What IS Health and Safety Culture?

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Every group of people develops a ‘culture’. In an organisation with a good safety culture everyone puts health and safety high on the list and adopts the same positive attitudes to health and safety. This influences the ways in which individuals in the group handle new events and decisions.

Safety culture has been defined as consisting of shared values (what is important) and beliefs (how things work) that interact with an organisation’s structure and control systems to produce behavioural standards (the way we do things round here). Poor health and safety culture is likely to lead to weaknesses due to problems at the person–work interface – perhaps because of poor training or communication.

Organisations with a positive safety culture are characterised by communications founded on mutual trust, by shared perceptions of the importance of safety and by confidence in the efficacy of preventive measures.

Indicators which could be used to assess the effectiveness of an organisation’s health and safety culture:

  • accidents
  • absenteeism
  • sickness rates
  • staff turnover
  • level of compliance with health and safety rules and procedures
  • complaints about working conditions

Culture will inevitably form in any group, through spontaneous interactions between the members, leading to patterns and norms of behaviour.

When a new employee is “learning the ropes”, “the ropes” represent the organisational culture, or “the way we do things around here”.

In an organisation the personal vision, goals, beliefs, values and assumptions of the leader will be imposed within the group and reinforced as members are recruited and promoted on the basis of consistent thoughts and values.

The main principles involved when establishing a safety culture are generally accepted to be:

  • the acceptance of responsibility and accountability at and from the top, exercised through a clear chain of command, seen to be actual and felt through the organisation;
  • a conviction that high standards are achievable through proper management;
  • setting and monitoring of relevant objectives/targets, based upon satisfactory internal information systems;
  • systematic identification and assessment of hazards and the devising and exercise of preventive systems which are subject to audit and review; in such approaches, particular attention is given to the investigation of error;
  • immediate rectification of deficiencies;
  • promotion and reward of enthusiasm and good results.

Several features are essential to a sound safety culture. A company wishing to improve its performance will need to judge its existing practices against them:

  • Leadership and commitment from the top which is genuine and visible. This is the most important feature.
  • Acceptance that it is a long-term strategy which requires sustained effort and interest.
  • A policy statement of high expectations and conveying a sense of optimism about what is possible supported by adequate codes of practice and safety standards.
  • Health and safety should be treated as other corporate aims, and properly resourced.
  • It must be a line management responsibility.
  • ‘Ownership’ of health and safety must permeate all levels of the workforce. This requires employee involvement, training and communication.
  • Realistic and achievable targets should be set and performance measured against them.
  • Incidents should be thoroughly investigated.
  • Consistency of behaviour against agreed standards should be achieved by auditing and good safety behaviour should be a condition of employment.
  • Deficiencies revealed by an investigation or audit should be remedied promptly.
  • Management must receive adequate and up-to-date information to be able to assess performance.

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