The new safety lexicon

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Marc McLaren of Generative HSE ponders over a growing disconnection between safety management systems and what happens in practice.

On a wet day on board a crowded early peak hour train, I sat with a mix of commuters on their way back to their homes after a day’s work. In the midst of the crowd dressed mostly in formals was a small group of construction workers in bright yellow shirts emblazoned with logos on the front, back and sleeves, casually chatting about their day. Given my proximity to where they were standing and the sound of their voices it was difficult not to join the conversation, at least in my head. I had been earlier pondering the issue of workplace safety and began to wonder how safety had played out in the day for these three men, what discussions had taken place and what decisions had been made or not made. They were, innocently enough, answering my silent questions.

As the conversation progressed, it appeared to me that there was a seemingly fundamental disconnection between what I imagined their safety management system and risk assessments required and what they did in practice. I started to muse what it was drove or at least influenced this disconnection.

One of the men was running through the litany of his work-related injuries. He described in detail how his head was once virtually ‘split open’, how he lost the tip of his finger, how he badly twisted a knee and how he developed chronic lower back pain. The others in his group didn’t so much as flinch as he recounted tales of a clear disconnection between the decisions made by him and others and a system designed to keep him and his colleagues safe.

Soon the men were off the train, but I continued brooding over the issue. I couldn’t help but wonder how they made sense of their situations and the decisions made. The question that rattled in my head, not out of judgement or disbelief, but from a place of open enquiry, was: why was there such a disconnection between workers and a system that is designed to keep them safe?

I started to muse on how current safety thinking may explain this apparent disconnection. Maybe the safety system is not well understood or owned, perhaps the procedures are deemed unnecessary and serve as an unhelpful constraint or maybe they just seem too onerous to follow. What about project deadlines? What role do they play between getting a job done and meticulously doing all that is required? Perhaps the leadership around safety is being poorly exercised and the leaders are not intervening when they observe people not doing what is required. It all boils down to the idea that perhaps it’s the lack of a proper safety culture in organisations today.

It can be argued that over the past three decades our thinking has continually evolved. First, it was all about the safety management system; then it was all about people’s attitudes and behaviours; and today it is all about the safety culture of an organisation.

The new safety lexicon

Safety culture has become a part of the current safety lexicon. There are numerous models that explain the relationship between safety culture, behavioural choices and the resulting safety performance. Part of the challenge is how to meaningfully apply the construct when there are multiple definitions used to explain what is meant by safety culture. In the midst of this confusion, there is an observed tendency to reduce safety culture to the lowest common dominator: ‘safety culture is how we do things around here’. Part of the problem with this reductionist approach is that it offers potentially little guidance to leaders and the wider workforce on how to bring about sustainable safety improvements.

Many argue that it is a misnomer to claim that safety culture exists as a stand-alone construct and is somehow distinguishable from the wider organisational culture. In the Safe Work Australia publication Clarifying Culture, Verna Blewett, director of New Horizon Consulting, argues that there is no such divide between safety and organisational culture.

“There are many myths and misconceptions about organisational culture as it relates to health and safety,” notes Blewett. “Many have envisaged a discrete ‘safety’ culture in organisations. Moreover, this is seen as being concrete, predictable and able to be managed or manipulated in some way… There are dangers inherent in trying to manipulate something believed to be simple and predictable when in fact it is complex and unstable.”

Is safety culture dead?

Dave Rebbitt, president of Rarebit Consulting, questioned whether a systematic safety culture is really dead in an article he wrote for the ‘Safety Leadership’ blog published by EHS Today. “When I first heard about safety culture,” he wrote, “I thought it made a lot of sense and, admittedly, I embraced the concept. Since then I have worked in various places and I successfully have driven cultural change. Over that time, I have become less and less convinced of the existence of [a] ‘safety culture’ as my understanding of organisational dynamics has evolved.”

According to Rebbitt, safety culture is more about awareness and commitment than anything else. It is not something you can see or measure. Today, it has become an overused phrase that has lost its original intent and meaning. No matter how well a safety culture is envisaged, Rebbitt argues, it cannot override the organisational culture. And expecting an organisation to act differently than it normally would or does when it comes to safety is not sustainable.

The article generated a flurry of debate when it was published on the Oil and Gas HSE Practitioners’ LinkedIn site. While a majority of the commentators disapproved of the view that safety culture was dead, a small group partly agreed with Rebbitt’s argument.

In an article titled ‘Why ‘safety cultures’ don’t work’, Andrew Hopkins, emeritus professor of Sociology at the Australian National University, argues that talking about instilling a safety culture is misguided, because it is based on a false assumption that if everyone thought differently then accidents wouldn’t happen. He argues that the focus needs to be on what people do as this is something leaders can control.

Returning to the conversations between the men in the train, I once again wonder if safety culture is really dead? Their view may be influenced by wider organisational factors such as job security, performance measurements, work recognition and team structure, as well as the difficulties involved in getting a job done. It could also have to do with their personal views on safety and perhaps the views of their managers and colleagues, and their commitment to safety and a level of safety competence.

An honest conversation between the management and the workers is required to understand the reality of the situation and, more importantly, to reduce the risk of future workplace injuries. Workers will have answers to questions on whether or not they see leaders acting with justice and fairness following an incident, whether they are active participants in the decision-making process or whether they feel they are just victims of meaningless compliance. The workers can contribute towards making a safety management system more practical and useful.

For three decades, Professor Dov Zohar, a leading safety researcher in Israel, has pioneered and led the research into safety climate. Reflecting on the past 30 years of academic research across the globe, Zohar has concluded that safety climate is a robust lead indicator and predictor of safety outcomes across different industries and countries.

A group of Nordic safety researchers, led by Pete Kines from the National Research Centre for the Working Environment in Copenhagen, has been working for a decade to gain a better understanding of the relationship between safety climate safety motivation, behaviours and performance. The group defines safety climate “as a workgroup’s members’ shared perceptions of management and workgroup safety-related policies, procedures and practices”.

Based on its work, here are some safety climate questions you could use to fuel a safety-improvement conversation:

● Do the managers in your workplace consistently demonstrate a clear and firm commitment to safety? ● Do they support you in being genuinely involved and owning safety within your team?

● When something goes pear-shaped do the managers act fairly and, when things go well, do you get recognition for your efforts?

● Do you and your fellow workers demonstrate more than lip service when it comes to being committed to safety?

● Do you and your colleagues manager well and not let the pressure of work or meeting deadlines compromise safety?

● Is safety learning communicated well across your workplace?

● Do you consider the existing safety management system in your workplace effective when it comes to keeping you and others safe?

Marc McLaren is the founder and managing director of Generative HSE – a team of skilled OHS professionals, specialising in safety culture development, climate diagnostics, leadership training and coaching, critical risk management and OHS system design and review. Marc was a speaker at the 2015 Safety in Action Brisbane conference.

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