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May 10, 2009

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Soft issue with a sharp edge

As a concept, safety culture is not new but safety culture management is. To do it effectively, say Rebecca Luther and Chris Lloyd, organisations must first understand the culture they currently have and then adopt a proactive approach to achieve the culture to which they aspire.

That organisations need to be far more proactive in shaping their safety culture if they want to control health and safety risk is something that safety and health practitioners have known for some time. Indeed, the focus on culture dates back at least as far as the investigations that followed the Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident in 19861 and intensified in the wake of subsequent industrial disasters, such as the Piper Alpha oil-platform explosion in 1988,2 the Ladbroke Grove rail crash in 1999,3 the Columbia Space Shuttle crash in 2003,4 and the BP refinery blast in Texas City in 2005.5

More recently, the minds of directors and senior managers were further concentrated by the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act, which came into force last year, and emphasises the importance of reinforcing safety policies and procedures by taking a proactive approach to developing attitudes in the boardroom, the workplace, and throughout the supply chain.6

However, while senior managers may recognise the importance of managing safety culture, they frequently struggle to describe the culture that they need, understand the culture that they have, and know how to bridge the gap between the two.
There are several potential reasons for this. For a start, there is currently no commonly-agreed definition or model of safety culture, either in industry or academia. Also, most safety-culture tools focus rather narrowly on staff perceptions of management systems, such as training and communications. Perhaps more importantly, there is a pervasive assumption that there is a ‘correct’ safety culture to which all organisations should aspire, regardless of their circumstances, or the environments in which they operate.

Organisations are not all expected to have the same culture, so why should they all be expected to have the same safety culture?

How can safety culture be managed?

Broadly speaking, safety culture is the shared values that determine how people think about and approach safety. Various efforts have been made to produce a more detailed definition, and one of the more recent involves a framework that distinguishes between three interrelated aspects of culture:7

  • Psychological — how staff feel about the culture (beliefs, attitudes, values and perceptions);
  • Behavioural or organisational — what staff do (safety-related activities, actions and behaviour);
  • Situational or corporate — what the organisation has (policies, procedures, management systems).

This framework covers the observable manifestations of a culture. As such, it provides information about what needs to be measured to understand an organisation’s existing safety culture and suggests things that might need to be altered to change it (attitudes, behaviour and systems).

We, the authors, have gone a step further and developed a Culture Management Model, which draws on published research and our own long experience of working with companies to improve their strategic safety management capabilities.8 Our aim was to clearly describe the relationships between safety culture, climate and staff performance, and identify the mechanisms that can be used to manage and develop all of these.

At the highest level, the model describes the logical relationships between an organisation’s cultural goals and aspirations (culture), staff attitudes and beliefs (climate), and observable effects (behaviour and performance). It also identifies four main culture-management mechanisms by which organisations can influence their culture:

  • Incentives;
  • Management commitment;
  • Management systems; and
  • Pressures.

The culture component of the model is further broken down into a series of culture types (e.g. authoritative versus participative). These were developed based on a large-scale review of relevant research, and also draw on our own safety culture work.9 Each culture-management mechanism is also broken down into a series of sub-mechanisms — e.g. influence, performance recognition, management visibility, work planning — which are factors that enable or inhibit employee performance.

The model can be thought of as a causal chain. People within an organisation create, consciously or unconsciously, a preferred culture for producing the behaviour and performance that will enable the organisation to achieve its goals. Managers try to embed the culture they think the organisation needs by motivating staff (incentives and management commitment). They also try to enable the culture they want through creating systems that support staff in behaving in the required manner (management systems), and by reducing or eliminating conflicting demands (pressures).

Key steps and tools

The first task in becoming proactive about safety culture management is to win the support of senior management. Safety culture has been much written and talked about in the last 20 years but safety culture management is a relatively new activity. All the same, there is plenty of evidence around to support the difference it can make. In particular, several studies have shown that effective safety culture management is positively related to good safety performance.10,11

The known relationship between culture management and safety performance suggests that organisations that adopt a proactive approach to managing safety culture should expect to see safety improvements. Research also suggests that proactive safety culture management can result in other, less tangible benefits, such as increased productivity and product quality, improved staff attitudes and morale, improved staff retention, and reduced absenteeism and sickness leave.12

Once the decision to manage safety culture has been made, the next step is to plan the process and identify appropriate tools. Our Culture Management Model shows the relationship between culture and staff behaviour and performance, and thereby provides the basis for culture management, or culture-change management activities.

As with any management process, it is essential that a structured, systematic approach is taken. This will ensure that appropriate goals for change are developed, the right people are consulted and involved, and improvement steps are clearly linked to goals and do not conflict with each other.

As stated at the beginning of this article, in order to manage safety culture, organisations need to define the culture that they need, understand the culture that they have, and develop a plan for culture management and development. To do so, a comprehensive toolkit is required.

In recent years, numerous safety-culture/climate-assessment tools have been developed. The majority of these are questionnaire-based and require respondents to comment on how safety is managed in their organisation. Used correctly, they ensure that views are gathered from across the organisation; reveal current staff perceptions on a range of issues; pinpoint things that staff feel need to be improved; and, if a maturity model is used, provide specific culture-improvement steps. However, they have the following limitations:

  • There is a presumption of one ‘correct’ safety culture;
  • Few are underpinned by a clearly-defined culture-management model;
  • Typically, they are focused on safety climate (staff attitudes towards management systems, such as training); and
  • Large numbers of questions and difficulties with distribution can result in low response rates.

An alternative tool we would propose is Organisational Safety Culture Analysis (OSCA). OSCA has four main stages:

  • Goals and aspirations workshop — The senior management team undertakes a structured exercise using the culture-type indicators discussed above to develop consensus on the organisation’s current safety culture, and the safety culture that the senior team wish to have. The outcomes of the workshop are used as a point of comparison with responses to the OSCA staff survey.
  • OSCA staff survey — All staff within the organisation complete a 43-statement, paper-based survey focusing on climate and the four culture-management mechanisms. The staff survey is simple to follow and quick to complete. Statements include: ‘site briefings and toolbox talks are always clear and explain the methods and controls we are using’ and ‘on a worksite, getting the work done is the only priority’. Demographic information and comments are also collected.
  • Organisational performance data — Available and relevant data (e.g. absenteeism or accident rates) are reviewed to help identify specific issues that the organisation is facing.
  • Improvements workshop — The data collected is reviewed and initial culture development recommendations are made and rated according to risk, feasibility, resource requirements, and value. At this stage, valuable information about current management systems and ongoing, or recent change initiatives is gathered.

The information collected during all four OSCA stages should highlight the following:

  • The gap between the safety culture the organisation has, and the culture to which it aspires;
  • How staff feel about how the organisation manages safety; 
  • How staff ratings of safety management compare to ratings given by staff in similar organisations;
  • Steps the organisation can take to develop the safety culture it wants.

Figure 2 (May issue) provides an example of OSCA outputs. It shows staff survey results for a hypothetical rail organisation and includes a comparison with OSCA rail benchmarks.

Conclusion

‘What kind of safety culture do we need?’ is a question facing all organisations but there is more than one right answer. Organisations need to decide what type of safety culture is right for them and adopt an approach that lays the foundation for proactive culture management. By doing so they are better able to set strategic safety goals, define a set of values for managing safety, and identify the actions required to move towards the culture they need.

Proactive culture management lays the foundations for more specific safety-related interventions, such as behavioural safety programmes. By embedding safety programmes within a safety culture management programme it is possible to ensure that they are aligned with strategic objectives and therefore provide value.     

Rebecca Luther and Chris Lloyd work for the CAS consultancy.

References

1    Lee, T (1998): ‘Assessment of safety culture at a nuclear reprocessing plant’, in Work and Stress, 12(3), pp217-237
2    Cullen, The Hon Lord (1990): The public inquiry into the Piper Alpha disaster, HMSO
3    Cullen, The Hon Lord (2001): Ladbroke Grove rail inquiry reports — Parts 1 and 2, HMSO
4    Columbia Accident Investigation Board (2003): Report — Volume 1, Government Printing Office, Washington DC
5    US Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board (2007): Refinery Explosion and Fire, BP Texas City, Texas, March 23 2005 — Investigation Report
6    ‘Good safety makes good business’, in Engineering Management, pp42-45, December/January 2007/08
7    Cooper, MD (2000): ‘Towards a model of safety culture’, in Safety Science, 36, pp111-136
8    Johnson, C (2008): ‘Organisational culture and effect sizes’, PSAM 9 International Conference on Probabilistic Safety Assessment and Management, 19-23 May 2008
9    Lee, T (1998): ‘Assessment of safety culture at a nuclear reprocessing plant,’ in Work and Stress, 12(3), pp217-237
10    Zacharatos, A, Barling, J and Iverson, RD (2005): ‘High-performance work systems and occupational safety’, in Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol 90, pp77-93
11    Clake, S (2006): ‘The relationship between safety climate and safety performance: A meta-analytic review’, in Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, Vol 11 (4), pp 315-327
12    Combs, J, Liu, Y, Hall, A and Ketchen, D (2006): ‘How much do high-performance work practices matter? A meta-analysis of their effects on organisational performance’, in Personnel Psychology 59, pp501-528

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