Measuring a safety culture

Defining safety culture is still a tricky proposition.  Definitions can vary from what Global Safety Index quotes:

‘the product of individual and group values, attitudes and beliefs, competencies and patterns of behaviour that determine the commitment to, and the style and proficiency of, an organisation’s health and safety management’.

to the, arguably more functional, definition of

‘the way you work when nobody’s looking”.

Safety culture comprises a mix of personal values, corporate values, laws, norms, expectations, hopes, respect, dignity, care, amongst others. By assessing and linking these elements it should be possible to map or pictorialise a company’s safety culture.

Several years ago at a Comcare conference in Canberra, one speaker outlined leadership and safety culture of some sections of the public service in web, spider or radar graphs (example above).  The image stuck with me, particularly after additional sets of data allowed for animation to show the evolution of culture and leadership in relation to specific interventions.  The importance of being able to provide a visual image of safety culture should not be understated.

Pages from Workplace_Health_and_Safety_CultureIt is not clear how far Comcare went with the safety culture assessments, even though it continues to advocate for the development of safety culture (see right), but Comcare was well-placed to assess the members of their workers’ compensation scheme to establish safety cultural benchmarks.  The only limitation to this was that Comcare includes a broad range of industry types from transport and logistics to office-based public servants to the Australian defence force.  This variety may have reduced the comparison base of the sample.  A commercial service that could attract a larger number of “clients” may be even better placed to build benchmarks except that those benchmarks may stay in-house, limiting their application to the commercial reality of business.

Benchmarking safety culture

Recently I lunched with several representatives of Global Safety Index (GSI), an Australian company that has been offering safety culture and safety leadership “audits” since early 2013.  GSI seems to be willing to provide some basic information publicly on their various indices once there is a sufficient pool of data to make those indices valid.  This work, and the work of others in the area, is an important opportunity for safety professionals and government regulators to identify companies who have the level of maturity in OHS that best supports the duty of care and other safety obligations imposed on them through OHS laws.  Benchmarking could identify the “proactiveness” on OHS that many businesses encourage.  OHS regulators often push businesses to go beyond compliance, with the inference that compliance does not necessary equate to a safe workplace.

A safety culture index could provide an alternative or complement to LTIFR and TRIFR, the comfortable but often meaningless safety performance measures currently valued by OHS regulators and government clients.  It may be the metric sought to identify the worth of lead indicators.

A single assessment only provides a profile of a culture not the changes to a culture. By allowing for regular safety culture audits, perhaps annually, it should be possible to identify the benefits of safety interventions and validate effective lead indicators.

Lead indicators

At the moment lead indicators could include vague categories such as safety communications but the effectiveness of such activities is not assessed – they just are.  A regular audit of a company’s safety culture should be able to identify their (in)effectiveness and steer a company to the most effective interventions.

Measuring the effectiveness of a strategy could lead to proof of a return on OHS investment, evidence that some of the insurance companies, such as AON, are working on but that the OHS profession as a whole seems to shy from.  Perhaps this is because, as well as measuring a safety program’s effectiveness, benchmarking could also measure the effectiveness of the safety professional.  Imagine how receptive a company could be if a safety professional applied for a job and advocated for an assessment tool for safety culture that also measured the performance of the safety professional.

There is no doubt the lag indicators of LTIFR and TRIFR will persist due to their entrenchment in contractual, procurement and pre-qualification requirements from government and private clients but a lead indicator measure, such as a safety culture index, seems inevitable.  OHS regulators, such as Comcare, WorkSafe WA, WorkSafe Victoria, New Zealand’s Dept of Labour and the HSE,  push the importance of a safety culture and often provide measurement tools of their own but there is no unifier in these actions.  It would be terrific if there was such an international measurement but, in the meantime, perhaps commercial products, such as that from GSI, which can construct a data library should be considered.

Kevin Jones

6 thoughts on “Measuring a safety culture”

  1. Thanks Kevin, and Mark.

    Hi Mark,

    It might be a little removed from the safety culture discussion but it has troubled me for some time that safety continues to be separated from mainstream business operations because it doesn\’t have the same seat at the table that other business functions do. Safety having to report to the executive via the HR department is still quite normal. Does bolting a few safety questions on to the back end of a broader culture survey serve to make safety a more integral part of business operations, or continue to reinforce a message that we say safety is most important, but really the primary business consideration is other things?

    Continuing in that vein, CFOs and COOs are regular candidates for CEO roles because these functions really are considered central to business. When will we routinely see the head of safety in the c-suite and when will we start seeing them recognised with CEO roles? That is a safety reality that I would be interested to witness!

    So I guess my point is that whilst I agree that a positive safety culture equals a positive broader culture, and that great safety leadership is great leadership, I don\’t worry so much about safety being highlighted and treated as an important function in its own right.

    What about this for a challenging, safety differently, idea; rather than using a broader culture survey to infer what the safety culture looks like, rely on a safety culture index to inform us about the broader cultural question.



    1. Andrei, it\’s worth noting that you work for GSI.

      I support your point that the safety profession should be on the front foot rather than a secondary consideration or afterthought in other assessment processes. That is why in the article I suggest that the safety profesional advocate for safety culture assessments and bring these tools with them when applying for jobs or touting for business, particularly if the elements of that assessment are compatible with other cultural audit criteria.

      I would agree that there is little that is radical in the safety culture assessments but what is innovative is the way these are and can be applied.

  2. Good morning Kevin;

    My concern with a dedicated safety culture index is that it reinforces the segregation of safety from the overall management of business.

    Take any of the \’safety culture index\’ tool, strip out the term \’safety\’ and you have a broader cultural index tool.

    None of these tools are new or exciting, but reinforce the myth that safety needs to be treated differently from other business practices.

    On occasions where I have used safety culture measurement tools, it has quickly become apparent within the target organisation that all resultant observations and activities are applicable at a broader business level. A safety culture program rapidly morphs into a broader culture program.

    From the Comcare document \”…Leadership, Communications and Training using Systems, Symbols and Behaviour.\” This is Business 101, not cutting edge safety management.

    The spider chart is not far removed from a Balanced Scorecard, which comfortably supports cultural assessment and can also be applied to safety management.

    It\’s difficult to integrate safety as business as usual, when we separate it from the mainstream business operations.

    Let\’s measure not measure safety culture, but rather whether or not your organisational culture manages safety to achieve it\’s planned objectives.

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