Creating a positive safety culture

03 August 2016

Health and safety management systems are only as effective as the culture they are applied in. John Southall, co-founder of health and safety consultancy, Southalls, looks at what characterises a positive safety culture and the steps that can be taken to engage employees throughout an organisation.

There has been much research undertaken into how an organisation can promote a positive safety culture, as it is crucial for managing risk and achieving compliance. Even the safest of systems, processes, and workplace equipment can fail, if employees don’t embrace and adopt safe working behaviours.

One over-riding theme throughout the research studies conducted is the pivotal role employee engagement plays. Staff need to feel involved and valued in the safety process, considering health and safety to be an important part of their day-to-day role. This means updating employees on an organisation’s safety goals, encouraging them to undertake safety training, continually raising awareness of the importance of safety and crucially, leading from the front in terms of senior management being engaged with the workforce and work environment. Too often, organisation leaders are criticised for being distant from the realities of the workplace, which can leave employees feeling disconnected, critical or even resentful of the safe working behaviours that senior managers are trying to instill.

A positive safety culture has to be nurtured in an environment of trust, where staff feel comfortable working closely with each other. Employees at all levels must trust their peers, teams and managers to adopt safe working behaviours and to be open about areas of concern and success. The stronger the bonds of trust are between colleagues, the more positive the safety culture will be.

So, what practical steps can managers take to engage employees and promote such an environment?

Safety starts with senior management who must follow safe systems of work and comply with safety instructions in exactly the same way that other employees are expected to, by wearing PPE when visiting the shop floor for example, or by undertaking relevant training. Health and safety compliance should be reflected within the formal management appraisal process and poor performance should be dealt with in a sufficiently serious manner.

Observing staff behaviour is also important. Managers should visit the shop floor on a routine basis, preferably during the busiest periods when corners are most likely to be cut, to view processes for themselves and to survey how employees operate. 

If unsafe actions are observed, then the first step taken should not be to apportion blame. Staff will often fear being reprimanded and so managers should make it clear that this will not be the case, if safety issues are identified or raised. Instead, managers should work in collaboration with employees to identify the root cause of the behaviour and ask staff to contribute to the development of a resolution. Time should be taken to listen to employees and understand the reasons for non-compliance with safety measures, whether that might be a lack of understanding or shortage of time.

As part of staff observation, managers should take a proactive interest in the tasks undertaken by employees and engage with them to help identify any obstacles that impede their work. Staff should be encouraged to share concerns and make suggestions as to how working practices or environments could be improved. For example, employees should feel comfortable raising issues around whether the right PPE is being provided or whether production demands are placing pressure on staff to bypass safe systems of work.

This can be encouraged more widely by establishing routes for staff to raise not only safety concerns, but also ideas, and to praise safe working behaviour. Employees should be rewarded for identifying better ways of working safely and promoting safe working amongst their colleagues.

Finally, in the event of an accident or near miss, root cause analysis should be undertaken to establish the circumstances and lessons to be learned. Near misses should be taken particularly seriously and employees should be encouraged to actively report such incidents, however trivial they may appear. Attitudes to near miss reporting can often be a good indicator of safety culture within a business, providing a benchmark for employee engagement and an organisation’s commitment to ongoing safety improvements.

By adopting these practices, organisations can foster a positive safety culture defined by trust, openness and equality, with employees at all levels embracing safety systems and processes with the respect needed to achieve compliance.