People, profits and personalities: establishing a safety culture

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The issue of workplace health and safety culture and its impact on the success of a business is often underestimated. A culture of openness in which communication is encouraged, pressure and stress are mitigated and fear is abolished provides an organisation with the right environment to excel, not simply with regards to health and safety, but as a business in general.

In many companies a safe workplace culture is set in the boardroom and from there it filters down through middle management and supervisors to all operatives. However, in recent times the depressed economy has forced some senior executives to focus on short-term economic survival, often to the detriment of workplace health and safety attitudes and behaviours.

In these profit-driven, pressurised environments, employees are often put under pressure by managers to increase productivity. This often results in corners being cut; from the less severe such as not wearing high visibility vests to the potentially dangerous and much more worrying absence of the use of safeguards on machinery.

Without intervention these health and safety failings will start to become ingrained in the workplace culture. While such failings are not necessarily condoned by middle management, there is often a reticence to instigate change for fear of increasing costs or upsetting the now-established methods of working. This narrow-minded approach fails to take into account the increase in productivity levels that comes from having a safe, healthy and happy workforce where there will be less absenteeism and individuals are likely to be more productive and enthusiastic.

When health and safety failings are starting to become entrenched in an organisation, an external body or assessor can be invaluable in identifying issues. In addition, assessors have experience of the safety culture in a variety of organisations and are, therefore, in an ideal position to benchmark safety culture and workers’ attitudes in a business with those of other, similar organisations.

Employee engagement
One of the challenges in achieving a culture of safety is in dealing with negative attitudes in the workforce. Health and safety professionals understand this and that some types of personalities can prevent behavioural culture change.

People with bad attitudes and negative behaviour are the most challenging to deal with when it comes to establishing a positive safety culture. These safety macho-types are easily identified through their use of expressions such as: “I can do it quicker my way” or “I’ve always done it this way, so why should I change?”

Workforce buy-in and employee participation is crucial when it comes to creating a safe working culture. If a supervisor has a safety-macho attitude it will make it much harder to instigate positive change because it is likely that their team will behave in a similar manner. Near miss reporting, for example, can be dismissed by those supervisors and operatives as operational red tape. This is a grave oversight.

Near miss reporting is a useful tool in encouraging employee buy-in to a health and safety management system. In the case of an incident, the minimum that should be done is for a person to be thanked for reporting a near miss and told that it will be investigated. This will help reinforce and engage operatives. However, employers that fail to take action on near misses will reinforce the idea that safety is unimportant, that there is no point in reporting an incident and that health and safety is not taken seriously, especially if employees’ positive actions are rebuffed when nothing is done.

There are instances when, rather than facilitating safety through the establishment of working practices, a health and safety culture can be applied so rigorously by employees that it effectively becomes a barrier to work being done. This type of cannot-do culture is equally detrimental to instilling a positive health and safety culture in the workplace since it will result in health and safety being seen as anti-productive rather than contributing to a positive environment.

Talking stress
Alongside the shop floor and boardroom, a positive health and safety culture also needs to be established with middle management. Stress in the workplace is identified as a risk by the Health and Safety Executive. This risk often manifests itself with middle managers; the employees often tasked with cutting budgets while increasing outputs and generating revenue.

Stress in the workplace needs to be managed. According to the Health and Safety Executive’s annual statistics report in 2012/2013 around 80% of new work-related conditions were musculoskeletal disorders or stress, depression or anxiety. However, it is not as easy to recognise stress as a missing item of PPE or an absent safety guard. That is why it is important that health and safety professionals are aware of the work culture and environment in which their colleagues are operating. Once identified, stress can be tackled.

Creating the right health and safety culture is important. If a culture of openness and communication is encouraged, accidents can be eliminated and pressure and stress can be mitigated.

Changing an entire company’s safety culture is not and cannot be the job of only one person, especially if that person is lower down the organisation’s pecking order. I sympathise with health and safety professionals who find themselves acting as the loan voice attempting to promote change but for credibility purposes it is vital that they do not give up.

If employees are safe, healthy and happy there will be less absenteeism and individuals are more likely to be productive and enthusiastic – and that can only be good for everyone, employees and business alike. If an organisation succeeds in encouraging a culture of openness, where communication is encouraged, pressure and stress are mitigated and fear is completely abolished, that organisation will be far more likely to achieve and maintain best the commercial performance.


Samantha Johnson is an OHSAS 18001 assessor at NQA



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