For many years, organisations have struggled with the notion of implementing and achieving a ‘good safety culture’. So, what does this mean? And why does the word ‘culture’ appear in the new ISO 45001:2018 standard?
As assessors, what tangible and auditable evidence can we use to determine whether an organisation is implementing effective processes aimed at improving workplace safety culture?
Workplace culture refers to the way things are done at a workplace including shared language and what is important to the managers and employees. Rather than referring to the company’s specific safety policy and program, the concept of safety culture is encapsulated by the mindsets, attitudes and behaviours of workers, supervisors, managers and owners towards safety in the workplace. A positive safety culture in the workplace is a vital part of a successful and effective health and safety program.
Miriam-Webster dictionary defines the word ‘culture’ as:
- The customary beliefs, social forms and material traits of a group
- The set of shared attitudes, values, goals and practices that characterises an institution or organisation
The set of values, conventions, or social practices associated with a particular field, activity, or societal characteristic
Importance of culture
There are endless truisms about the importance of company culture — so many, that the idea of a strong culture has become a cliché. We often just nod our heads and move on. But it matters.
Many of our certified organisations already have good OHS management systems, high levels of OHS training, the best equipment and effective monitoring processes. Despite this, safety incidents continue to occur.
Trend analysis within these organisations often identifies similar root causes — often with poor safety culture at the core.
For example, people:
ISO 45001 and culture
A good OHS management system can only help to provide a platform for the organisation to manage safety. For an effective and safe workplace, the organisation must also focus on improving the safety culture. ISO 45001 recognises this, and for the first time the use of the word ‘culture’ is now included in section five of the standard as an expectation of leadership.
- Clause 5.1 (j) — (Leadership are responsible for ….) developing, leading and promoting a culture in the organisation that supports the intended outcomes of the OH&S management system;
10.3 Continual improvement — organisation shall continually improve the suitability, adequacy and effectiveness of the OH&S management system, by….b) promoting a culture that supports an OH&S management system.
12 indicators of a good safety culture
From visiting and assessing different organisations over the years, I have been able to identify a number of similarities between organisations that have strong and effective safety cultures. Below is a summary of some of the processes I have observed that contribute to this notion of an effective safety culture:
Companies with effective safety cultures always have well established and communicated company safety values, which are regularly and consistently promoted by senior management.
Senior management leadership tours, visits, employee engagement conversations and Behavioural Based Safety (BBS) programs. BBS has long been recognised as a critical component to any safety management system. These are programs that monitor adherence to established safe methods of work (SOPs) and employee behaviour in the workplace. Supervision by management is also a key component of Health & Safety legislation1 and so integrating a BBS makes good sense from a legal perspective.
- Evidence of the management team performing safety interactions and observations of staff performing works is required. Some organisations will have a formal task/behaviour observation KPI for supervisors and managers to meet to assist with demonstrating adequate supervision, as required under legislation.
- A good task observation process, if properly implemented, is used as a positive reinforcement process rather than additional policing of the staff’s behaviour. It can be used to discuss concerns that employees have about the workplace, procedures and hazards, and for management to better understand the issues employees are facing. Positive reinforcement of employee behaviour should be the goal of such a program.
Provision of regular and consistent positive affirmation and reinforcement of ‘good safety practices and attitudes’ is key. Leaders can then seek and use feedback obtained from consultations, ‘walk arounds’, collaborative decision-making, self-reflection to improve processes.
Safety culture surveys are also regularly conducted with strategic management plans and actions identified following such surveys, aimed at improving the disconnect between staff and management and improving employee job satisfaction, are also a regular trait of organisations implementing effective safety cultures.
3. High levels of hazard reporting
This indicator alone stands out as one of the strongest indicators of an effective safety culture. High levels of hazard reporting indicate that employees believe in the safety system in place and that management will take appropriate action. It generally only occurs when employees are highly trained in OHS hazard identification and the importance of identifying them before an incident occurs. ISO 45001 recognises this with the requirement for management to ‘remove any obstacles’ to an effective hazard reporting system, such as difficult IT systems, lack of feedback regarding the progress of associated corrective actions, etc. A positive safety culture is easier to build and maintain when employees feel comfortable reporting concerns, believe that the reporting process is positive and see improvement outcomes.
4. Incident investigation and timely corrective action management
The best companies demonstrate a consistent approach to investigating incidents with a hunger for continual improvement. Employees are given adequate time and resources to complete investigations.
Organisations that demonstrate they care for the welfare of their employees in addition to their safety tend to have better OHS performance. Leaders need to realise that taking care of their staff is important to an organisation’s culture. Employees forced to work long hours to achieve work outcomes is not sustainable and demonstrates to employees that management don’t really care about them. Living a sustainable life and making sure their employees do too, is the best way for a leader to sustain growth.
Every time a mistake or failure comes to light and lessons a
re drawn from whatever went wrong, a company is a step closer to a improving the workplace. Avoiding assigning blame is crucial — even when a person does do the wrong thing, employers should attempt to understand why they made the error. This is the essence of true root cause analysis.
7. Embrace an open and fair workplace
Make the workplace work for women and people of different cultures and ensure that anti-bullying training campaigns are included. Empathy and inclusivity should be a key focus and regular awareness campaigns of this should be evident.
It is imperative, at a time of accelerated change, to create cultures that value building teams. Teams can be always on, but individuals can’t. They can offer support, and amplify and reinforce incentives. They also build empathy, foster creativity and strengthen resilience. A healthy company values and celebrates everyone’s contributions — which directly impacts retention and recruitment.
9. OHS responsibilities/area ownership
Programs aimed at clarifying employee responsibilities, empowering employees and improving employee ownership of their work areas is a critical component to improved workplace safety culture. Some workplaces will ask employees to demonstrate their commitment to these philosophies by getting them to sign agreements to the ‘golden rules’ (including the reporting of hazards and deviations away from SOPs). At a safe workplace people will:
- understand what they need to do and why they need to do it;
- think about what they are doing before they do it;
- look for hazards proactively and manage risks before they cause harm;
- take care of hazards themselves without needing policing;
- believe they are responsible and accountable for making sure that they and their workmates remain healthy and safe; and
- follow workplace rules
10. Effective communication
Effective communication is another regular indicator of a good culture. A great way to increase safety communication while building a positive culture is to hold weekly or monthly safety talks. Increase worker buy-in by having them lead the talks. Make safety policies readily available electronically or on paper and use the intranet to communicate safe practices, expectations and best practices when it comes to safety in the workplace.
Training demonstrates an organisation’s commitment to safety. Trained employees also embrace safety culture more readily because they are aware of hazards and the effect that they can have on maintaining workplace safety. Personalise the importance of employees’ role in preventing and eliminating risks and hazards.
Building and maintaining safety culture starts from the ground up. Another way to build strong employee buy-in is to involve them in the process. Ask them what they would like the reporting process to look like, or get their feedback on current communication methods. Companies that encourage managers, employees and subcontractors to challenge unsafe behaviours and attitudes in others and to recognise and encourage those who have shown a positive attitude towards safety, will maximise the likelihood of positive attitudes and beliefs becoming shared values, resulting in a positive safety culture.
As an assessor, it’s important to keep in mind that while we are assessing an organisation’s OHS management system during ISO 45001 audits, we are also assessing that the organisation is implementing a safety culture as per ISO 45001 requirements. An organisation should be able to demonstrate that safety culture is part of their vision and strategy, and the above listed set of indicators should be — at some level — evident.
It is ultimately hoped that ISO 45001 will have a positive impact on safety culture (and overall performance) by having an additional focus on leadership activities, improved integration and simplification of systems, increased focus on the outcomes of processes and a more targeted focus on the needs of stakeholders.
Where can I get more information?