How to improve safety culture

Improving the safety culture of an organisation is about:

-building trust – in leadership, in the safety management system, in the team, in the equipment;
-building capability – people know how to do their jobs and do them well, they are authorised to do ‘the right thing’, the organisation is flexible and can adapt to challenges;
-making expectations clear – it is clear what ‘the right thing’ means, and this does not change from day-to-day, a ‘just’ culture;
-learning from what goes right and what goes wrong – reporting incidents and near misses, and actively learning from them, and
-knowing what is really going on – leaders are ‘informed’, they understand the gap between ‘work as done’ and ‘work as imagined’.

There are 9 key Hearts and Minds tools (booklets), and a number of free of charge downloadable resources that support their usage.  The Hearts and Minds tools target the above aspects by focusing on a small number of topics.  Each tool contain information on how the organisation can improve, and workshop activities to engage people in the organisation.  The purpose of each workshop varies, but is generally an opportunity to discuss safety or operational issues (specific or general) and then do something about them.

The foundations of a change programme are following the plan, do, check, act cycle.

-Plan: gain support and design your programme.
-Do: implement the programme.
-Check: monitor its impact and success.
-Act: act upon the findings by improving the plan or maintaining support.


Gain (or maintain) top-down support for change

Leadership support is vital for a change programme.  Without support, change will be harder, and the required resources may not be made available.  The type of support required may include:

- Long-term commitment to the change programme: change programmes can last years, so there should be commitment to continue long-term.

- Resources: change programmes require resources, in time, people and money. Resources are required to manage the programme, develop and deliver training, and monitor results.

A good way to gain support from leadership is through discovering where you are – discovering that the company is not performing as well as first thought can give you and senior managers the drive needed to commit to change.

Understanding your HSE culture can be used to highlight company performance to leaders.

Understand your culture

In order to improve you should first determine where you are, and why improvement is needed.

The Understanding your HSE culture booklet or Understanding your culture online survey will help you identify the local level of HSE cultural maturity and help formulate your way forward.  Knowing where you are will challenge your aspirations and allow you to think about what you personally and as team will need to do to achieve these.

Are there specific problems?

A lot of information is available in incident investigation reports, audits, reviews, field inspections and observations of what is happening.  Typical issues can include rule breaking, incorrect risk assessments, supervisors who are technically competent but short on personal management skills, and ineffective contractor HSE management.

If you already know what your issues are then you can begin setting objectives and designing your change programme.  Focus on the obvious or most pressing issues.  The Energy Institute has some useful resources to help you get the most out of audits, investigations etc.:

Learning from incidents, accidents and events

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The EI Human factors briefing notes may also give you an indication of which issues the organisation is faced with.  Each briefing note provides a simple questionnaire to help a company quickly gauge whether it has a problem with a particular issue.

The issues you identify will help you develop objectives and design your change programme.

Developing objectives – where do you want to be?

Once you have discovered where you are you should develop SMARTer objectives:

- Specific

- Measurable

- Achievable

- Relevant

- Timely

- evaluated

- reviewed

These are the short/medium terms goals that the organsiation will work to.  Rather than ambiguous goals such as ‘improve culture’ or ‘work safely’, develop specific goals that are measurable, for example:

- Increase/improve reporting of incidents;

- Reduce road accidents;

- Increase the use of procedures.

Find champions

It is important to gain support from those who will be expected to implement and manage the change programme.  Resistance from middle managers, supervisors and workers can make change harder to implement.

Who should lead the process and how?

Those who are committed to improvement should be champions and facilitators.  They should understand that behavioural change cannot be pushed onto people.

Try to gain support for the programme from key people, such as influential managers, supervisors and workers.  Invite them to your Understanding your HSE culture workshops.  Take note of any people who seem especially supportive or enthusiastic as these may want to help manage or roll out the change programme in future.

There should be direction and coordination; but the people who drive and facilitate any programme should first and foremost believe in the process. Through their commitment to improve, a pull is generated whereby others want to participate, see the benefits, and themselves become champions.

Design your programme

This stage is about determining who will help you undertake the programme, which goals you will aim for, and planning your proactive interventions to help get there.

Step 1: Assemble a project team

These are the people who will help design and run the programme.  The project team should consist of representatives across the organisation, including managers, supervisors and workers.  Involving people throughout the organisation can help create ownership of the programme.  These may be your ‘champions’.

Step 2: Focus on your goals

Decide which objectives you are going to focus on first (as identified in the 'understand your culture' stage).  It may be worthwhile prioritising them in light of recent incidents, safety critical activities, or ‘quick wins’.  Use the Making change last tool to help determine which goals you should focus on.

Step 3: Plan your proactive interventions

You should now decide which Hearts and Minds tools you will use to meet your objectives, who they will be used with and who will facilitate their use.

Step 4: How will you measure success?

Think about how you are going to measure whether change is working.

The EI has produced a research report into monitoring leading and lagging performance indicators for human factors that may help you: Human factors performance indicators for the energy and related process industries.


Do it! Implement your programme

Your champions and leaders should implement the programme according to the plan you have developed.

Tips for implementation

Do not announce to the workforce that a cultural change program is taking place in a way that could make people feel uncomfortable and resist – remember, change is not easy, and people may resist if they feel they are being forced to change.

Do not overload people with too much information – short but regular workshops are most effective.

The plan should not only be about running Hearts and Minds workshops.  What improvements will be suggested in the workshops, and how will those improvements be actioned?

Do you have a safety management system in place?  If not, then it may be too early to focusing on culture change.


Monitor results of the programme

Actively monitor results from the programme.  Remember to refer back to your SMARTer objectives.

Develop and monitor performance indicators, and be careful not to misinterpret results – e.g. a decrease in the number of reported incidents may simply be an indication that incidents are not being reported – likewise, an increase in the number of reported incidents may simply indicate more willingness to report incidents rather than show that more incidents are occurring.


Review the results of your programme and adjust the plan accordingly.  For example, does the focus need to shift to look at different topics, different groups, or using different Hearts and Minds tools?  Is the approach having the desired effect, and if not, what needs to change?

It may be time to carry out another Understanding your HSE culture exercise (every 1 – 2 years).

This is also a good time to maintain or rebuild support for the programme from leadership.