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Culture - Safety, Organisational or other…

Posted by Richard Forster on 7 December 2021

Safety culture, or its derivatives such as “Health and safety culture”, “Culture of safety” or even “Organisational culture” is much discussed and written about in safety circles and often appears to be both the problem and the solution.

One of the issues is that there is no agreed definition on what is ‘’safety culture’’

Here is a definition from 1993 from the ACSNI Human Factors Study Group: Third report - Organising for safety (HSE Books)

“The safety culture of an organisation is the product of individual and group values, attitudes, perceptions, competencies, and patterns of behaviour that determine the commitment to, and the style and proficiency of, an organisation’s health and safety management.”’

Other definitions might range from the simplistic

“The way we do things round here” – source Health and Safety Executive (UK)

Or the thought provoking

“Safety culture embodies the value placed on safety and the extent to which people take personal responsibility for safety in an organisation. Safety culture is often described as the 'personality' of an organisation, as it is a shared value of safety.” – source Work Health and Safety Queensland

This definition is elaborated on by the further explanation that

“Safety culture is just one aspect of an organisation's broader culture. Culture forms naturally wherever there are groups of people working together to achieve a common goal.”

 Finally, to a more complex description as stated below

“A culture that supports an organization’s OH&S management system is largely determined by top management and is the product of individual and group values, attitudes, managerial practices, perceptions, competencies and patterns of activities that determine the commitment to, and the style and proficiency of, its OH&S management system. It is characterized by, but not limited to, active participation of workers, cooperation and communications founded on mutual trust, shared perceptions of the importance of the OH&S management system by active involvement in detection of OH&S opportunities and confidence in the effectiveness of preventive and protective measures. An important way top management demonstrates leadership is by encouraging workers to report incidents, hazards, risks and opportunities and by protecting workers against reprisals, such as the threat of dismissal or disciplinary action, when they do so”

The above is taken from Annexure A (Informative) from ISO 45001: OHSMS – Requirements with guidance for use. Obviously, this is a key document in health and safety management as it is part of a global standard and was put together after literally years of consultation and drafting. Notice that its description talks in terms of culture and not safety culture. ISO 45001 in fact contains the phrases “culture” and “health and safety culture” but defines neither. Are they the same? How do they differ (if at all)? How do you audit culture? The latter is perhaps the most important question. Those that try to explain or audit culture inevitably come face to face with the concept of “safety climate” another concept that poses similar questions – what is it and how or does it differ from safety culture?

If health and safety culture is indeed a thing then what is it? If it can influence and improve intended outcomes of the OHSMS for the common good then how it is to be measured and manipulated? These are sensible questions which remain unanswered. The debate continues and is now focussing on safe work practices. That is, what is actually done in the workplace rather than what it is envisaged is being done, a reality check if you will. Safe work practices include the management practices that shape or should shape how the work is being done.

If you want to act and do safety differently then it may be timely to move away from the silver bullet of “culture” and discuss the following with your team(s)

•       Accepting people as the solution and not the problem

•       Accepting of people as complex then empowering them

•       Focusing on a clear and shared picture of risk and how it is controlled

•       Enabling and supporting ongoing learning

•       Decluttering paperwork, simplifying systems, standards and processes that support the control of risk

•       Trialling new ideas with less prescriptive requirements that provide more freedom to innovate, backed up by a greater emphasis on the review process

•       Institutionalising and monitoring a reporting system that challenges endless good news and rewards bad news

•       Maintaining excellent standards of housekeeping

•       Providing the right resources

•       CEO and senior management making decisions in favour of safety

•       Leaders and management engaging in conversations on continually improving and leading from the top

•       Setting clear expectations and accountability

Call it what you want, safety culture, teamwork or safe work practices etc, if it works, does it matter what you call it?



Author:Richard Forster


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