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Twelve features of an effective health and safety culture.

Damien Wallis Our voice on Occupational Health and Safety View profile

For many years, organisations have struggled with the notion of implementing and achieving a ‘good safety culture’. So, what does this mean? Why does the word ‘culture’ appear in the new ISO 45001:2018 standard?

For many years, organisations have struggled with the notion of implementing and achieving a ‘good safety culture’. So, what does this mean? Why does the word ‘culture’ appear in the new ISO 45001:2018 standard? As assessors, what tangible and auditable evidence can we use to determine whether an organisation is implementing effective processes aimed at improving workplace safety culture?

Workplace culture refers to the way things are done at a workplace including shared language and what is important to the managers and employees. Rather than referring to the company’s specific safety policy and programme, the concept of safety culture is encapsulated by the mindsets, attitudes, and behaviours of workers, supervisors, managers, and owners towards safety in the workplace. A positive safety culture in the workplace is a vital part of a successful and effective health and safety programme.

Importance of culture

There are endless truisms about the importance of company culture — so many, that the idea of a strong culture has become a cliché. We often just nod our heads and move on. But it matters.

Many of our certified organisations already have good OHS management systems, high levels of OHS training, the best equipment and effective monitoring processes. Despite this, safety incidents continue to occur.

Trend analysis within these organisations often identifies similar root causes – often with poor safety culture at the core.

For example, people

  • not adhering to established safe methods of work or taking short cuts
  • not being fully aware of the risks involved with certain job tasks
  • not reporting hazards (both physical and procedural – i.e. each time a safe work method is not followed or is deviated from)
  • experiencing a disconnect between staff and management
ISO 45001 and culture

A good OHS management system can only help to provide a platform for the organisation to manage safety. For an effective and safe workplace, the organisation must also focus on improving the safety culture.

ISO 45001 recognises this, and for the first time the use of the word ‘culture’ is now included in section five of the standard as an expectation of leadership.

ISO 45001:2018
  • Clause 5.1 (j) – (Leadership are responsible for….) developing, leading and promoting a culture in the organization that supports the intended outcomes of the OH&S management system
  • 10.3 Continual improvement – The organization shall continually improve the suitability, adequacy and effectiveness of the OH&S management system, by… b) promoting a culture that supports an OH&S management system

12 indicators of a good safety culture

1. Safety values

Companies with effective safety cultures always have well established and communicated company safety values, which are regularly and consistently promoted by senior management.

2. Engagement

Senior management leadership tours, visits, employee engagement conversations and Behavioural Based Safety (BBS) programmes. BBS has long been recognised as a critical component to any safety management system. These are programmes that monitor adherence to established safe methods of work (SOPs) and employee behaviour in the workplace. Supervision by management is also a key component of Health & Safety legislation and so integrating a BBS makes good sense from a legal perspective.

  • Evidence of the management team performing safety interactions and observations of staff performing works is required. Some organisations will have a formal task/behaviour observation KPI for supervisors and managers to meet to assist with demonstrating adequate supervision, as required under legislation.
  • A good task observation process, if properly implemented, is used as a positive reinforcement process rather than additional policing of the staff’s behaviour. It can be used to discuss concerns that employees have about the workplace, procedures, hazards and for management to better understand the issues employees are facing. Positive reinforcement of employee behaviour should be the goal of such a programme.
  • Provision of regular and consistent positive affirmation and reinforcement of ‘good safety practices and attitudes’ is key. Leaders can then seek and use feedback obtained from consultations, ‘walk arounds’, collaborative decision making, self-reflection to improve processes.

Safety culture surveys are also regularly conducted with strategic management plans and actions identified following such surveys, aimed at improving the disconnect between staff and management and improving employee job satisfaction, are also a regular trait of organisations implementing effective safety cultures.

3. High levels of hazard reporting

This indicator alone stands out as one of the strongest indicators of an effective safety culture. High levels of hazard reporting indicate that employees believe in the safety system in place and that management will take appropriate action. It generally only occurs when employees are highly trained in OHS hazard identification and the importance of identifying them before an incident occurs. ISO 45001 recognises this with the requirement for management to ‘remove any obstacles’ to an effective hazard reporting system, such as difficult IT systems, lack of feedback regarding the progress of associated corrective actions etc. A positive safety culture is easier to build and maintain when employees feel comfortable reporting concerns, believe that the reporting process is positive and see improvement outcomes.


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