Recently a safety professional told me he was investigating an incident on a work site and asked his first question “What do you think caused the incident?” The response was “safety culture”. Of course the next question will always be “what do you mean by safety culture?” and in most cases at this point the investigation will stall.

iStock_000023283219XSmallAll workplaces have a safety culture, it is just that most are dysfunctional or immature. In many workplaces, incident causes are handballed to this poorly understood concept of which most take as the latest iteration of “an act of God” or an SEP – “someone else’s problem”.

Safety regulators need to break the use of safety culture as an excuse by developing codes of practice on how to introduce and build an effective safety culture in Australian workplaces.

Since the 1970s, occupational health and safety (OHS) have always included vague terms that have relied on case-law and legal interpretation. The most prominent was ” a safe system of work”. In 2000 at the Safety In Action Conference, Michael Clark stated that

“Increasingly a ‘safe system of work” has implied the implementation and maintenance of formally documented management systems.”

Michael Tooma, in a similar conference paper in 2001, refers to prosecutions stemming from not following a documented “safe system of work”, but a safe system of work was always more than a documented safety management system or accreditation to SafetyMAP or AS1401. A “safe system of work” was intended to be a safety culture before the term “safety culture” was coined. A safe system of work was always about the way work was done. Documentation went some way to displaying this but, as Tooma and many others have pointed out, documentation without implementation is not safety. In fact, such a situation increases the risk of incidents occurring because documentation cab create a false sense of security and compliance.

Around 2001, some legal advisers had begun to understand the breadth of the “safe system of work”. The National Children’s and Youth Law Centre (NCYLC) issued a factsheet on the legal consequences of workplace violence. That document stated:

“Employers are also under a legal obligation to provide a safe system of work, and this includes making sure that all employees behave themselves on the job. If an employer knows that some employees are misbehaving or skylarking, but does nothing to stop this, then the employer will be liable if another employee is hurt.”

The NCYLC brings the safe system of work to a more moral basis, similar to the duty of care. Indeed, it could be argued that the safe system of work is the duty of care for those jurisdictions that had not already brought the duty of care formally into their workplace safety laws.

Cover of SA OHS HandbookIn 2002 the Workcover Corporation in South Australia produced a Workplace Health and Safety Handbook in which it defines a safe system of work:

“A safe system of work is the total set of methods adopted for carrying out the operations required in a particular workplace. They cover all aspects of the employment situation including the organisation of work processes, the methods of using machinery, plant and equipment, the methods of hiring labour, job training, instruction and supervision about associated hazards and their management, and what to do when things go wrong.” [emphasis added]

The breadth of the application of the safe system of work, its potential for application and the challenge it presents, is clear.

Around the same time as many of these discussions of safe systems of work were appearing in magazines, guidances and conference papers in Australia, Dominic Cooper‘s work on safety culture also began to appear. “Improving Safety Culture: A Practical Guide” was published in 1998 (a 2001 edition is available online). Cooper’s book could be seen as a major catalyst to the popularity of the safety culture concept but in the 2001 preface Cooper acknowledges the immature discussion of the concept in workplace safety. On page iv, Cooper writes

“It is also true to say that many people who work in the field of safety do not really know what a ‘safety culture’ is. Perhaps this is not surprising given that, with very few exceptions, many of us who write or talk about safety culture tend to wave the phrase around like a well worn slogan that is passed its sell-by date. Recent writings, for example, have berated successful real-life attempts to improve safety, and have then gone on to say that what is needed is a ‘Safety Culture’. Not only does this create the impression that a safety culture can be pulled out of thin air or poured from a packet of cornflakes, but it also creates obvious difficulties for busy managers.”

This is the crux of the problem with safety culture. People believe that changing the values of an organisation to truly achieve OHS legislative compliance and a safe workplace is easy and quick. Justice McInerney estimated that the New South Wales rail industry could achieve cultural change in three to five years after his 2001 inquiry (page 53) into the Glenbrook Rail Accident.

The concept is difficult to condense into a single definition and, when it is defined, it is often too vague to be practical. An example of the difficulty to define can be seen in this attempt by WorkSafe WA in a 2007 newsletter.

It is significant that Safe Work Australia is not addressing safety culture through a specific model code of practice. The National OHS Strategy 2012-22 gives culture and leadership a considerable role but there is little information on what this means at the workplace.

Pages from 2i21In 2001 at a UK conference on “corporate killing”, Sir Ken Purvis, as reported in safetyATWORK magazine ( Vol 2 Issue 21, August 7. 2001 ), said this about safety culture:

“I explained that a whole new approach to health and safety, based
on best practice, is crucial if we are to cut the human and financial cost of poor health and safety. This can never be achieved by legal penalties alone, but by the development of a safety culture in which companies recognise the benefits of winning a reputation
for good health and safety.

A good health and safety culture will enhance a company’s reputation, reduce accidents and illnesses at work and save
them money by reducing insurance premiums, employers liability claims and increasing productivity, which helps to
win new contracts.

Executives working under the threat of possible imprisonment for safety lapses will simply have to be more alert and better trained to appreciate risks. Responsible managers and directors who are
properly equipped with sufficient knowledge to deal with health and safety matters should not be fearful of the proposed laws. Our view is the new laws will force managers and directors to create healthier and safer workplaces.”

Australia does not have industrial manslaughter on its statutes but some believe that the new work health and safety laws’ category of reckless endangerment is industrial manslaughter in a different guise. If this is the case, the words of Sir Ken Purvis and others in the UK at the time, may need a reassessment for the Australian context.

Regardless of the types of motivation for change, there is an increasing regulatory will for workplaces to have a positive, generative or other constructive type of safety culture. It is accepted that such a cultural change needs active engagement and support from the business owners, employers and company boards but most Australian businesses are small or micro-businesses. Would such change be easier or harder for this size business? No one seems to know, as any research is being conducted at the big end of town. Safety Culture package sellers are similarly at the big end of town where the lucrative contracts live.

All of this reinforces the need for Australia OHS regulators to be providing codes of practice on the management techniques that, research shows, can have a major effect on improving safety performance and injury prevention. Safety solutions should not be the preserve of only those with the capacity to pay. Safety solutions need to be written in plain and practical English and provided to all Australian workplaces at no charge by OHS regulators. In this way “safety culture” will be seen as a solution and not an excuse.

Kevin Jones