How to diagnose your workplace safety culture

A safety culture is generally referred to as an organisation’s values and behaviors, modelled by its leaders, and internalised by its members, that serve to make safe performance of work the overriding priority to protect the public, workers, and the environment. Simply put, safety culture is measured by how people behave in their normal daily working environment.

It is important to measure safety culture periodically within an organisation to determine if the underlying assumptions that staff have about safety management, are aligned with the views of management and are consistent with the established safety system elements. A clear view about safety culture provides an indication of the likely effectiveness of planned improvement initiatives and what additional strategies may need to be considered.

There are multiple ways in which a safety culture review can be undertaken. For example, typical attitudinal and behavioural indicators are:

  • Audits and Surveys
  • Questionnaires
  • Inspections
  • Walk throughs
  • Levels of Safety reporting / corrective actions
  • Personnel Interviews
  • Observation of Safety attitudes and behaviours.

In a large organisation it is not practical to regularly hold culture focus groups with all workers, so culture surveys are necessary. However, surveys alone don’t always provide qualitatively rich information as they only measure superficial characteristics of the perceptions of culture, not the deeper shared assumptions and actual behaviours in practice. Survey data is almost irrelevant, as it is the conversations around the survey questions, and the actions based on those conversations that are most important to identify.

Interviews with key stakeholders are very useful to identify safety culture issues as respondents can use their own words and expressions. This method also allows greater flexibility in questioning, with the possibility for probing follow-up questions, to get a deeper understanding and to clarify ambiguities in meaning.

In addition, measuring positive safety culture performance indicators can provide more in depth information that that normally available using a survey tool. Indicators can provide continuous feedback on the health of an organisation’s safety culture as opposed to assessments which represent a snapshot in time. Although no single indicator is sufficient in itself to identify the state of the safety culture, monitoring the trends of various characteristics of safety culture as a function of performance indicators over time, may provide insights into strengths and weaknesses.

The complexity and number of performance indicators depends on the size and organisational structure of the organisation. However the following safety culture focus areas, based on Reasons (1) essential ingredients of safety culture provide a useful framework.

Figure 1: The essential ingredients of safety culture

Leading Edge Safety Systems has successfully developed a framework in which to measure the above five ingredients of safety culture. This framework is based on the monitoring of several specific positive safety performance indicators. Each safety culture performance indicator is tracked on a periodic basis to determine which particular areas need extra attention and where successful performance is being achieved.

Leading Edge Safety Systems has worked with a number of organisations to measure safety culture and to develop strategies to further drive positive safety behaviours and leadership. From this extensive experience several conclusions are apparent regarding the most effective means to drive improvements in safety culture:

  • The development and measurement of safety performance must be owned by the business and not performed by external service providers. Therefore, the use of a representative business ‘taskforce’ is crucial as a sounding board as to what is needed for further improvement, and what specific strategies will be most effective.
  • Safety performance is best measured by demonstrated / tangible behaviours not generic and often meaningless attitude measures. Senior managers need to know what these key behaviours are in order to ‘set the tone’ for employees and clearly define company expectations.
  • Safety culture surveys and questionnaires provide some indication of what the shared views and assumptions about safety are. However, utilised on their own, safety culture surveys are not very effective and only capture superficial characteristics of culture, not the deeper shared assumptions.
  • Survey data is almost irrelevant, it is conversations around the survey, and the actions based on those conversations that are important.
  • A more tangible way to measure and improve safety culture is to identify positive performance indicators based on recognised “safety culture ingredients”.

A typical safety culture improvement program is expected to involve several key stages, including:

  • A discovery phase.
  • A diagnostic phase.
  • A change management phase.
  • An ongoing monitoring and accountability phase.

These stages are summarised in the figure below and explained in more detail on the following pages.

Figure 2: Safety culture review overview

Discovery Phase

Consultation should begin with the Executive Leadership Team (ELT) for the business.

Approval and commitment should be sought to adopt a multi-method approach to reveal specific safety culture elements, based on the following process:

  • Interviews with members of the Executive Leadership Team.
  • Focus groups discussions with a sample of operational and administrative staff as well as front line managers.
  • The conduct of safety observations to observe safety behaviour across various business geographical work locations.
  • The distribution of an on-line and paper based Safety culture survey to a representative sample of staff.

Communication Plan

To ensure a consistent message is delivered about the purpose, intent and scope of the safety culture assessment a Communication Plan must be developed, which includes:

  • A fact sheet.
  • Content for team leader briefings to encourage staff to participate in the survey.
  • A blurb for the intranet to inform staff on how they can participate in both a paper based survey and on-line version.

Data Collection

A multi-method data collection approach should be adopted which is described below.

  • Interviews with the Executive Leadership Team (ELT).
  • Focus Group Discussions based on Reason’s essential ingredients of safety culture as described previously.
  • Operational Staff Observations using a “Safety Observation Form” to record any positive and/or at risk behaviour observed as well as the main themes from targeted discussion items.
  • In conjunction with our University Partner, a safety culture survey tool is distributed which requires participants to indicate their level of agreement with several positively worded statements on a 1-6 scale. The items are grouped according to various safety culture dimensions such as Leadership/Management Commitment; Communication/Feedback; Employee Involvement/Consultation; Learning Organisation; Motivation/Recognition; Attitude to Safety, and other dimensions.

NOTE: The above survey tool can be tailored to the business type/industry type being surveyed and comparative data from other (de-identified) industry respondents can be provided.

Overview of Capability

Leading Edge Safety Systems has extensive experience in a range of safety critical industries in successfully conducting previous safety culture reviews, including:

  • Electricity transmission and distribution.
  • Power generation.
  • Gas supply.
  • Surface transport (rail and heavy vehicle transport)

Want to know more?

For more in depth information about a safety culture improvement program for your workplace, contact Leading Edge Safety Systems. We are a group of highly qualified and experienced safety management experts, with second to none experience in a range of industries with a proven track record of providing practical solutions to addressing key safety, risk and human factors challenges in the workplace.

References

Reason, J. (1997), Managing the Risks of Organisational Accidents. Aldershot, UK, Ashgate.

How to diagnose your workplace safety culture

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