledge and tools for successful safety culture change. Get in touch to find out how we can help you.

Are culture based safety workshops still relevant?

A better culture beyond blame

Culture based safety is about setting, understanding and truly believing in an organisation’s values, beliefs and attitudes to safety, including its behaviour.

Properly facilitated interactive workshops are an opportunity to focus participants’ minds on the most important asset the organisation has – its employees – and what they must do to keep themselves and others safe.

Culture based safety workshops aren’t focused on procedures, risk assessments, training documents or legislation. They’re more about re-igniting desire and passion in every single person to want to go home uninjured at the end of every working day and help others do the same.

People need an appropriate forum that stimulates them to openly challenge and critique their individual attitudes, values, beliefs and behaviours towards safety versus those required by the organisation’s vision. Then it’s time to agree on what’s needed to achieve them.

In our experience, culture based safety workshops are an ideal forum for this type of review and allow time for reflection. The workshop format encourages people to make changes, rather than being forced to make them by their senior leaders.

To be truly successful, all leaders must believe in and work towards the same safety excellent culture and adopt the relevant safety excellent behaviours to create and maintain this culture. This isn’t something you can buy off the shelf or create overnight. It needs close monitoring, support and nurturing to grow, mature and flourish.

Culture based safety workshops are part of this growth process. They help leaders to take a step back, think about what safety culture means to them and agree on the steps needed to achieve it. In basic terms, it gets them to focus on the safety culture they want and the relevant attitudes, values, beliefs and behaviours needed by everyone involved.

Read more about how to embed vision and values in your organisation.



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