October 7, 2014

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We need to get a safety culture? You’re missing the point

Organisations talk about needing to get a safety culture. I hear this all the time. But it’s a misleading statement – it simultaneously misses the point and inadvertently makes one.

Every organisation has a culture. The real question is: how strong is the safety part?

This is a tricky – but not impossible – thing to measure directly. Assessment, however, is relatively easy, if you can pick up on what I call the ‘cultural clues’ that are all around us.

While a lot of cultural clues come from physical objects (artefacts) and behaviours (documented procedures, custom and practice), there’s a whole raft of clues that come from the language we use to express ideas and talk about safety.

So in the case of: ‘we need to get a safety culture’, there’s a hypothesis forming immediately about the speaker and their organisation. The speaker knows there is an issue, wants to address it but hasn’t yet picked up some of the nuances of the subject. Of course that needs testing further, opinions without data are simply prejudice.

Here are a couple of simple questions you could use to help you form a hypothesis about the strength of your current safety culture.

Who starts conversations about safety?

If, more often than not, it’s a safety professional, that may well indicate that the safety culture is less developed than the production culture.

When do conversations about safety generally happen?

Is it when things are going right or is it after things have gone wrong? The latter is a strong indicator of a reactive level of safety culture. A truly proactive culture needs to be looking to the future far more often than it looks to the past.

Is the tone of safety communications more often positive or negative?

More negative than positive language about safety indicates a perception problem at the very least. As with anything negative, it’s a driver for avoidance behaviour. Start with your safety policy – count the positive and negative words and see which is most often used. It’s a good starting point.

These questions provide a quick and dirty diagnosis tool for businesses to apply as a first step. If all the indicators are pointing to a problem then I’d suggest you need to get a better safety culture.

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Thanks for providing these questions. Fortunately the indicators aren’t pointing to a problem