How to transform Health and Safety
What exactly is meant by Safety Culture? I’ve heard descriptions like ‘The way we do things around here’ or, ‘Something largely intangible’. Unfortunately it is even described as the technical aspects of site safety, or policy compliance efforts.
Safety culture is all about people, not so much about what they do, but rather why they do it. A useful analogy is the difference between knowing that someone has driven through a red traffic light, compared to actually knowing why they have. Knowing an employee has ignored safety regulations begs the questions ‘So what?’ and ‘Why did they?’ Understanding why they have taken the risk will at the very least, tell us whether they are likely to repeat that action.
A universal definition for safety culture might be useful, but it is even more useful to know:
- Why the health and safety culture exists in its current form?
- What impact it is likely to have on outcomes, and employee performance?
- How to build a more mature safety culture?
Every organisation already has a culture that affects health and safety. A few simple questions will start to uncover its nature:
- Is your H&S manager a member of the leadership team?
- Are safety processes skipped when pressure builds?
- Do identified safety improvements have to wait for next year’s budget?
- Do senior managers role-model positive safety behaviours?
- Is safety culture measured?
- What is most important: profit, or the safety and health of employees?
Safety culture can be thought about from three angles, represented by Quadrants 1, 2, and 3 in the model
It is fair to say that most effort to improve health and safety still falls within Quadrants 1 and 2. These activities are easy to see, measure and understand. Effective policies, better legislation, harsher penalties, and more inspectors may help improve health and safety outcomes, but like road rules they don’t guarantee how people actually behave.
Even knowing how employees behave in the workplace is relatively easy to observe, but to know why takes a bit more effort, and needs sustained effort within Quadrant 3. Previously management’s stance was: ‘If employees just comply with our policies and procedures we’d have zero harm’, but thankfully that thinking is undergoing a transformation.
Along with a shift from health and safety being decidedly ‘un-sexy’, many clever senior managers are becoming aware of performance benefits linked to a mature health and safety culture. They know there are compelling reasons for establishing an effective safety culture other than saving lives and reducing injuries.
The American Safety Council cites improved reputation and company marketability; increased employee creativity and initiative; improved profit and shareholder value. Forty percent of 231 senior executives cited productivity as the top benefit of effective safety. According to AIHA and OSHA effective health and safety programmes reduce illness and injury by 20 – 40% and return $4.00 for every $1.00 spent. A recent ACOEM study links effective employee health and safety with stock market performance. (Over a 13 year period companies that invested significantly in either health or safety programmes outperformed S&P average rate of return in investment simulations by significant margins). https://www.acoem.org/outperform.aspx
When Boards and Management devote the same effort to managing health and safety as they do the financial affairs of their businesses, we’ll start to see a genuine transformation of results.