A question of culture

21 January 2014

Samantha Johnson discusses why creating the right company culture is key to the effective management of health and safety.

It is no secret that a workplace culture has a direct effect on the behaviours of employees at all levels and that a company’s culture is directed from the top. Despite this, the issue of workplace culture and the resulting behaviours and attitudes is one which is often underestimated. I strongly believe that in order for organisations to achieve and maintain best performance, with regards to health and safety and as a business in general, the culture needs to be one of openness; where communication is encouraged, pressure and stress are mitigated as much as possible and fear is abolished.  

In recent years British businesses have had to focus on money and profits more so than ever before; many businesses have only had one objective and that is to survive and continue trading. As a result of this certain health and safety has sometimes taken a back seat and cultures have changed, becoming more pressurised and stressful. 


Different cultures promote different attitudes and behaviours in the workplace and there are a number of warning signs that indicate that there is a problem. However, it is not always easy for someone within a company to spot these signs and it can takes an external person such as an OHSAS 18001 assessor to identify when there is an issue. 

Under pressure 

In a pressurised workplace one will often find employees taking short cuts in order to increase productivity levels. In health and safety terms these corners can range from simply not wearing a high-visibility vest to the more worrying absence of the use of guards on machinery.  If cutting corners is routine practice it is highly likely that this sort of behaviour is condoned by senior management who are only concerned about profits. 

Middle management is often the group of employees who find themselves under the greatest amount of pressure in workplaces. These are the people who are often tasked with cutting budgets and making savings but also increasing outputs and revenue. Unfortunately it is not uncommon for this group of people to suffer from stress. 


Stress in the workplace is now identified by the Health and Safety Executive as being a risk that needs to be managed. It is not however, as easy to identify as a guard missing from a piece of machinery which is why it is important for health and safety professionals to be aware of what sort of culture their colleagues are working in.  


A workplace is full of different personalities and it is often people’s personalities that get in the way of a behavioural culture change in an organisation. People with bad attitudes and negative behaviour can often be classified as ‘safety-macho’. These are the people who say: "I’ve always done it this way” and "I can do it quicker my way”. If someone with this personality is a key supervisor it is highly likely that his / her team will behave in the same manner making it harder to incorporate change. 

Engaging the workforce 

Employee participation is crucial not only to having a culture conducive to a safe working environment but it is also vital in running a successful business. Some organisations are very good at this but to others it remains an alien concept. Near miss reporting should never be underestimated when it comes to employee participation in a health and safety management system. Too frequently near miss reporting is dismissed with a shrug of the shoulders or a non-genuine response, worse still, some companies do not acknowledge it at all. The minimum that should be done is for a person to be thanked for reporting a near miss and to be told it will be looked into because, if employees believe that nothing is being done with regards to health and safety reporting and investigating they will become disinterested.

In some workplace cultures there is the opposite problem, health and safety is taken too seriously and not in the right way. It is used as a barrier to work being done as opposed to a facilitator to it being done safely. This sort of culture is just as detrimental to a health and safety management system being effective as those outlined previously. 

One person cannot change the culture of an entire organisation, especially if that person is not at the very top of the hierarchy. I understand the frustration health and safety professionals must feel when they are the lone voice trying to promote change but for credibility purposes it is vital that they do not give up. After all if employees feel safe, healthy and happy they will be more productive and enthusiastic and that can only be good for business. 


Samantha Johnson is OHSAS 18001 assessor at NQA.