The concept of safety-culture emerged from the analysis of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident. Having delivered a severe political and social shock to Europe it was an imperative that the causes of this event were fully understood. Taking investigations beyond engineering failures brings into focus the performance of ‘the person’ managing, designing, constructing or operating hazardous facilities. This embraces the psychology of why people behave as they do in the workplace and how they interface with complex technology. In addition, the work environment’s social factors that shape people’s beliefs and attitudes towards safe operations become important. From the technical inquiries into the Chernobyl incident with a concentration on the ‘person dimension’, it emerged that inadequate organisational safety culture was a major contributor to the accident. Retrospectively, it was also considered a contributor towards many historic accidents where the root cause was not necessarily due to less than optimum engineering design or equipment failures, but people’s ‘poor’ human performance.
The inquiries suggested that the designers and operators ‘good’ safety beliefs, attitudes and behaviours act as additional accident barriers. The human performance element, safety-culture, in accident causation cannot be ignored. Safety culture emerged from the Chernobyl experience as a complex, psychological, human behavioural phenomenon that needed to be addressed.
The prevention of work-related injury and illness is of crucial importance to employees, industry and wider society. Corporate safety culture, which describes shared values within an organisation, which influence its members’ attitudes, values and beliefs in relation to safety, is now generally accepted as having a strong influence over workplace accidents and injuries. In recent years corporate safety culture has been cited as a contributory factor in accidents by many industrial accident investigations, and it is now generally accepted that organisations with a strong safety culture are more effective at preventing workplace accidents and injuries. A significant body of research has been undertaken on safety culture with the results showing that organisational safety culture was consistently and independently associated with corporate safety performance.
The costs associated with a poor safety culture, on an individual, organisational and national level, are huge. Preventing work-related illness and injury by having a strong and robust safety culture, is crucially important for employees, industry and society. It is widely accepted that human factors are the main contributory factor in accidents. This human element, of course, extends beyond those personally involved in an incident. It also incorporates all those who influence safety in that workplace, whether directly, consciously and immediately, or indirectly, unintentionally and perhaps with an extended time lag. Effective risk management is influenced by safety culture and therefore depends at least in part on the behaviour of all those individuals who are operating in a specific organisational context. Corporate culture describes shared values in an organisation which influence the attitudes and behaviour of its members, and safety culture describes the members’ attitudes, values and beliefs in relation to safety.
The ongoing rates of work-related injury and illness (WRII) provide evidence as to the constant challenge that work health and safety poses for Australian workers, business and the broader economy. The failure to control occupational hazards contributes to over half a million WRII each year, including more than 125 000 serious (sic) injury cases. These cases not only inflict varying levels of pain and suffering on workers but also impose a significant financial burden on workers, businesses and external stakeholders. Costs of WRII include: lost wages; medical treatment; compensation for pain and suffering; legal fees; fines and penalties; lost productivity; poor morale; and expenditures associated with retraining, recruitment and the hazard mitigation to prevent recurrence.
The human, social, financial and economic consequences of WRII underscore the importance of safety culture and its positive impact on safety performance and the effect a strong safety culture has with regard to the elimination and prevention of workplace injuries. When an organisation includes safety as a part of its culture, it becomes an entrenched value that is important at an individual and group level. “Safety culture” is the value and priority placed on safety across all levels within an organisation. It refers to the extent to which individuals commit to their personal safety (independence) and to safeguarding others (interdependence). Indeed, the presence of a safety culture is a meaningful predictor of safety performance behaviours, safety knowledge and safety motivation.
Shared safety-beliefs are fundamental to developing a ‘good’ organisational safety-culture and it is in generating and embedding beliefs where management’s influence is most valuable. Since organisations have different business objectives, have variable management skills and different levels of safety commitment, beliefs can vary. They can extend from the sound belief that ‘safety will be the organisation’s number one priority’ to a less viable belief that the organisation needs only ‘to just comply with safety law and no more’. In either case an important feature is that the adopted safety-beliefs arise at the hierarchy’s highest level, are learnt, impressed upon the staff and become shared. From these adopted beliefs arise the behaviours that may enhance organisational safety or, if the beliefs are inappropriate, be detrimental. Evidence indicates that the effectiveness of an organisational culture and its contribution to safety risk minimisation is dependent upon the senior management’s commitment to organisational safety as a business risk and encouraging ‘good’ shared safety-beliefs. Senior managers are the organisation’s safety-culture custodians and shapers. For a good safety-culture the whole organisation needs to be committed to shared safety-beliefs, values and support good safety-culture behavioural expectations.
At the end of this session, participants will be able to: (not limited to)
- Define safety culture.
- Identify the characteristics of a good safety culture.
- Explain the negative impacts of a poor safety culture.
- Identify the values associated with a good safety culture.
- Describe the effects a good safety culture has on an organisation.