Corporate maturity, especially in the area of workplace health and safety, is an increasingly important consideration in determining the preparedness of an organisation to change and embrace OHS as a crucial element of its business operations. There are several advocates of determining corporate maturity usually based around Hudson’s five levels of maturity, the most recent seems to be the Australian Constructors’ Association (ACA) in conjunction with RMIT University (see parts 8-7 of the document pictured below), but these tools are often aimed at the upper levels of an organisation.
These levels include:
The handouts are structured to allow for a quick understanding of what each level means in the context of Management Commitment, Supervisory Leadership and Communication and others, and then lists “ideas” that can be used to achieve improvement. The advice goes beyond the glib statements of “walk the talk”, for instance, by stating
“Crews are constantly observing the supervisor’s safety-related attitudes and behaviors to learn what the safety-related expectations are on the jobsite. Supervisors who learn the skills to lead by example are able to demonstrate through their words and actions that safety is valued. Consistency is key. Supervisors who are inconsistent with their message that safety is never compromised will reinforce worker’s perceptions that productivity trumps safety, and that it’s ok to cut corners, to wear PPE only 80% of the time, ok not to report a close call, or ok to not stop work when they identify a hazard. Supervisors who consistently send and demonstrate pro-safety messages can expect more positive outcomes.”
Such a consultative approach seems sensible and it can work but it is not always easy to practice, particularly in businesses where production or “the program” remains the dominant concern. CPWR is correct that consistency is key for although leading by example can be effective it can embed its significance when safety is not sacrificed at a critical moment of production or service. Such an act cements the priority of safety over production and can leap a workplace ahead in establishing a safety culture.
The CPWR handouts are an excellent quick reference for those promoting safety in any organisation and, although slightly different in terminology, clearly supported by the work of RMIT University referenced above. RMIT’s Health and Safety Culture document examines the evolution of the safety culture and safety climate concepts (terms this article has used interchangeably) and is not afraid to question some established beliefs. For instance, it is very critical of the “Functionalist view of safety culture” (page 32). It discusses this view:
“A common characteristic of the functionalist approach to safety culture is to understand it as shared patterns of behaviour, often expressed as ‘the way we do things around here’…. According to a functionalist view, safety culture is initiated by organisational leaders and amenable to top-down control. Implicit in the functionalist approach is the assumption that managers should develop a unitary organisational safety culture that is aligned with managerial ideology and strategy….”
RMIT says this approach is often describes as an “integration” but
“An integration perspective on safety culture rarely recognises that different safety cultures can co-exist within a single organisation. If functionalist writers do recognise the existence of multiple cultures then they frame this diversity as a weakness because the ‘ideal’ situation is believed to be a strong and unitary culture in which every member of the organisation shares similar beliefs and ideas about what is safe and what is not. The functionalist perspective assigns one culture (usually that of management) as dominant. Other cultures, where they are recognised to exist, are subordinated.” (page 32)
Such criticism is rarely heard as this raises serious questions about the prominence (come would say blind trust) in executive leadership as the essential catalyst for change and the major cultural maintenance tool. RMIT writes that:
“Managers may be able to change behaviour (for example, to encourage reporting of incidents and errors) using incentive and punishment schemes, but this change is likely to be short-lived.”
“The role of managers as initiators of culture is overstated.” and
“A great many empirical studies have revealed that different groups within an organisation develop distinct safety cultures/climates.”
Such criticism does not negate the methods advocated by CPWR in its handouts but any user of the handouts would benefit from understanding the context of the advice in the handouts provided by documents such as that from ACA and RMIT. The independence of the RMIT report also allows safety professionals, executives and business owners to gain a sufficient knowledge of safety culture to assess the advisory services being spruiked by many of safety consultants and firms who largely advocate the integration perspective on safety culture.
The issue of safety climates and safety cultures may make it seem so complex that the effort is too much. However an assessment of any organisation is likely to uncover a large number of positive safety activities. Few companies will need to start on the safety culture path from scratch but there are traps as the safety culture field is still growing and being refined. The combination of CPWR handouts and RMIT research is a great way to begin establishing a sustainable and effective safety culture that saves lives, which is the ultimate intention of all this safety culture guff.
Note: Kevin Jones recently undertook some work for RMIT University on a new project as a technical writer.