Building an outstanding safety culture – a different approach

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It is possible to build a safety culture that combines the common and extended safety compliance ideas with an approach that invites, encourages, guides and favours face-to-face communication.

I was recently asked to complete a questionnaire about health and safety performance in my organisation, and being a multinational company with high regard for health and safety,

I was very keen to do so. It contained a set of 13 questions about how safety was managed. Just starting the questionnaire it struck me that most of the questions were difficult to answer, not because they were intellectually challenging, but because they were built around topics that had long been left behind in our thinking about safety performance.

In the survey, safety performance was equated with accidents – serious accidents, recordable accidents, minor accidents – with considerable emphasis on their validity definition.

This eye opener begged the question: can we discuss and also construct a safety culture without referring to a background of accident avoidance and frequency and severity rates?

In most of the health and safety discussions the end rationale is always the avoidance of hazard, which can lead to accidents, harm or any other potential risk. Sometimes the discussion leans towards a nice and well-ordered organisation, but only as a side effect and almost never as the underlying rationale for fostering a safety culture.

My experience is within a diversified multinational organisation in the building materials industry, with hundreds of locations in several European countries, where the teams work around the clock to deliver goods and services to customers. Safety is a key priority and the reduction of accidents to zero is the aim. This approach has proven successful and it has an effect in a number of other businesses issues and activities.

However, the way this is done is what makes the difference; you do not necessarily have to focus on accident/risk reduction to obtain outstanding results in health and safety. Two drivers underpin this ‘different’ approach:

  • The way things are done: over the years, we noticed that those locations that managed to keep away from accidents for a long time had something that was markedly different from the average locations that occasionally had an accident. In those locations there is a higher sense of awareness and attention in the employees’s behavoir
  • Thrust: there is a concern that people should not be hampered in their work, but instead be motivated when it comes to initiatives from the headquarters, whether safety related or not.

From these premises, the question is how do you bring colaboration to a much decentralised organisational culture without using the typical ‘push’ of business strategy? In the contemporary business thinking the emphasis is on adding value to the product or service more than increasing volume.

All organisations that deal with multiple locations face the fact that some of them are very successful in preventing accidents – not only for a brief period of time, but in some cases for years – while others are not. The risks on the shopfloor are always different for different businesses. Even within the same industry, no two plants ever have the same mix of hazards and risks. This is very obvious for retail organisations, where the perceived risk factor often seems low and locations have small teams, but this is not necessarily factual. This can also be the case in industrial settings with larger teams, often irrespective of the business. It has to do with other variables that influence the likelihood of accidents.

How is this perceived and ‘lived’ at the location level? The locations naturally develop a routine to comply with the demands from corporate safety programmes or key performance indicators, but the routine might bring complacency and, in the best case, it can bring these organisations to a status quo, where protecting employees from harm is paramount. However ethical this in itself is, it doesn’t stop here and there is still more to gain.

Many will agree that a workplace’s enthusiasm and dynamism about health and safety is reflected in other aspects of the business, such as:

  • A site that is well kept and the processes have a sense of order
  • Employees are disciplined
  • People are inspired about something, and, tangibly, this pervades everyday jobs
  • Alertness to what is going around in the workplace
  • The sense of belonging to a common goal and, as such, belonging to a common team spirit
  • An overflow from the local safety culture to an interest in talking about it and radiating it to the outside community.

These aspects are highly desirable values and also favoured by corporate initiatives. Less often though, they are considered the mere benefits arising from a deepened approach to health and safety.

Thrust, the other driver, is entirely consistent with the way things are done, the first driver. Thrust is related to the way a contemporary workplace optimise jobs as far as possible – whether financially driven or not.

A lot of job tasks demand, more than ever before, skilful employees in an automated surrounding. This automation could be a robot, but also automated processes and a supply chain that is often outsourced. In keeping the core competences within the workplace we generate a highly demanding, but also hopefully satisfying environment for the employees who feel part of it. A part of that satisfaction lies in the freedom to have one’s own control measures; top down control is left behind or at least replaced by self-control.

With this approach employees who become highly regarded and trained will deliver superior value to the workplace and its services or products. Motivation, acceptance of independence, trust and open communication become even more vital for employee’s engagement with the company. Often this philosophy of work is subtle and barely noticed; often it is clearly stated and everybody knows that this is the way the company wants things done.

The challenge is to keep employees inspired and groups of employees working as a team. A modern health and safety approach will follow this path; it will give independence and control to the teams and to the individuals to generate their own safety culture, one in which the feeling of pride is key.

How to achieve the corporate goals of creating a safe workplace and at the same time combine the other interests of the business, like generating profit, gaining market share, having brand dominance and the like?

The only reasonable conclusion is to combine both approaches, i.e. transforming the ‘basic’ activities of health and safety such as procedures setting, workplace instructions, audits, check lists and other compliance ideas with an approach that invites, encourages, guides, favours face-to–face communication and promotes passion for work.

This is the philosophy behind a ‘new school’ approach; the ‘old school’ thinking is linear, top down, specialised, with psychological distance and well-controlled bias, generally justified as higher levels in the organisation need the information.

Health and safety has many dimensions, from the technical to the behavioural, but outstanding health and safety combines classic safety excellence with the notion of how the business sees added value to its services or products.

From a business point of view it makes sense that health and safety influences order and cleanliness, processes, team spirit and bottom-line profit. For a location team it makes sense, as they experience a refreshing or newly-found pride in what they are doing. When this philosophy makes sense for all aspects of the business, not only for H&S alone, this approach is for the longer term.

What about frequency and severity rates and the link to accidents? The drive for an outstanding safety culture has had a very beneficial effect on very low frequency rates as well. Through outstanding safety cultures organisations ensure a lot of detailed attention is given by as many employees as possible to let locations shine. This approach does not do away with classic safety approaches but it supports a dynamic and vibrant workplace that uses health and safety to do what the stakeholders ask for.

Jozef Van Ballaer is director HSE for CRH Europe Distribution



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