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Culture And Leadership

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Health & Safety

The 5th generation in occupational health and safety

The famous ‘J’ curve in economics, human learning and organisational growth is a sigmoid – ‘things are going to get worse before they get better’. This applies also to the development of a positive safety culture, where all stakeholders, employees, supervisors and managers have to feel their way forward to the desired new set of behaviours, attitudes and principles, and leave the old behind. At the start of the process it is easier to run back and embrace the familiar, the old way of doing things. But there does come a point in cultural growth where it is as easy to go forward and make the new culture stick by creating habitual safe practices.

It has been the practice for decades in many of the global and high-tech hazardous industries like mining, construction, road haulage and railway systems to develop rule books and a ‘rule book’ culture, where best practice is often used to mean that close compliance to the rules is being achieved.  The problem with a compliance-based regulatory approach to occupational health and safety is that it can be applied both externally (government agencies) and internally (organizational systems, procedures and rules) as a sole vector of safety performance in a duty of care context.  Companies can win awards for total internal and external compliance, yet the accidents still happen.

What would the world high jump record be if there was no bar?

The regulatory and compliance-based approach is the first, the most obvious, the most necessary to set the bar and determine who qualifies.  But best practice should go beyond that, and excellence beyond that again.  The winners are those who, through determination, grit, training and practice go over the bar and then set yet higher standards.  Duty of care reaches the bar, duty of caring goes beyond it.

In the recent report into the Glenbrook, New South Wales Railway Disaster of 1999 it has been suggested that the basic causes lay in an inadequate safety culture, working to a rule book rather than to safety, and not having sufficient commitment to safety.  The rule book culture has been built up over a century of tradition, family involvement, practices and belief systems which owe as much to superstition as to insight.  The Report states: ‘The reason for the relative safety of the New South Wales rail industry until recent years has not been due to the success of the rule-based approach to safety, but more to the fact that employees acquired their knowledge of safe working from experienced employees in the course of serving long periods of formal and informal on-the-job training.’

These comments should be very familiar to workers in the mining and quarrying industries.  The Report identifies a superior safety culture as having the following elements:

  • pride in work
  • co-operation
  • cohesion
  • communication
  • commitment.

Governments cannot address these issues; it is up to management and safety practitioners to learn about, and to promote within their own organizations, the direct relevance of safety culture and to keep alive their own vision of safety excellence.

Families have cultures, based on the blending of their individual personalities and behaviours, clans have cultures, tribes have cultures and nations have cultures.  What we need to grasp is that organizations have cultures too, in other words a unique way of collectively doing things, of beliefs and values, and ways of thinking about things.  One component of the organisational culture is safety culture, which is how the whole workforce act towards each other and the belief systems that exert pressure on individuals to act safely in their own interest and that of others.

The modern industrial organization is the most complex invention of the mind of man.  It is difficult, perhaps impossible, for anyone to understand all its ramifications and interactions.  In most of the heavily industrialized nations, particularly in the West, the worst excesses of the Industrial Revolution have left us a legacy of millions who were killed or maimed in the most horrible and brutal ways.  Governments were slow to act, but eventually, in the face of public pressure exerted at the ballot box, measures were brought in to introduce legislation and factory inspectors.  In the beginning, fines were derisively small, no more than slaps on the wrist, but throughout the last century, as public awareness rose and political conscience awakened, steps were taken to legislate for the introduction of safety-management systems and, more recently, risk-management systems.

In recent times, attempts have been made to change organizational safety culture by bringing in Acts and regulations like the occupational health and safety Acts now in force in every Australian State and Territory.

The emphasis in these is on duty of care.  This is an admirable concept, which spells out in detail the management requirements for allocating rights and duties for ensuring the health and safety of all persons in the workplace.

Duty of Care

In the Australian Industry Commission Report No. 47 on Work, Health and Safety (Sept. 1995) is the definition currently accepted by all jurisdictions.

Duty of care requires everything ‘reasonably practicable’ to be done to protect the health and safety of others at the workplace.  This duty is placed on all employers, their employees, and any others who have an influence on the hazards in a workplace. The latter includes contractors and those who design, manufacture, import, supply or install plant, equipment or materials used in the workplace.

‘Reasonably practicable’ means that the requirements of the law vary with the degree of risk in a particular activity or environment which must be balanced against the time, trouble and cost of taking measures to control the risk.  It allows the duty holder to choose the most efficient means for controlling a particular risk from the range of feasible possibilities preferably in accordance with the ‘hierarchy of control’.

This qualification allows those responsible to meet their duty of care at the lowest cost.  It also requires changes in technology and knowledge to be incorporated, but only as and when it is efficient to do so.  The duty-holder must show that it was not reasonably practicable to do more than what was done or that they have taken ‘reasonable precautions and exercised due diligence’.

Specific rights and duties logically flow from the duty of care.  These include:

  • provision and maintenance of safe plant and systems of work
  • safe systems of work in connection with plant and substances
  • a safe working environment and adequate welfare facilities
  • information and instruction on workplace hazards and supervision of employees in safe work
  • monitoring the health of their employees and related record-keeping
  • employment of qualified persons to provide health and safety advice
  • nomination of a senior employer representative
  • monitoring conditions at any workplace under the employer’s control and management.

These are representative of the employer’s specific duties in all Australian States and Territories.

The ‘hierarchy of control’ refers to the range of feasible options for managing the risk to health and safety.  The hierarchy normally ranges over the following controls:  elimination of the hazard; its substitution with a less-harmful version; its redesign; engineering controls; isolation of the hazard from people at the workplace; safe work practices; redesigning work systems; and the use of personal protective equipment by people at the workplace.

But when this duty of care is analysed, however, it becomes obvious that it is an extension of the mechanistic side of enterprise - the systems, processes and engineering, essentially the management-dominated side.  If organizations were left to themselves they would soon descend into chaos and go broke.  Thus, the primary thrust of management is to set up controls, systems and procedures so that all uncertainty is eliminated from the enterprise, and everything can be accounted for.

The waves, phases or generations in safety in most industrialised countries have been

  1. Legislative (punishment oriented).
  2. Educative (information and instruction).
  3. Systems safety (introducing safety-management plans).
  4. Risk management (introducing the concepts of hazard identification, risk assessment and risk control).

The emphasis has always been on management and systems, but organizations are more than a set of systems, they are a set of people.  It is time for us to introduce a fifth generation or phase – the ‘safety culture’ phase, which introduces a balance to the mechanistic activities of the past through a humanistic approach.  The importance of this approach is obvious to all with even a passing acquaintance with human behaviour, human beliefs and human aspirations.  Some supporting arguments can be found in the following quotations:

Richard L. Gardner, ‘Professional Safety’, March 1999: ‘Research indicates that most causal factors in industrial accidents are rooted in organisational culture – and not always amenable to correction through direct safety improvement efforts.  Many systemic causes of ‘at-risk’ behaviour arise out of organisational culture.

‘The relationship between a positive organisational culture and positive safety performance is unequivocal.  To improve health and safety performance, organisational culture must improve; improve culture, and safety performance will improve as a cause-and-effect benefit.

‘Ever-increasing business demands and challenges necessitate effective change management.  Many managers express bewilderment about the complicated barriers that most organizations erect in the face of the need for change.  Organisational change is painful.  Often, this change does not ease with time.’

Michael Quinlan, ‘Risk Management’, November 1999: ‘In summary, attempts to change unsafe behaviour should begin with organisational changes, including the minimisation of physical hazards, job redesign and the development of a positive safety culture.

‘There is good reason to believe that such changes would form a foundation for and reinforce attempts to improve behaviour.’

Margaret J. Wheatley, New Zealand Association for Training and Development Annual Conference, August 1998: ‘We know that it is possible to facilitate successful organisational change.  We have witnessed organizations that have changed not only in terms of a new direction – new processes, structures, performance levels – but that simultaneously they have increased their capacity to deal with change generally.  In these systems, after the change effort, people felt more committed to the organisation, more confident of their own contributions, and more prepared to deal with change as a continuous experience.

‘But we’d like to start by acknowledging the more typical, and depressing, history that’s accumulated around several decades of organisational change efforts.  We hope that by acknowledging this dismal track record you will feel free to contemplate very different approaches.

‘In recent surveys, CEOs report that up to 75% of their organizational change efforts do not yield the promised results.  These change efforts fail to produce what had been hoped for, yet always produce a stream of unintended and unhelpful consequences.  Leaders end up managing the impact of unwanted effects rather than the planned results that didn’t materialise.

‘We strongly believe that failures at organisational change are the result of some very deep misunderstandings of who people are and what’s going on inside organizations.’

Note the developing emphasis on leadership.  Not all managers demonstrate leadership, but every employee is capable of developing it.

A great deal has been written by well-qualified authors on the subject of leadership and the traits or qualities of leaders.  Amongst these are J.A. Couger in ‘The Charismatic Leader’, who states that leadership is about charisma, that trust and vision are keys and that the stages are: sensing opportunity and formulating a vision; describing the vision; obtaining commitment from them to the vision; and working towards the vision.

W. Bennis in ‘Leaders’ finds that the best leaders: develop a vision which inspires; lead by example; have a high profile and are visible; have the greatest of all human skills – listening; delegate well; and coach and provide training.

T. Peters in ‘Thriving on Chaos’ states that effective leaders: have a vision for guidance of all; display self-confidence; share with others in achievements and progress; display empathy and caring for others; are decisive in decision making; and demonstrate commitment to their employees.

T. Anderson in ‘Transforming Leadership’, claims that leaders who are capable of bringing out positive organisational change have qualities including: a well-defined sense of direction, purpose, vision and mission; robust physical health; mastery over self; an ability to take advice and change course if needed; achievement oriented; adept at handling and managing change; enthusiastic about self-development; and an ability to organize the energy of teams.

Management is essentially about functions, such as: planning, organizing, directing and controlling, whereas leadership is about qualities of human behaviour and attitudes, such as constancy, consistency, visibility and integrity.

There is a need for caution in using the expression ‘safety culture’, because even in the safety literature there seems to be some confusion as to its meaning and, more importantly, its measurement and impact on safety behaviour, practices and attitudes.  Yet anyone in the professions of risk management, loss control or occupational health and safety should have some grasp of the concept, how it explains individual and group risk-taking in organizations, and how some companies are demonstrably more effective than others in reducing accidents and incidents, improving morale and self-confidence in their workforce and increasing productivity.  There is no standard definition of safety culture, but the consensus appears to be that it is specific to an organization and consists of a set of shared attitudes, values, beliefs and practices of people at work concerning the hazards they face, the assessment of the magnitude of the risks, the necessity for preventive measures and the systems and procedures to be used in organizing work.

At the organizational level, cultures may be interpreted by the workforce as tough, hard, demanding, authoritarian or caring, supportive and concerned.  They may see the company as bound by rules and procedures, oriented toward blame and punishment, or flexible and dynamic, oriented toward leadership, learning and adaptability.  It is extremely important for safety, risk and loss-control professionals to understand that as individuals collectively make up a family culture and families collectively make up a tribal culture, so there are groups or sections in a company which develop their own rules and leadership patterns within the corporate framework.

Many senior managers seek to change the organizational culture by defining and promulgating policies, priorities, imperatives and values.  All of these are important in the long term provided that they reflect management commitment as well as stating desired action or changed behaviour.

A more satisfactory interpretation of safety culture as a working approach in actual operations is to express it not so much in terms of what it is, but according to its results.  Thus, a company may be considered to have a positive health and safety culture if it consists of competent people with high regard for safety values which they constantly put into practice.  In contrast, an organization is considered to have a poor or weak safety culture if its safety arrangements are sloppy and ill-defined, receive only lukewarm support or acceptance, and if management and the workforce ignore company policies and statutory requirements.

Significance

The establishment and promotion of a positive health and safety culture is now often advocated as one of the central objectives of health and safety management.  The expression is being increasingly used as an indicator of an organization’s ability and competence to control work hazards, and of its conviction and determination to do so.  Lord Cullen stated in his masterly report on the Piper Alpha disaster that ‘it is essential to create a corporate atmosphere or culture in which safety is understood to be, and is accepted as, the number one priority’.

Studies in the timber, metals, machine manufacturing, coalmining, tractor assembly and the nuclear industries have shown that there is a high degree of correlation between low accident rates and good safety culture, where the latter is defined as having these characteristics:

  • a high level of communication between and within levels of the organization, with more frequent and less formal safety discussions
  • managers who are more visible and ‘walk and talk’ safety
  • senior management who devote resources to safety, allocate resources, express commitment
  • management who adopt a leadership style which is participative, human, co-operative, rather than hierarchic, autocratic and adversarial
  • high levels of quality training, where safety aspects are integrated directly into all skills training.

Measurement

Care must be taken to distinguish between quantitative and qualitative assessments.  In order to form a meaningful estimation of an organization’s safety culture, it is necessary to include attitudes and beliefs as well as behaviour.  Thus, there is a need for competent and informed observations – what is the value of the most sophisticated systems and procedures in the workplace if they are ignored and never used?  Clearly, employees are more likely to co-operate if they have participated in the design of the systems and procedures, but it is now enshrined in the safety legislation that the workforce must co-operate with management in looking after their own safety and that of others.  It is a legitimate expectation of management that employees will use established safe procedures, but it is naïve to expect commitment from people who have these procedures imposed and thrust upon them.  Auditing of safe behaviour by supervisors and safety professionals provides data which can be used to motivate and encourage employees to adopt, and make habitual, safe work practices through behaviour-based safety systems which are commercially available.  It is important to recognise that safe behaviour is being measured in order to create a data base which can be used to demonstrate improvement, rather than for purposes of blame or reproach with criticism, punishment or discipline as the driver.

The other aspects of assessing safety culture are qualitative in nature, involving: interviews with individuals; team interviews; interpretations made by trained observers; questionnaires constructed within the organization; and a review of accidents and incidents.

At any one time, a qualitative picture of the safety culture may be built up by using all, or at least a variety, of these methods.

Safety Climate

This is closely related to safety culture, but differs in an important way. Culture has been defined as ‘the way we do things around here’ and is associated with habitual safety-related behaviour and the values or belief systems which underlie these, whereas climate is ‘the way we feel around here’, which is associated with employees' perceptions.  Climate is a much more specific way of expressing how people describe their feelings towards organizational safety issues and systems and how their everyday experience is perceived.

Research into the nature of risk perception in the workplace reveals that a person's ability to determine the risks attendant on existing hazards is influenced by a whole range of factors including confidence in their own skills, the amount of control they feel they have, and the way in which they have been taught to perceive hazards.  There are powerful individual differences in perceptions which are tied up with an individual’s attitudes and core values.  Attitudes affect perceptions and vice versa.  These are very subtle and complex relationships, but there is a need to know what safety-related perceptions people have if an excellent safety culture is to be developed.  The identification of employee perceptions and attitudes can be achieved by conducting workforce surveys, to establish their views on specific workplace characteristics that affect their safety.  Issues to be tested are site specific and may include matters such as management commitment and actions, leadership, organizational changes, communications, effectiveness of supervision, adequacy of systems and provision of PPE.

Cooper, in his book ‘Improving Safety Culture’, states: ‘The usefulness of these surveys is immense.  The results confront the organization itself with particular work-related factors that are affecting safety.  This allows management to direct their attention to such things as poor communications, weaknesses in safety procedures and gaps in training of which they may not have been aware.  They can also be used to assess and evaluate the effectiveness of safety improvement programmes in improving the safety climate.  These surveys are therefore extremely useful diagnostic tools for management in focusing safety improvement efforts, as well as in determining the impact of safety awareness campaigns, safety training and behavioural safety initiatives - a task which in the past has been very difficult’.

Changing Culture

The Lawrence Livermore Corp. decided that their safety effort, based on compliance and traditional programmes such as locating and correcting hazards, and statistical analysis, was getting nowhere - it had stalled.  Management decided to adopt a safety culture approach, to get employees to commit themselves to getting involved in designing, using and setting a value on safety procedures.  They developed the following seven-step approach:

  • establish a vision of the desired safety culture
  • communicate the vision through the entire organization
  • gather input through interviews and surveys to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the existing culture
  • develop a strategy to bridge the gap between current reality and desired future culture
  • allocate resources of personnel, training, time and money to safety culture development  to drive the programme
  • implement the strategy using checkpoints where individuals are held accountable for achieving set safety objectives on time
  • defining the check and control points for ongoing evaluation of progress and setting up of the next phase.

Livermore do not speak of culture change as a programme, which has a beginning and an end.  They term it a process - one which is ongoing and brings about lasting change, which can be passed on from generation to generation of workers in a natural way.  They have established that their conversion from reactive safety programmes to an ongoing safety process, through continuous improvement and culture change, took them about five years of continuous hard work.

Results

The cultural change programme was adopted with caution initially, but later with increasing enthusiasm by management, employees, unions, health and safety professionals and company contractors.  The results indicate: 

  • employees are more actively involved in safety planning and run their own safety meetings
  • employees are less threatened by experiencing an accident due to the change in the safety culture, and are more willing to bring unsafe acts to the attention of co-workers
  • reporting of near misses and no-loss incidents has increased
  • worker’s compensation costs have been reduced by 80%
  • workers go directly to the occupational health and safety committee with issues, since they are seen to be empowered
  • they report an amazing increase in the acceptance of safety initiatives.

The philosophy of occupational health and safety often embraced by directors and senior managers also needs to be kicked into actual implementation on the ground and every level in the organization has a part to play.  Of course, there are the demands of the regulatory agencies for compliance and the need to satisfy all the company regulations, systems and procedures, but these are all highly mechanistic in nature.  What is needed is a humanistic approach to balance the mechanistic.  No one in their right mind would deny that the legislation, risk management and systems safety have had spectacular success in reducing accidents and incidents, and continue to make a major contribution.  But all over the world a type of plateau effect is becoming evident, and the ultimate attach on the occupational health and safety problem will only be achieved when the hearts and minds of the whole workforce are won over and there is a holistic approach, balancing the mechanistic with the humanistic.  A diary is an information system but is valueless unless it is opened, read, and written in.  A car is a system of systems but remains a beautiful toy until someone drives it somewhere safely.  What is the value of systems and procedures, especially if inspired, if no-one uses them?  They look good and auditors give points and stars for their completeness, but they need to be audited dynamically, in operation.

OCCUPATIONAL HEALTH AND SAFETY REQUIREMENTS FOR CONTINUOUS IMPROVEMENT

A degree of commitment, honesty and determination to act, and to get involved, are necessary from all levels of the work force.

The need for the following cannot be overemphasized:

DIRECTORS TO SUPPORT

No more, either morally or in law, can directors abrogate their personal responsibility. Ultimately, only they can show support for management action.

MANAGERS TO MODEL

Managers are the principal source of direction, so do what they do, not what they say.
Managers must model safe behaviour.

SUPERVISORS TO REINFORCE

Supervisors are the source of guidance, so they must learn how to reinforce safe behaviour.

EMPLOYEES TO PARTICIPATE

The work force can destroy the whole effort if they don't participate.

PRACTITIONERS TO PROFESSIONALIZE

The safety professional must learn more about safety behaviour, learning to learn and be more professional.

In conclusion, a positive safety culture can be defined as one in which every employee in the organization willingly and habitually uses safe practices in support of their own and other people’s well-being, without direct supervision, and embraces not just a duty of care, but a duty of caring.

The author, Robert McLellan of the Australian Safety Centre, presented this, the 10th McPherson Lecture, at the Institue of Quarrying's Annual Conference 2001. 

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