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How do you develop a safe culture? And how do you know you are going in the right direction?

In the first article of this series, Russell Keir (pictured left), Vice Chair of the IOSH Railway Group and the RSSB’s Paul Leach (pictured right) looked at what is safety culture. They considered different models to describe a safe culture, and the component parts that make up a safety culture. This article focuses on developing a such a culture and discusses some specific factors that can influence success.

What’s my safety vision?

The safety vision is the real starting point for developing a safe culture. The vision sets out the rationale for developing a safe culture and the desired end state in terms of systems, people and safety outcomes. It allows you to think about and articulate what safety means for your organisation, what aspect(s) of safety you are going to focus on and what a safe culture should look like for your organisation to improve safety outcomes.

There are different areas of health, safety and wellbeing that can be addressed through culture, such as occupational health and safety, operational safety, product safety and process safety. Having a combined Health, Safety, Environmental and Quality (HSEQ) function can encompass a culture of positive health and wellbeing together with an environmental safety culture. Of course, this can make it hard to know where to begin and which area(s) to focus on. Do you tackle all the above within one culture programme? Alternatively, do you focus on just one area? If so, then you also need to think of the impact on the others.

Although the specific risk management strategies for each area is different, the approach to developing a positive culture within each one is likely to focus fundamentally on the same things:

  • What is the risk?
  • Why is it important?
  • How do the behaviours, beliefs, actions and attitudes of employees positively or negatively affect the management of the risk?
  • How do existing organisational systems shape and influence the beliefs, actions, behaviours and attitudes of employees?

Let’s take occupational health and safety (OHS) vs product safety culture (PSC). Both can present risk to organisations as a failure in these areas can result in harm, either from doing the work (OHS) or from a malfunction or failure of product (in the case of rail this could be a critical system on a train). Both use specific risk management strategies to manage the risk, yet these are still affected by similar aspects associated with a safe culture such as leadership, learning from positive and negative events, developing skills and knowledge, willingness to question and challenge, perceptions of the risk and how effective people believe the risk control measures are. The organisational aspects are likely to cover risk assessment, process and procedures, reporting and investigation systems and the management of change.

Risk can often be a good starting point for any culture programme. For example:

  • What risk(s) is my organisation looking to control?
  • Why is it important they are controlled?
  • What impact will behaviour, beliefs, actions and attitudes of employees have?
  • And, most importantly, what systems, behaviours and attitudes do I need to develop to better manage the risk?

This thinking can help to identify which areas of safety can be addressed within a culture programme. It can also be used to develop the safety vision to facilitate culture development.

To assess or not to assess?

Assessment helps an organisation understand and reflect on their culture. It can help shine a light on positive aspects of culture and those less positive aspects. It can allow an organisation to start a conversation with their workforce on what culture looks like. What do staff think the organisation values and expects from them? What do people believe the safety risks are to the organisation? What behaviours should people be demonstrating? And, what if anything, needs to change or be developed for this to happen?

However, you don’t always need an assessment to be able to identify issues with culture. For example:

  • If your incident investigation reports focus very heavily on what the front line member of staff did wrong and the discipline procedure is often utilised when someone has an incident, you don’t really need a culture survey to tell you that you may have more of a blame culture than a just and fair one.
  • If your managers and senior managers do not fully understand the safety risks facing their business, or are not aware or not provided with all the necessary safety data to make effective strategic safety decisions, you do not need a survey to tell you that you may not be fostering an informed culture that will facilitate effective safety decision making across the business.

Assessing culture is helpful but not essential for developing culture. Having a clear safety vision and understanding the risks you wish to manage through culture can help determine if an assessment is needed or if there is enough information in the business already to help understand the problem and start to develop a plan of action.

Culture surveys will often tell you what people believe or feel, which is important, but the additional data needed to understand safety culture will come from within the organisation. Be it incident and accident reports, safety Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), audits of the safety management system, site observations and walk throughs, hazard and incident reporting levels, competence assessments, rectification and close out of asset maintenance activity, product and process failures and of course near misses, operational and safety related incidents.

What does culture development look like anyway?

There can be a perception that developing culture requires a large-scale programme of activity that encompasses many aspects of the organisation, from top management down to front line staff. Of course, there is nothing wrong with these types of programmes – the big bang, high visibility approach can stimulate culture change through an organisation, helping to change the way an organisation operates and improving resilience to manage future change and emerging risk.

However, this perception can also put people off. The sheer scale can mean that organisations become reluctant to think about safety culture and the topic is moved to the ‘too difficult basket, not cost efficient or let’s keep it on hold file’.

Another view is that any intervention that helps to change or influence the attitudes and behaviours of staff is culture development. For example, if you change your incident investigation process to include a much more detailed analysis of human factors, you are helping to gradually change attitudes and behaviours. This could be attitudes and beliefs around why people make mistakes and how you should deal with people who make mistakes.

You may well start to see changes in behaviour. For example, managers don’t look to blame the individuals for an error but instead look to see why that error occurred, and staff become more open and report more human factors issues in the workplace that are affecting their performance. Leaders may start to focus more on how the organisation can improve rather than how staff should improve. Increased human factors data generated from incident investigation can also facilitate a more informed culture, with leaders using richer data to make strategic safety decisions.

This can help to make culture development more digestible to senior leaders but can run the risk that you end up with a range of smaller uncoordinated set of activities.

Before embarking on culture development, it can worth thinking about which approach to take. Do you want the big bang or a smaller set of activities? Or something in-between? It is worth asking, to find out what your company is ready for. Also consider what would your leaders sign up to? What would your staff sign up to? Is culture development already taking place and can you build on that?

 

This article was first featured in the September 2021 edition of Rail Professional magazine.