Whose safety culture is it anyway?

Safety culture can be described as the constellation of shared values, attitudes and beliefs that influence health and safety practice in a workplace. But definitions and perspectives on safety culture abound to the point of hopeless confusion. The worst, in my opinion, are of the cheerleader variety – aimed at selling a system or a survey that purports to revolutionize your workplace.  My own perspective is rather more cynical – there are no magic bullets or quick fixes that work for everyone.  Often caught in the middle of management and workers, health and safety professionals must discover what works within the social environment of a specific organization.

Many prescriptions for achieving a good safety culture presume that top management is committed to and understands the concept.  This is far from reality in many workplaces.  Too often, management thinks that the responsibility for health and safety success rests with the OHS professionals themselves, who are expected to influence worker behavior in a milieu that tacitly communicates that health and safety is a low priority.

The Australian researcher Andrew Hopkins has consistently pointed out the contradictory views of safety culture that can lead to confusion and fruitless or, worse, harmful, interventions. He cautions against the “formulation …that … sees culture as a matter of individual attitudes – attitudes which can be cultivated at work, but which in the final analysis are characteristics of individuals, not the organisations to which they belong”.  Hopkins warns that such views “ignore the latent conditions which underlie every workplace accident, highlighting instead workers’ attitudes as the cause of accidents.”  As Hopkins point out,

“…, creating the right mindset among frontline workers is not a strategy which can be effective in dealing with hazards about which those workers have no knowledge and which can only be identified and controlled by management, using systematic hazard identification procedures. It is management culture rather than the culture of the workforce in general which is most relevant here. If culture is understood as mindset, what is required is a management mindset that every major hazard will be identified and controlled and a management commitment to make available whatever resources are necessary to ensure that the workplace is safe.”

In a provocative case study, Greg Walker of Lock Haven University describes a workplace where such management commitment was decidedly absent.  In the face of management abdication of responsibility, Walker concludes, workers will go ahead and create their own safety “counterculture”– in this case, one that is likely to give OHS professionals nightmares. (See  Walker, G.W., A safety counterculture challenge to a “safety climate”, Safety Science,  Volume 48, Issue 3, March 2010, pages 333-341) In a “pathological organization,” Walker says, “ workers as a group will socially construct danger, injury and safety for themselves”.

Walker also provides a compelling, if repellent, portrayal of worker attitudes to “Lonnie the Safety Man” – a figure we should all take to heart as the antithesis of a role model.

“At least once a month ‘‘Lonnie the safety man’ visits from the company headquarters to review what the blue-collar employees know about working around heavy machinery, in confined spaces with little oxygen and in dusty, explosive environments. But the blue-collar audience ridicules him and contradicts his messages at each opportunity.

How can we avoid becoming  “Lonnie the Safety Man” by being the mouthpiece of a hypocritical organization?   Most writing and speaking on motivating health and safety is aimed at only at the workforce.  But what can OHS professionals do when they work in real-life organizations where the management mindset on health and safety is less than ideal?  These are questions I’d like to explore further and get ideas from people who grapple with this dilemma every day. I would start by suggesting that our approach to motivating and influencing must be bi-directional – aimed at both management and the workforce.  And the tactics we use may be different for these different audiences.  In a previous post, I looked at the issue of motivating management. I will be speaking again on this subject at AIHce in June of this year and would love to meet anyone who wants to discuss.

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