Cultivating an environment of safety is more than setting it out in a policy, it’s about being part of the conversation of the workplace, says John Davidge

HAD I talked to my father years ago about ‘culture’, as a keen grower of tomatoes he would have automatically assumed that I was at last starting to develop an interest in his hobby that was so dear to him. ‘Culture’ would have stimulated thoughts about how he focused so closely on creating the perfect environment for growing the best plants and the best yield of tomatoes from his greenhouse. He tried to control as far as possible all the necessary aspects for optimum results – good soil, further enhanced by the addition of quality nutrients, a careful understanding of the bugs and diseases that could affect tomato crops so that he could prevent or minimise those negative effects and optimise humidity and watering at the right time. My interest was limited to enjoying the results of his enthusiasm – and not surprisingly what we now buy at the supermarket bears very little resemblance taste-wise, to his output. It certainly underlines the old adage that ‘all that glitters is not gold’.

There’s a much wider meaning to ‘culture’ though, which often varies according to the subject area in consideration. For some, it describes an interest in music and the arts, or the degree of nightlife or facilities available in a certain area. Equally scientists or biologists might see this as a description of what they might grow in a petri dish. One dictionary definition of ‘culture’ is “a way of life of a group of people – the behaviours, beliefs, values, and symbols that they accept, generally without thinking about them, and that are passed along by communication and imitation from one generation to the next”.

In the field of safety, ‘culture’ is a term that is often not appreciated or understood by too many people and by some companies, but that latter definition is very appropriate. Far-sighted organisations have wisely invested the time to develop that ‘way of life’ whereby safety is considered by all staff as an important and inbred standard; clearly they have recognised that while that ‘way of life’ takes time, money and effort to develop, in the longer term it pays off. It typically involves careful examination (and re-examination – like the greenhouse) of the ‘status quo’ at both a macro and a micro level to identify ‘good’ and ‘not-so-good’. Regrettably some of the most ardent converts to this culture are those who have experienced a catastrophe and are keen not to repeat those experiences. Much of the safety standards we see in the oil and petrochemical industries originated that way.

Around 150 people annually die in UK workplaces, and this figure has fallen dramatically over the past 40 or so years as the Health & Safety at Work Act has changed the ‘culture’ of many of our workplaces. It is not that long ago that hard hats and high-conspicuity clothing were unknown; these days they are the norm in most places (though there are still some sectors of industry and some levels of the workforce where it remains ‘work-in-progress’).

Currently four times as many deaths (around 600 annually) occur on UK roads where somebody involved was driving on business at the time. Here too the culture is changing – but lagging behind in too many organisations, or has some way to go to reach the ‘optimum results’. A senior management team may have set out to develop a sound safety culture where every aspect of driving risk is carefully considered and controlled to achieve the ‘optimum’. However at lower levels in the organisation, some drivers, supervisors and low to middle level managers produce a virus-like effect with attitudes like “don’t worry about that, just get the damned parcels delivered” or “ just get the pipe in the ground”, because the safety focus is tarnished by performance targets that deal only with the in-bound financial results.

Just like the greenhouse, in such situations the negative effects of that virus are not seen until it has decimated the tomato crop or wiped out all of the good financial achievements with a high collision frequency, hidden costs and repair costs that keep mounting until the fateful day when insurers decline to renew insurance, or a major collision results in huge costs and unquantifiable but disastrous negative publicity after a Crown Court case has been reported in the papers, impacting adversely on future tenders for some time. My father clearly understood the implications of ‘prevention rather than cure’ and careful control of the ‘culture’ within his greenhouse to achieve the optimum climate, giving optimum results.

In this respect, ‘culture’ could be described as ‘the sum of all the conversations that occur within your organisation’. Discussions around the boardroom table may all be positive and well targeted – but to what degree are they matched by the downward conversations to lower grades? Is the message diluted or distorted as in the old ‘chinese whispers’ party game? What are the discussions on the same subjects in the drivers’ canteen, or at quarterly sales meetings (in some cases, do those subjects even get mentioned in the first place?). A sound and carefully considered health a safety policy is a starting point to define clear expectations for all staff to follow, but won’t work effectively unless fully understood and implemented by all.

What is the safety climate within your organisation? Do you know what the internal ‘conversations’ are? Is everybody speaking equivocally – with ‘one voice’?

Measuring your safety climate is one way in which you can start identifying and assessing the conversations in the workplace and there are many brilliant tools out there for companies to use. These tools aim at encouraging staff at all levels of the organisation to be involved and contribute, feeding back information in such a way that there is a clear output about your ‘safety climate’. As with other areas of business, if you don’t know where you stand, how will you know which direction to take in the future?

And as with all safety related matters, every step forward is one more step that minimises the risks of incidents and prosecutions.

This article appeared in the Summer issue of Connect magazine, our magazine for risk professionals. Covering fleet, ergonomics, property, insurance and health and safety, it’s jam-packed with insight and expertise. Download your free copy here.

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