How to create a good safety culture

This article explains what a good safety culture is and how you achieve it in your business.

Why bother? – Research suggests effective board leadership can deliver a 5 – 10% reduction in workplace accidents and ill-health.  Other HSE research suggests 70% of accidents can be attributed to management failure at some point along the chain.

Organisations with a good safety culture are characterised by mutual trust and shared perceptions of the importance of safety.  Employees will have belief and confidence in the health and safety system.  This includes the policies, Risk Assessments, Training and resources.

More generally the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) describes the culture of an organisation as:

“the mix of shared values, attitudes and patterns of behaviour that give the organisation its particular character” or “the way we do things round here”.

They suggest that the safety culture of an organisation is:

“the ideas and beliefs that all members of the organisation share about risk, accidents and ill health”.

In life, every group of people develops a ‘culture’. In an organisation with a good safety culture everyone puts health and safety high on the list of priorities.  All staff adopt the same positive attitudes to health and safety which influences how individuals in the group handle new events and decisions.

Why is a safety culture important? 

Well, the lack of an effective safety culture has been highlighted as a significant cause of numerous major disasters including.

  • The Kings Cross fire (1987)“A cultural change in management is required throughout the organisation”
  • Piper Alpha (1988)“It is essential to create a corporate atmosphere, or culture in which safety is understood to be, and is accepted as, the number one priority.”
  • The BP Texas City fire and explosion (2005) –  cost over $21million in fines, $2billion in civil claims, and $1billion in reinstating the site.  “Organisational failings included corporate cost-cutting, a failure to invest in the plant infrastructure, a lack of corporate oversight on both safety culture and major accident prevention programs, a focus on occupational safety and not process safety, a defective management of change process (which allowed the siting of contractor trailers too close to the ISOM process unit), the inadequate training of operators, a lack of competent supervision for start-up operations, poor communications between individuals and departments”
  • The Buncefield oil refinery fire (2005) – believed to be the most expensive accident in UK history with a total cost of over £1billion, including £9.5 million in fines.
  • Deepwater Horizon 2010 – Oil Spill Commission said that there had been “a rush to completion” on the well and criticised poor management decisions. “There was not a culture of safety on that rig,” the co-chair said

As well as smaller accidents.

  • Network Rail (2016)Fined £4 million for failing to improve warnings of trains approaching

Whatever the size of your organisation or the industry the principles of a good safety culture hold true.

As mentioned, HSE research has shown that approximately 70% of workplace accidents are attributable to a management failure.

Why is this?

To understand this you need to understand domino theories.

“For the want of a nail, the shoe was lost.”  Benjamin Franklin,

Domino theories of accident causation suggest accidents result from a chain of events like a line of dominoes falling over.  When one of the dominoes falls, it triggers the next one, eventually leading to an accident, injury or other loss.

Accident prevention strategies involve removing one of the dominoes from the chain.  The root causes of accidents are usually organisationals failing to remove one domino from the chain.

With an effective safety culture the domino effect is much less likely to occur.

Staff will be reporting near misses, updating risk assessments generally identifying issues in advance so no domino falls let alone a chain.

Risks to a good safety culture

  • Low quality training can make staff think safety is a tick box exercise.
  • Good intentions need to be supported with sufficient resources.
  • A ‘profit V safety’ mindset in management.  Rather than ‘Safety & profits’
  • Employees feeling they are not listened too or lack dignity

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What is needed for a good safety culture?

1.   Management Commitment –  demonstrated by the proportion of resources (time, money, people) and support allocated to health and safety management.  Also by the relative status of health and safety against other business priorities such as production, cost etc.

2.   Visible Management – Workers must not only see senior managers taking health and safety seriously but must also believe that they are taking it seriously.

Good managers appear regularly on the ‘shop floor’, talk about health and safety and visibly demonstrate their commitment by their actions – wearing PPE, following safety rules, where appropriate putting health and safety concerns over commercial considerations.

3.   Good Communications – Open two way communications are essential. Questions about health and safety should be part of everyday work conversations. Management should listen actively to what they are being told by employees, and be seen to take what they hear seriously.

Companies need – Active Employee Participation and effective delegationOwnership of health and safety is built at all levels. Employees need to be actively involved safety workshops, risk assessments, plant design etc.

4.   Effective Health and Safety Training – Training has an important role to play in improving employees understanding of not just site specific hazards and controls but the principles of sensible risk management.

You can think of these as the ‘C’s’ of Health and Safety Culture

  • Control – of risks
  • Commitment – at all levels, starting with directors
  • Competence – knowledge, skills and experience to work safely
  • Communication – relevant, timely, quality
  • Cooperation – internally between business units etc. and externally e.g. contractors.

Leadership of Health and Safety Management – Its a process

As mentioned, leadership has been criticise following several major accidents / disasters.

Lord Cullens report into the Ladbroke Grove (Paddington) train crash (1999) noted that:

“ The commitment to safety of senior executives is not visible at the working and operational level and the safety policy lacks credibility in the eyes of the employees”.

“ … conviction needs to come from the top, needs to be broadcast from the top, needs to be continually refreshed from the top and the top needs to be seen, visibly seen as active in its representation of its value…..”

The Hidden Report into the Clapham Junction train crash (1988) concluded that:

“a concern for safety which is sincerely held and repeatedly expressed but, nevertheless, is not carried through into action, is as much protection from danger as no concern at all.”

Viewing leadership as a process rather than an innate personal quality, the key requirements would be…

  • Set clear and credible vision
  • Establish the style and tone of communication, the social architecture and organisational culture
  • Create an atmosphere of trust between leaders, managers and the workforce
  • Demonstrate commitment, persistence, and willingness to take risks / accept losses, consistency, self-knowledge and above all learning.

Legal Responsibilities of Employers

Health and safety law states that organisations must:

  • Provide a written health and safety policy (if they employ five or more people)
  • Assess risks to employees, customers, partners and any other people who could be affected by their activities
  • Arrange for the effective planning, organisation, control, monitoring and review of preventive and protective measures
  • Ensure they have access to competent health and safety advice
  • Consult employees about their risks at work and current preventive and protective measures.

Failure to comply with these requirements can have serious consequences – See HSE Enforcement Policy article.

Under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 an offence will be committed where failings by an organisation’s senior management are a substantial element in any gross breach of the duty of care owed to the organisation’s employees or members of the public, which results in death.

So who do you put a good safety culture in place?

One way is to use the Plan-Do-Check-Act model.  

1. Plan

The board should set the direction for effective health and safety management.

Board members need to establish a health and safety policy that is much more than a document – it should be an integral part of the organisation’s culture, of its values and performance standards.

All board members need to take a lead in ensuring the communication of health and safety duties and benefits throughout the organisation.

Executive directors must develop policies to avoid health and safety problems and must respond quickly where difficulties arise or new risks are introduced and non-executives must make sure that health and safety is properly addressed.

Actions – agree a policy, boards will need to ensure they are aware of the significant risks faced by their organisation.

The policy should set out the board’s own role and that of individual board members in leading the health and safety of its organisation.

It should require the board to:

  • ‘Own’ and understand the key issues involved; and
  • Decide how best to communicate, promote and champion health and safety.

The health and safety policy should evolve over time just like our online training does.

For many organisations, health and safety is a corporate governance issue. The board should integrate health and safety into the main governance structures.

 How it can be done

  • Health and safety should appear regularly on the agenda for board meetings
  • The chief executive can give the clearest visibility of leadership, but some boards find it useful to name one of their number as the health and safety ‘champion’
  • The presence on the board of a health and safety director can be a strong signal that the issue is being taken seriously and that its strategic importance is understood
  • Setting targets helps define what the board is seeking to achieve; and
  • A non-executive director could act as a scrutineer – ensuring the processes to support boards facing significant health and safety risks are robust.

2. Do

Delivery depends on an effective management system to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of employees, customers and members of the public.

Actions – The board must ensure…

  • Health and safety arrangements are adequately resourced
  • They obtain competent health and safety advice
  • Risk assessments are carried out
  • Employees or their representatives are involved in decisions that affect their health and safety

Implications of introducing new precesses should be considered.  New working practices or new personnel, dedicating adequate resources to the task.   Boardroom decisions must be made in the context of the organisation’s health and safety policy; it is important to ‘design-in’ health and safety when implementing change.

 How it can be done

  • Leadership is more effective if visible – board members can reinforce health and safety policy by being seen on the ‘shop floor’, following all safety measures themselves and addressing any breaches immediately
  • Consider health and safety when deciding senior management appointments
  • Having procurement standards for goods, equipment and services can help prevent the introduction of expensive health and safety hazards
  • The health and safety arrangements of partners, key suppliers and contractors should be assessed: their performance could adversely affect yours
  • Setting up a separate risk management or health and safety committee as a subset of the board, chaired by a senior executive, can make sure the key issues are addressed and guard against time and effort being wasted on trivial risks and unnecessary bureaucracy
  • Providing health and safety training to some or all of the board can promote understanding and knowledge of the key issues in your organisation
  • Supporting worker involvement in health and safety, above your legal duty to consult worker representatives, can improve participation and help prove your commitment

3. Check

Monitoring and reporting are vital parts of a health and safety culture. Management systems must allow the board to receive both specific (e.g. incident-led) and routine reports on the performance of health and safety policy.

Much day-to-day health and safety information need be reported only at the time of a formal review (see action 4). But only a strong system of monitoring can ensure that the formal review can proceed as planned – and that relevant events in the interim are brought to the board’s attention.

Actions – The board should ensure that:

  • Appropriate weight is given to reporting both preventive information (such as progress of training and maintenance programmes) and incident data
  • Reporting Accident and sickness rates
  • Periodic audits of the effectiveness of management structures and risk controls for health and safety are carried out
  • The impact of changes such as the introduction of new procedures, work processes or products, or any major health and safety failure, is reported as soon as possible to the board; and
  • There are procedures to implement new and changed legal requirements and to consider other external developments and events.

 How it can be done

  • Effective monitoring of sickness absence and workplace health can alert the board to underlying problems that could seriously damage performance or result in accidents and long-term illness
  • The collection of workplace health and safety data can allow the board to benchmark the organisation’s performance against others in its sector
  • Appraisals of senior managers can include an assessment of their contribution to health and safety performance
  • Boards can receive regular reports on the health and safety performance and actions of contractors
  • Some organisations have found they win greater support for health and safety by involving workers in monitoring

4. Act

A formal boardroom review of health and safety performance is essential. It allows the board to establish whether the essential health and safety principles – strong and active leadership, worker involvement, and assessment and review – have been embedded in the organisation. It tells you whether your system is effective in managing risk and protecting people.

Actions – The board should review health and safety performance at least once a year. The review process should

  • Examine whether the health and safety policy reflects the organisation’s current priorities, plans and targets
  • Examine whether risk management and other health and safety structures have been effectively reporting to the board
  • Decide actions to address any weaknesses and a system to monitor their implementation
  • Consider immediate reviews in the light of major shortcomings or events

How it can be done

  • Performance on health and safety and wellbeing is increasingly being recorded in organisations’ annual reports to investors and stakeholders;
  • Board members can make extra ‘shop floor’ visits to gather information for the formal review; and
  • Good health and safety performance can be celebrated at central and local level.

5. Conclusions

A good safety culture requires engrained thinking and processes that value safe behaviours. Combined with a constantly evolving cycle of communication and improvement.

These values are synonymous with successful business and why at echo3edcuation we are constantly evolving our courses of create better learning experiences and outcomes to align employee thinking with your desire for a good safety culture.

We hope you found this article useful.

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