Developing a positive safety culture - A how to guide

So far we have covered:

In previous posts we've covered what creates a negative safety culture, which includes failures of compliance with health and safety, risks and consequences rated as managers wish to see them and not as they actually are, management decisions placing the interests of other stakeholders above that of its staff, and the biggie - a blame culture.

We've also discussed the positive safety culture which includes visible leadership commitment, visible investment, clear definition of the culture desired and a just, no blame culture that encourages learning and development.

The benefits of a positive safety culture have also been touched upon which include both quantitative and qualitative such as cost savings, potential customer investment and improved reputation.

Identifying a blame culture, is also of high importance, as it is human nature to want to assign blame, but this doesn't benefit the organisation, those involved or even the customer. If you're asking questions such as 'who's fault is it' then you're subjecting your staff to a blame culture. Finally, we have covered the role of senior management within the safety culture.

Getting back to basics

Before we get start, it is vital to understand that creating a positive safety culture is both an ongoing process and a massive commitment, it is estimated that on average it takes between five and ten years to develop a truly positive safety culture, it's also worth noting that it may take this long to build your culture but it can crumble much quicker.

First of all we need to get a grip on the current culture which exists, whether it is positive or negative and we have provided two steps to this, first of all an attitude survey which will help to gain an insight into the views and opinions of your staff. You  may face some resistance from your staff as to why they should take time out of their day for something they may not see as part of their job role, but this survey plays a vital part in the development of a positive safety culture. This survey should be undertaken annually to monitor the views of the workforce over time.

Following this, a basic analysis of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) which are affecting your health and safety culture. Strengths and weaknesses are internal factors, opportunities and threats are external. There's an example safety SWOT analysis below:


Tips from OSHA

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is the Health and Safety Executive's United States counterpart, as their website tells us their mission is to 'assure safe and healthful working for men and women by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training, outreach and assistance' 

OSHA have very kindly provided some tips on the development of a positive safety culture. First of all, the responsibilities for safety need to be defined at every level, ensuring everyone knows their role within the safety culture. You can read more about the role responsibilities of senior management here.

Secondly, sharing your safety vision with your workforce and the outside world will enable you to reinforce that this is a long term investment which will require everyone working together to achieve. To that end, you should provide multiple outlets for employees to express their opinions and more so concerns about safety. Examples of such outlets could be monthly briefings, attitude surveys, training or a purpose built email address.

Next we need to enforce accountability, in which the process holds everyone accountable for being visibly involved in the safety culture. Create a just, no blame culture through the rebuilding of the investigation procedure. We're looking for the root cause of the issue, to prevent it from happening again and not to find someone to blame. There should also be a chain of command model in place in which supervisors and managers are also held accountable, so for example workers are held accountable by managers, which are accountable to the safety manager and so on and so forth.

A new and improved reporting structure will also be of benefit. Analysis of reporting on training, first aid, accidents and near misses will allow safety managers to see trends and major issues which are affecting your workforce. This analysis should be reviewed by the Director for Safety and Health  who will then decide on where further investment is required.

We're almost there - stick with me! Health and safety can be seen as such a serious subject, especially where such drastic changes are being made, this can create fear amongst the workforce. As such, it is important to celebrate success, this goes a long way towards your safety culture. If someone does something good, tell them, make it public knowledge when something positive happens.

Finally and crucially - build trust. Through the use of the above tips and techniques you can begin to build the trust of your workforce and stakeholders such as customers and suppliers. It is important to remember that it can take up to ten years to establish and maintain a truly positive safety culture, but only a fraction of the time to bring it down.

In summary:

  • Define safety responsibilities at every level

  • Share your safety vision

  • Provide multiple options for employees to share their views

  • Enforce accountability, create a process which holds everyone accountable for being visibly involved. If someone does something good, say so. If someone does something bad, be fair.

  • A just, no blame culture

  • Re-build the investigation procedure. Get to the root cause of accidents, not use it to blame someone. Encourage accountability.

  • There should be a chain of command to ensure managers/supervisors are accountable

  • Create reports on training, first aid, accident and near misses.

  • Celebrate success, make your updates public to keep everyone motivated and up to date throughout the process.

  • Build trust using the above

Safety Management Systems (SMS)

As per the Health and Safety Executive's website, it is your decision as to whether or not you use a  Safety Management System, in most cases it isn't a legal requirement. There are official safety management systems such as BS OHSAS 18001:2007 Occupational health and safety management systems. Or you can use in-house standards and procedures.

A SMS is essentially a formal framework in which aids the effective management of safety. Most SMS originate from the Plan, Do, Check, Act system recommended by the HSE. You can read more about this here.

An effective safety management system will create effective policy direction helping you to plan out the best health and safety policies which fit your business. The effective SMS will also outline a clear structure or chain of command which holds everyone accountable within the safety culture. We've already spoke about highlighting your health and safety vision, this is the place to do it, the SMS will allow for clear planning and implementation of your health and safety vision.

The second half of any safety management system should include the measuring of performance, through the use of the reporting procedures we touched on earlier. Audits should also be undertaken to ensure full cooperation with health and safety and to identify any weak areas. Finally, the SMS should contain periodic reviews of your safety culture to ensure that you are both heading in the right direction and to address any issues raised by your workforce, either within briefings or via email.

So an SMS should include:

  • Policy Direction

  • Organising structure

  • Planning and implementing

  • Measuring performance

  • Audit

  • Review

Up-skill managers

We need to up-skill our managers. This is quite a broad statement but bear with me. By this I mean to start with, having managers in place who know their role backwards and forwards, they must also know the organisation's health and safety policy as far as reasonably practicable. From this point onwards it is important to having managers in place who know the role of those in which they manage. For example, having a warehouse manager who can carry out the role of a warehouse operative.

This has multiple benefits. First of all, manager's have a much clearer picture of the challenges faced by the people they manage, making them better equipped to contribute to and promote a positive safety culture. Secondly, a manager who knows the roles of those they manage can quite often improve upon current processes, increasing organisational efficiency and aiding the bottom line. Finally, managers become more experienced and are aware that the company is investing in their personal development.

To sum up

So, in order to start building your positive safety culture you need to start with:

  • An attitude survey

  • A SWOT analysis

  • Use the tips from OSHA which are included above

  • Put into place a Safety Management System

  • Up-skill managers

Remember it takes between 5-10 years to build a positive safety culture, but it's like a good reputation, years to build and seconds to destroy. Everyone needs to be involved, from the MD to office administrators. Share your idea of a safety culture with your staff and turn over as much feedback as possible.


I hope you've found this post helpful!