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March 2, 2015

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The impact of a negative safety culture can have fatal consequences

By Andrew Gordon

Health and safety should be top of the agenda for organisations, considering that the wellbeing of staff and the reputation of the company are at stake. However, research findings from a YouGov survey [1] conducted on behalf of Seton show that health and safety is not always prioritised, and that a high proportion of accidents at work could have been avoided if recommended health and safety assessments and procedures had been implemented.

HSE report that in 2013/2014, 133 workers were fatally injured and the construction industry accounted for 42 per cent of these fatalities. [2] Close to 30 million days were lost due to work-related ill health or injury; fines totalled £18 million; and there was an estimated cost of £14.2 billion to Britain overall. I strongly believe that the cost of prevention is significantly less than the cost of dealing with the consequences of inadequate health and safety measures at an individual, organisational and societal level.

The YouGov survey revealed that 59 per cent of construction workers believe that their health and safety needs are not fully met by their current employer. Stephen Thomas, health and safety technical consultant at Croner Solutions (a leading business consultancy in the health and safety industry) reminds employees that health and safety is their responsibility too: “They have legal duties themselves to report health and safety issues. The employer should be consulting with the employee on safety issues with both parties arriving at a mutual solution.”

It really concerns me that 31 per cent of employers in the construction industry said that an accident at work could have been avoided with improved health and safety practices. Considering this industry is so high risk, it is vital that senior managers start to move health and safety to the top of the agenda. So why are some organisations still not up to scratch?

62 per cent of senior decision makers admitted that there are a number of barriers preventing them from investing more in health and safety, and the lack of a healthy safety culture seems to be a key obstacle. 20 per cent of employers surveyed believed that there is too much bureaucracy involved, an attitude particularly prevalent in construction, and 13 per cent of employers stated that employees are often resistant to following health and safety procedures.

However, arguably the most shocking finding is that 21 per cent of senior decision makers said health and safety is not that important in their industry! 10 per cent of construction employers held this belief despite the fact that the construction industry accounted for nearly half of all workplace fatalities last year.

A Seton customer survey conducted in 2013 uncovered that in some organisations there is a culture of non-compliance amongst operators – a problem raised by 36 per cent of customers. [3] Respondents said that some operators can be very complacent and believe that an accident is unlikely to happen to them, or even that wearing the correct personal protective equipment damages their image at work. These research findings provide support for the theory that attitudes towards safety may be a key issue preventing best practice.

Stephen is not overly surprised by these findings: “It’s the perception that health and safety is a burden rather than a benefit to the business.” In order to improve health and safety it seems that a fundamental shift in attitude is necessary. Stephen believes that health and safety “should really be a core business issue so if you build it in right from the ground floor then the business will reap the rewards”. Improving practice cannot only increase safety but may also improve processes making the business more efficient.

The benefits of a more positive safety culture are clear, and the consequences of a negative safety culture can be fatal. At SHP Online, Paul Bizzell recognises the impact of safety culture at work and recommends that organisations evaluate their own culture in order to understand whether it is having a positive impact on the business and how it can be improved. [4] In line with this, Seton urges health and safety decision makers to keep a couple of questions top of mind when planning for the year ahead: How can I ensure our safety culture is a positive one that benefits the business? And, ultimately, what is more important than the lives of people in the workplace?

Andrew Gordon is industry manager at Seton UK


[1] YouGov Survey 2014. All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. For the Consumer study the total sample size was 2413 adults of which 1376 were workers. Fieldwork was undertaken between 4-7 April 2014. For the Business study the total sample was 525 small and medium senior decision makers excluding sole traders. The surveys were carried out online. The Consumer figures have been weighted and are representative of all UK adults (aged 18+) and the Business figures have been weighted and are representative of company size (aged 18+).

[2] Health and Safety Statistics 2013 / 2014, Health and Safety Executive

[3] Hearing Protection Survey (2013) conducted by Seton UK with 106 respondents were from Construction, Education, Manufacturing and Facilities Management sectors.


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9 years ago

Great piece, I am very familiar with the situation and not just in the UK internationally you will find a similar picture. The core issue as I see it is the fact that HSE is still seen as something separate. As something you are doing extra or additionally to your work. Because of this, contractors do not properly plan and then submit proper proposals at the tendering stage. As well as this you will have people in charge that have the same way of thinking. Senior managers involved in the planning and tendering process need to account for Health and… Read more »