What is safety culture?

An organisation’s safety culture is “the way we do things around here”.  It is a simplified way of understand an organisation’s attitude and approach to managing safety.  Culture improvement is a way of improving safety that doesn’t focus on individual workers, but rather on the organisation as a whole.  Ultimately, an organisation with a high level of safety culture has created an ‘environment’ that enables and encourages safe operation.

The Hearts and Minds toolkit contains 'tools' (booklets, presentations and videos) to help organisations to a) understand their level of safety culture, and b) engage people at different levels of the organisation to make improvements in some key areas, such as procedures, supervision skills, risk assessment and planning, and learning from incidents.

Swiss cheese model and barrier-based safety

According to the Swiss cheese model, HSE management systems (HSE-MS) work by building barriers (visualised as layers of cheese) between a hazard or risk (such as a flammable substance) and an undesirable event (such as an explosion).  Barriers may be mechanical, but are mostly just people implementing and following systems, rules and procedures.  Watch the Swiss cheese video.

These barriers are not perfect and have the potential to (and will occasionally) fail.  This potential is represented by holes in the 'cheese'.  Usually the next barrier will catch the problem, but if all barriers fail - the holes align - an accident can happen.

Increasing the number of barriers in place can help improve safety, however it is not practical or cost effective to simply keep doing this - and the barriers are only as effective as the people that implement them. Improving safety culture can be a more effective solution to strengthening barriers.

Where are you on the culture ladder?

Hearts and Minds uses a culture ladder to simplify and categorise safety cultures.  This divides safety culture into five categories:

Generative: organisations set very high standards and attempt to exceed them. They use failure to improve, not to blame. Management knows what is really going on, because the workforce tells them. People are trying to be as informed as possible, because it prepares them for the unexpected. This state of "chronic unease" reflects a belief that despite all efforts, errors will occur and that even minor problems can quickly escalate into system-threatening failures.

Proactive: moving away from managing HSE based on what has happened in the past to preventing what might go wrong in the future. The workforce start to be involved in practice and the Line begins to take over the HSE function, while HSE personnel reduce in numbers and provide advice rather than execution.

Calculative: focus on systems and numbers. Lots of data is collected and analysed, lots of audits are performed and people begin to feel they know "how it works". The effectiveness of the gathered data is not always proven though.

Reactive: safety is taken seriously, but only after things have gone wrong. Managers feel frustrated about how the workforce won’t do what they are told.

Pathological: people don’t really care about HSE and are only driven by regulatory compliance and/or not getting caught.

The culture ladder


We start with the assumption that people come to work to do a good job.  However, in a pathological organisation, a ‘good job’ means hiding safety concerns and doing everything possible to keep production going, even if that means taking risks and making shortcuts in procedures.

In a calculative organisation, doing a ‘good job’ means following all the rules – even if they are hard to follow and lead to people making mistakes.

In a generative organisation, doing a ‘good job’ means taking ownership of the rules and procedures and actively working to improve them, and having the competency to do so.

The culture of the organisation has a big influence on what it means to do a ‘good job’.