• Simon Lawrence
    I was asked by one of my long-term clients to do a talk on "safety culture" a few weeks ago. I thought it was an opportunity to do some research. And have a bit of fun with it! I think the talk was well received by the amount of discussion we had.

    In a nutshell, I waded through a heavy piece of research (source in my full post - see link below) and it supported some doubts I already had about safety culture.

    The research suggests "safety culture", may not really exist, may be impossible to manufacture even if it IS real, and is probably of no use anyway.

    1. It's intangible and you can't "manufacture" it, or "make it happen".
    2. The whole concept is fuzzy and lacking consensus. It's something of a blank space.
    3. There is little or no evidence it's even necessary for good safety - if it exists.
    4. The manner in which it's pursued often reflects an almost religious zeal. (A forum member put a link to a similar article on this forum recently).

    I translated my PowerPoint show into a post today. I'd be interested in other opinions. Read my full post here: http://public.safetybase.co.nz/safety-culture-steam-teacup/
  • Tony Walton
    Simon. You are quite right - how dare you think outside the academic safety bureaucracy line. If you want a laugh at how ridiculous the health & safety profession has become - just read this stunningly self obsessed, inward looking and stuff the members newsletter concocted by the NZISM leadership social club.
  • Campbell Hardy
    Interesting take on a what is considered the core of safety excellence.

    Culture is and always will represent what and who we are? Which like anything us humans lend our hand to translates to safety.

    I would of thought the opposite to some of the suggestions made:

    1. It's intangible and you can't "manufacture" it, or "make it happen"... Rather we make it each and every day as we go about our business. The thoughts in our head, the words we speak and the actions of our feet, all present our culture.

    2. The whole concept is fuzzy and lacking consensus. It's something of a blank space... Isn’t culture the opposite? The very presence of a consensus forms a collective approach which in turn will form into a culture – It’s what we value?

    3. There is little or no evidence it's even necessary for good safety - if it exists... I would think a tendency towards doing what is right and good is a particularly desired attribute to have among staff? Something which would be certainly encouraged to further support ones safety culture.

    4. The manner in which it's pursued often reflects an almost religious zeal. (A forum member put a link to a similar article on this forum recently)... Repeat anything often enough and it takes on a religious feel, no doubt! Unfortunately in order to good at anything we do, it will take repetition, or rather practice.

    What we value forms our culture ; )
  • Jan Hall
    Agree Campbell Hardy.

    1. Culture is VERY easy to identify! Especially a safety one. I can walk onto a commercial building site and know immediately the kind of safety culture it has.Is that not, after all, what the Worksafe SafePlus tool is/was supposed to be about? I can also happily make the indications 'tangible' in a list of items and issues to look for. Just as any sensible and intelligent person can list indications of a co-operative or gender-equal, a gender biased, a racist, a competitive or a collaborative culture.

    2. "The whole concept ..'fuzzy'". Nope! It may involve behaviours and attitudes and (horrors!!!) even emotions. And it does not have meanlingless catchwords like "zero harm". That does NOT make 'culture' a 'fuzzy' concept.

    3. Little or no evidence it's necessary. Goodness me! One little search on Google produced rather a LOT of evidence that it's vital! Here's one site with quite a lot of research.

    4. Religious zeal? I'd consider the hopeless pursuit of the 'zero harm' fallacy more indicative of mindless zeal than the cultivation of a safety culture.
  • Simon Lawrence
    I don't think peer-reviewed science can be dismissed too lightly. Good to see some assertive comments, though. I should clarify:

    • The research doesn't totally dismiss the importance of believing in "safety culture", but the evidence doesn't suggest it's a necessity for a safer workplace, nor necessarily desirable. An orderly, organised workplace is evidence of good leadership. The scientists just aren't convinced culture is meaningful.
    • I agree it's what we do daily that shows commitment. But we can't "manufacture" safety culture per se. Which is the intention of my cup of tea analogy. We often hear organisations thinking they can "dial in" safety culture. But it arises from hard work, integrity and leadership. On that much, I think we all agree.
    • I also agree the only thing that really matters is "doing things right". Which, in turn, also means we don't have to be passionate about it, and don't need to be too zealous. After all, it's part of doing business.
    • And OK, I admit, I personally think health and safety turns people off partly because they do get preached at. The hardest part of the safety job is adopting the best style of communication to the situation.
  • Sheri Greenwell
    I agree with you Simon that an orderly, tidy workplace ` is evidence of good leadership, of which too many organisations are sadly lacking.

    In addition, safety and safety culture are actually NOT the aims; they are a result of the 'alchemy' bringing together the appropriate balance of the complementary and distinctly different skills sets of management and leadership.

    About people
    Setting vision & direction
    Long-term focus
    Big picture
    Why & Where
    Drawing toward
    Flexibility / adaptiveness
    Engaging & motivating

    About processes, tasks & outcomes
    Making it happen
    Shorter-term focus
    Small picture / details
    What and How
    Firmness / rigidity
    Providing structure

    Successful organisations and cultures have the right balance of both and will as a a result achieve safety, quality, productivity, employee engagement, low employee turnover, and profitability.

    Safety is NOT the aim; it is a key outcome of an organisation's culture, along with a number of other important organisational objectives.
  • Drew Rae
    A good post. The paper you're working from is really just a review / opinion piece, but the guy who wrote it, Frank Guldenmund, knows what he is talking about.

    The real questions about "Safety Culture", which we should ask about any safety idea:

    1. Is there anything meaningful and useful that organisations can do _with_ the concept, that they couldn't (or wouldn't) do _without_ the concept?

    2. What's the evidence that these meaningful and useful things are actually good for safety?

    Despite its popularity as an idea, safety culture fails these tests. It provides some new measures for safety, but no one really knows what to do with the results of safety culture surveys except pat themselves on the back, or gasp in surprise that their front-line staff give them a different answer to their management staff.

    Safety culture provides a few levers to pull for safety, but they are levers that we had even without the concept - leadership, attitude, and behaviour. You don't need the concept of safety culture to tell you that those things matter.

    Personally, I find it hilarious that anti-intellectual, "safety is just common sense" practitioners want to dismiss the researchers who are providing evidence and argument to criticise safety culture. Do they think the concept "safety culture" just grew on a tree somewhere? It's a 1970s organisational science theory that was adapted for safety by an Israeli academic in 1980, that became popular after it was referenced in a propaganda fight between the USSR and USA after Chernobyl. But let's not listen to people criticising it,because they're just "academics".
  • Aaron Marshall
    Safety is just one aspect of a company culture, not an entity in and of itself. That said, I'd reply to you comments:
    1. Intangible? Yes, so what? So is goodwill, and that makes up a significant part of some companies' balance sheet. While you cannot manufacture it, you can certainly drive towards it to 'make it happen'
    2. While discussions around it lack consensus, just about every one of us will recognise a good culture when we see it. It is the wording that lacks consensus, not the concept.
    3. So you'd argue that healthy and open reporting, discussions, a just reporting system aren't necessary to improve safety.
    4. I agree with this comment, and I think that it comes from people expecting a 'quick-fix', which just isn't achievable. It takes time, and sometimes you need to have obstructive people to move on out of the company so you can improve the culture. Look at how society's tolerance to smoking or drink driving (as a whole) has changed over the last 15-20 years - that's how long it takes to change the culture of a country - it requires generational thinking, not an annual focus.
  • Simon Lawrence
    Nicely put, Sheri. We don't see a safe and tidy workplace that isn't accompanied by all the other indicators of efficiency. And vice versa. Passion can be left at the door. As you say, safety is not the aim. It's the result. Reminds me of those four levels of competence:

    1. Unconscious incompetent. (You're awful and you don't know it).

    2. Conscious incompetent. (You're awful but you at least know it).

    3. Conscious competent. (You're pretty good, but you have to try all the time).

    4. Unconscious competent. (You're darn good and you don't even have to think about it). (Or shout about it, I would add).

    For me, item 4 is analogous to a good organisational culture.
  • Simon Lawrence
    Just as an aside, my original post in here was a brief summary of my website post. I appreciate Drew Rae (above) clearly having read the post, and adding further helpful interpretation.

    It's easy to react emotionally against something we hold dearly, based on personal experience, however, my website post http://public.safetybase.co.nz/safety-culture-steam-teacup/ was a serious attempt to summarise what I could from Frank Guldenmund's paper. There is a link in the post to Guldenmund's actual paper, but the intention was to provide a digest of it. Believe me, it's hard going...
  • Tania Curtin
    Well Simon, I'm torn. I enjoyed your thoughtful article... and I agree with many points; however, it seems to be responding to a certain viewpoint or argument, that argument being that 'safety culture' is required for good safety performance, and that it can be manufactured. As neither are positions I personally hold, it was strange to read an article debunking them.

    I think there is value in the concept of safety culture, however it's frequently misunderstood and misrepresented. To explain my point of view, I'll respond to your specific points.

    1. It's intangible and you can't "manufacture" it, or "make it happen"

    Whilst I agree that the vast majority of any organisational culture is intangible (the iceberg mass hidden below the surface), there are manifestations (or artifacts as Schein calls them) of the culture which are quite observable (the small portion of the iceberg above the surface).


    Whilst mostly I agree with the statement that you cannot manufacture a "safety culture," I do believe there are concrete actions organisations can take that contribute to building an organisational culture that is conducive to good health and safety practices.

    I think there are three common errors in thinking and approach here:
    a) There is a misconception that a 'safety culture' is a target, something to be created, when rather it is an outcome, a reflection of how the company actually is.
    b) I believe it is impossible to separate "safety culture" from the overall organisational culture. The wider context in which the organisation operates, contributes to the beliefs and behaviors in regard to health and safety, of both individuals and groups.
    c) In medium and large-sized organisations, there is often an [incorrect] notion that there is one consistent organisational culture, that spans across the business. This is never reality. It is important to acknowledge and understand the different subcultures that organically evolve, and are often heavily influenced by the leaders of different divisions - and I don't necessarily mean the managers, I mean the influencers, who may be at any level of the official hierarchy.

    2. The whole concept is fuzzy and lacking consensus. It's something of a blank space.

    I don't entirely agree with this statement. For example, I think Edgar Schein's model is quite clear... and there are others.

    However, I will say that organisations rarely consider the specifics of the artifacts, espoused values and underlying assumptions that make up their cultures - and therefore you could say that culture [or a safety culture] is not well defined. In fact, how it looks and is manifested is different for every organisation.

    3. There is little or no evidence it's even necessary for good safety - if it exists.

    Again, this is the chicken and the egg scrambled up. The culture is not a requirement for good safety, it is the outcome of it.

    4. The manner in which it's pursued often reflects an almost religious zeal. (A forum member put a link to a similar article on this forum recently).

    I agree - people get a little bit crazy on this. Building a 'safety culture' is often taken too far, and although people may have the best of intentions, is tacked in an entirely counterproductive way. The concept of "Zero harm" is a glaring example... it sounds like a good idea, it feels like it sends the right message, but if the empirical data is analysed... it actually creates the opposite of the desired outcome!

    In summary, I think the term 'safety culture' is bandied about too often, with little understanding of what it actually is - if it even is a thing in itself. It seems to me, that often 'safety culture' it is little more than a trendy catch phrase.

    What we are really talking about, is how the organisational cultures manifest in the attitudes, beliefs and behaviors related to health and safety.
  • Kevin Jones
    There are some great authorities on safety culture in this thread. Safeguard Forum is very lucky.

    I notice that many of the comments still hold up if the word "culture" is removed. In many instances, people are talking about safety, how safe work is done and how it is enforced and encouraged. In my mind, that in itself is indicative of the culture of safety at work.

    Jumping back to Simon's original query, he needs only to talk about safety as he manages it and how it operates within his long-term client's business to identify the safety culture. Improving the safety culture is almost impossible without improving safety. I think in terms of Safety Culture - if you manage Safety, Culture will come.

    But don't stop reading the sociological and organisational analyses of safety culture as they provide some rigorous assessments of how our profession operates and, sometimes, fails.
  • TracyR
    From my experience I tend to shy away from using the word safety culture and try to focus on the culture as a whole in the organization exploring avenues of participation and engagement that encourages two way communication. A lot of focus is on the quality of the leadership but when auditing have noted that the softer skills such has how to build a good culture, facilitation skills and training coursed on the internal systems and processes are lacking. The foundation at what is in place within the organization requires better review.
  • Simon Lawrence
    Thanks for all the contributions on this topic. I think it’s run it’s course and patterns have emerged. May I offer a broad summary:

    1. There is a general consensus that a “culture” can be observed by the level of orderliness, consistency, engagement and integrity in an organisation.

    2. To some observers, this is important, and is celebrated when it applies to safety behaviours and is called “safety culture”. Others regard organisational performance as the overarching factor, which leads them to conclude that safety is a “product”, or somewhat indirect result, and that safety as a culture is too tight a definition. This is where I sit.

    3. The researchers acknowledge safety culture is an important idea, and describe what it seems to be, but cannot find evidence that it matters in terms of improving safety.

    4. It seems unlikely that any safety culture can exist in isolation from a wider comittment to quality. Which means it will show everywhere if it’s real.

    Those are, I think, observations we all agree on.

    Personally, I think words like “passion” and “culture” add nothing to health and safety, and may even harm the reputation. I acknowledge they are important for promoting safety, as long as we use the pulpit sparingly, and integrate equally with other organisational objectives, rather than edifying our own special interest.
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