Understanding safety culture is part of the journey towards improving organisational reliability. Organisations have responsibilities for the management of their risks, and to ensure adequate and appropriate risk mitigation. Obviously, the various Work Health and Safety Acts and Regulations exist to protect workers of all Australian organisations.
An effective Safety Strategy starts with understanding and investigation!
Central to the effectiveness of safety management is the concept of safety culture. The Figure above provides a model that shows the steps to becoming a successful and highly reliable organisation. The first two steps: 'understand safety management systems' (SMS) and 'investigate safety culture', are the elements about understanding the status quo; determining whether the processes, standards and systems are adequately designed and implemented. The assessment of safety culture will provide information that will help you to understand the efficacy of the safety management systems and help to prioritise the improvements to your organisation.
Improvement is the next step.
The next step following an investigation would be to 'improve', which could involve developing KPIs and procedures, or improving incident investigation, based on signposting from your safety culture evaluation or your SMS audits. Other steps could improve development of behavioural safety programs to address unsafe behaviours, once organisational readiness has been determined and tactical improvements derived from the safety culture assessment have been delivered. The endpoint of this journey would be an organisation well on the road towards being labelled a 'High Reliability Organisation' - a term used to describe an organisation that has avoided major catastrophies while engaged in high risk activity. The name comes from studies conducted in the 1980s, as described by Lekka and Sugden (2011).
What is safety culture?
'Safety culture' is defined as "the product of individual and group values, attitudes, perceptions, competencies, and patterns of behaviour that determine commitment to, and the style and proficiency of, an organisation's health and safety management" (HSC, 1993).
Put another way it's "the way things are done around here". It's a combination of all the attitudes, beliefs, values, taboos, peer pressure and perceptions that your organisation or subsections of your organisation hold, that influence how something is actually done where you work, rather than how it should be done. Importantly, our attitudes, or our culture, influence our behaviour, and in turn our behaviours influence the efficacy of risk control.
An organisation's culture will influence human behaviour and human peformance at work. Poor safety culture has contributed to many major incidents and personal injuries. Indeed, the culture of an organisation can be just as influential on safety outcomes as the safety management itself.
Like bark on a tree, each the same, but each different, inextricably linked. Your culture gives rise to your systems, and your systems will give rise to your culture.
Traditionally 'safety climate' was used to describe a snapshot of the safety culture at a particular time point. However the terms 'culture' and 'climate' are now used interchangeably.
Where does the concept come from?
Safety culture, as a phrase, was first used by the International Atomic Energy Authority to describe the issues at Chernobyl at the time of their major incident. The interest in culture arose in response to a realisation that organisational structure (i.e. the roles and their relationships, rules and procedures) was limited in achieving an organisation's health and safety goals.
Since Chernobyl, a number of other major disasters including Texas City and more recently Deepwater Horizon have highlighted the impact of organisational factors on safety performance, with numerous inquiries identifying 'safety culture' as having a definitive impact.
Safety culture, or the way safety is perceived, valued and prioritised in an organisation, not only has an obvious and direct effect on incident rates, it also impacts on productivity, reliability, competitiveness and even employee morale.
And it's not just major hazard industries that need to be concerned about safety culture, organisations from all industry sectors with an effective safety culture have realised that by making safety an asset, rather than a risk, brings positive, demonstrable results throughout their business.
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