Organisational Culture for Occupational Health and Safety

Organizational Culture for Occupational Health and Safety

In this article Andy Loader, RSP and New Zealand Safety Council Board member discusses the subject of Culture in a workplace and its effect on safety outcomes.

The numbers of occupational injuries and diseases has reduced with the ongoing developments around occupational Health and Safety technology, such as engineering controls, protective equipment, safer machinery and processes, and better compliance with regulatory requirements.

The introduction of mandatory health and safety management systems has further reduced the numbers of occupational injuries and diseases but these systems are not effective unless accompanied by a positive safety culture in the workplace.

The key element in occupational health and safety management is having a culture of prevention within the organization. Introduction of a positive safety culture can help achieve reductions in occupational injuries and diseases.

The investigation into most of the high profile disasters such as Chernobyl and the Piper Alpha explosion concluded that safety systems in those workplaces had broken down. The breakdowns were not caused by the method of managing safety, but by problems with the “safety culture” of the organizations. The lesson that can be drawn from the reports into high profile disasters such as these is that it is essential to have an organizational culture in which safety is accepted as the top priority.

Occupational health and safety management systems are not effective unless they are paired with a positive safety culture. Many organizations that have introduced new occupational health and safety management systems have failed to show any improvement in their accident/incident statistics because they did not factor in the impact of the organizational culture.

One description of the culture of an organisation is “the mix of shared values, attitudes and patterns of behaviour that give the organisation its particular character”.

Put simply it is 'the way we do things round here'". We suggest that the "safety culture of an organisation could be described as the ideas and beliefs that all members of the organisation share about risk, accidents and ill health".

Five main topics of a positive safety culture are as follows:

  1. Leadership - the highly visible commitment to safety by top management, which is vital for providing a positive safety culture.
  2. Values - safety should be clearly shown as an added value to the organization, not as something that can be traded off against costs and/or production targets.
  3. Authorizations - allowing key groups to be responsible and accountable for health and safety decision-making is important for creating and maintaining a positive safety culture.
  4. Training - all employees should be trained in health and safety procedures and be encouraged to contribute ideas on improved safety. A positive safety culture is achieved where employees participate and act by sharing their experiences and addressing shared health and safety problems.
  5. Priority - a positive safety culture is one in which safety is a top priority and is integrated into every aspect of the company.


In particular, among these five topics, the leadership of employers is the key to developing a positive safety culture.


“The best Health and Safety Programs involve every level of the organization, instilling a safety culture that reduces accidents for workers and improves the bottom line for managers. When Health and Safety is a part of the organization’s way of life, everyone wins.”


Over the last 60 years or so, industry first reduced accident rates by improving: hardware

(Effective guards, safer equipment); then improved employee performance (selection and training, incentives and reward schemes) and, then changed the way they manage and organise – especially, by introducing safety management systems.


Each improvement reduced accidents down to a ‘plateau’ level where further improvement seemed impossible.


Now, most accidents (and other ‘business disruptions’) stem from employee errors or violations. The next big step change in safety has begun and is based on developing good safety cultures that positively influence human behaviour at work to reduce errors and violations.


Safety culture is not a difficult idea, but it is usually described in terms of concepts such as ‘trust’, ‘values’ and ‘attitudes’. It can be difficult to describe what these mean, but you can judge whether a company has a good safety culture from what its employees actually do rather than what they say.


Many companies talk about ‘safety culture’ when referring to the inclination of their employees to comply with rules or act safely. However, we often find that the culture and style of management is even more significant, for example a natural, unconscious bias for production over safety, or a tendency to focus on the short term, or being highly reactive.


One key to building a better safety culture is to increase the level of employee engagement. An engaged employee not only remains safer on the job, but they are also much more likely to help lead a good health and safety culture.


Some of the general principles of leadership that should already be in place as drivers of employee engagement that will help us improve the strength and sustainability of our safety culture are:

  1. Building relationships
  2. Promoting a Team Environment
  3. Communication with Employees
  4. We need to actively build relationships of trust with our employees. Getting to know our employees and their interests is critical to building a strong safety culture. We need to know what drives them individually if we hope to motivate them to lead health and safety on the job.


“Three things are needed for government: weapons, food and trust. If a ruler can't hold on to all three, he should give up the weapons first and the food next. Trust should be guarded to the end: without trust we cannot stand”



In the last decade, there have been many of studies pointing to trust as a key predictor of safety performance and an essential component of effective safety cultures. Findings from these studies have shown that trust in management can increase employee engagement in safety behaviors and reduce rates of accidents and conversely, other studies noted that distrust is negatively associated with personal responsibility for safety and positively related to injury rates.


“Contrary to popular belief, cultivating a high-trust culture is not a “soft” skill — it’s a hard necessity. Put another way, it’s the foundational element of high- performing organisations” - Stephen M. R. Covey

Generally, companies with highly rated cultures give their employees, regardless of rank or level, the opportunity to speak their mind. Whether it’s getting their feedback for a new policy or allowing them to voice concerns on a matter, providing a platform for employees to say their piece gives them more control and helps effectively guide company policy.

Organizations with good culture recognize their employees as their most valuable asset, and as such devote resources to promoting opportunities for the development of that asset. Encouraging employees to expand their knowledge and skills in work-related areas displays a commitment to and appreciation for the contributions of their employees.

  1. We also need to create and maintain a healthy team environment. That means that we need to create open lines of communication and transparency so that everyone feels free to register concerns with us. But it also means that we need to step in and manage conflict if there is conflict between team members. Otherwise we’re bound to have team members with low levels of engagement that just don’t want to be there.

Organizations dedicated to building a good culture make a point of communicating all decisions in a manner that is easily understood and as transparent as possible. This shows that they care about their employees enough to thoroughly explain their rationale and reasoning behind a decision and not just keep people in the dark who may not ‘need to know’.

One of the most frequently cited models of trust suggests that trust is based on perceptions about three key factors:

  1. Ability (Perceived Competence)
  2. Benevolence (Perceived degree of Care shown)
  3. Integrity (Perceived honesty and openness)

Subsequent research has demonstrated that all three factors are important in building trust and overcoming mistrust. For example, a leader may be viewed as highly competent, open and honest, however, if he/she is perceived as uncaring then trust cannot be built nor sustained, and any existing mistrust will not be overcome. (“Unless the mistrust of the workforce can be overcome then even the most well-intentioned and sophisticated management initiatives will be treated with cynicism and undermined.”)


3.         We need to take note of the levels of engagement of all members of our team to ensure that the levels of engagement are on the rise and not on the decline. We need to keep an eye on the level of engagement of those on our team (particularly front-line supervisors) who are leading others. Because if they are disengaged, it’s very likely they are influencing others on their team to be disengaged as well. Disengaged supervisors tend to hire and create disengaged employees.

If an individual in a position of power is encouraging or requiring their subordinates to adhere to a certain process or rule, they set the tone for the situation when they either act as a role model by making a point to do so themselves, or set a bad example by ignoring their own advice. Good culture fosters behavior similar to the former.

"People don't care how much you know - until they know how much you care”

Theodore Roosevelt

If an organization makes a decision or tests out a new policy, they need to be prepared to deal with the results of that action. Nobody is perfect; senior leadership in an organization being no exception, and when the decision makers refuse to acknowledge mistakes and investigate alternative solutions, they’re only shooting themselves in the foot. Staying open to the possibility that they might be wrong demonstrates humility, which can help the employees relate to them.



How can we tell if our company has a good safety culture?


We know our company has a good safety culture when:



Managers regularly visit the workplace and discuss safety matters with the workforce



The company gives regular, clear information on safety matters



We can raise a safety concern, knowing the company take it seriously and they will tell us what they are doing about it



Safety is always the company’s top priority, we can stop a job if we don’t feel safe



The company investigates all accidents and near misses, does something about it and gives feedback



The company keeps up to date with new ideas on safety



We can get safety equipment and training if needed – the budget for this seems about right



Everyone is included in decisions affecting safety and are regularly asked for input



It’s rare for anyone here to take shortcuts or unnecessary risks



We can be open and honest about safety: the company doesn’t simply find someone to blame



Morale is generally high




A large number of factors contribute to whether you have a good or a bad safety culture. The table below lists the main factors; indicates what would show that you had a good safety culture, and what would support the safety culture. This can be used as a very rough guide to assessing your safety culture or as a way of developing ideas for improving it.


A healthy safety culture is one where there is…

This is shown when management…

… and is helped when management…

Visible Commitment to Safety by Management

Make regular useful visits to site;

Discuss safety matters with frontline personnel;

Will stop production for safety

reasons regardless of cost;

Spend time and money on safety e.g. to provide protective equipment, safety training, and conduct safety culture workshops or audits;

Will not tolerate violations of

procedures and actively try to improve systems so as to discourage violations e.g. plan work so that short cuts aren’t necessary to do the work in time.


Makes time to visit site (not just

following an accident or incident);

All show commitment;

Has good non-technical skills

(E.g. communication skills ;);

Are also interested in workforce

safety when they are not at work,

e.g. provide information on domestic safety;

Shows concern for wider issues

e.g. workforce stress and general health;

Actively sets an example (e.g.

always conform to all safety


Workforce Participation and Ownership of Safety

Problems and Solutions

Consults widely about health and safety matters;

Does more than the minimum to

comply with the law on consultation;

Seeks workforce participation in:

• setting policies and objectives

• accident/near miss investigations;

Supports an active safety


Have a positive attitude to safety


Provides tools or methods that

encourage participation e.g.

behavioural observation

programmes & incentive schemes that promote safety;


Trust Between employees and Management

Encourages all employees and

contractors to challenge anyone

working on site about safety without fear of reprisals;

Keeps their promises;

Treats the workforce with respect;


Promotes job satisfaction/good

industrial relations and high


Promotes a ‘just’ culture

(assigning blame only where

someone was clearly reckless or

took a significant risk);

Encourages trust between all



Good Communications

Provides good (clear, concise,

relevant) written materials (safety bulletins, posters, guidance);

Provides good briefings on current issues day to day and in formal safety meetings; listening and feedback;


Encourages employee

participation in suggesting safety

topics to be communicated;

Provides specific training in

communication skills;

Has more than one means of


A Competent Workforce

Ensures that everyone working on their sites is competent in their job and in safety matters;


Is supportive;

Has a good competence assurance system;