What is safety culture?

Much of the improved safety performance in industry over the last thirty years has been achieved by enhanced engineering design and equipment, and latterly through safety management systems. However, there is less scope for further improvement in those areas as safety performance is reaching a plateau.

Safety culture is attracting increasing interest as it offers the possibility for delivering the next step change in improved safety performance.

Swiss cheese model

Swiss Cheese

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 below:

The Swiss cheese model explained

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.

What is safety culture?

Safety culture is an organisation’s beliefs and attitudes regarding safety, its place and importance in the organisation, and affects how safely people in the organisation behave. It is essentially ‘the way we do things around here’.  Safety culture influences the environment in which people work and in which barriers operate.

While hard work and a systematic approach form the necessary basis for implementing a HSE-MS, a good company safety culture that encourages people to work with rather than against the HSE-MS will allow the HSE-MS to flourish.

A good safety culture places the highest value on safety, occupational health and environment.  In such a culture:

  • People are always alert to expect the unexpected.
  • People fully understand what they should do.
  • People are open to suggestions.
  • People believe their actions make a difference to themselves and to others.
  • Managers do not manage, but show genuine leadership.

See the ‘Generative organisations’ video for more information on high safety cultures.

Measuring safety culture

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

Download the video animations for more information:

Safety Culture Ladder (13.9 MB)

The route to the top

The overall “Route to the Top” (world-class HSE performance) means progressing up the HSE culture ladder, developing HSE maturity to become truly pro-active and generative.

There are many advantages to be had from such improvement and these will have impact well beyond HSE performance.  For example, workload may actually decrease as an organisation becomes proactive.  Increasing trust and informedness can allow us to get on with our work without requiring extra supervision and control; audits become more efficient and directed, taking less time; managers can be left to manage, and workers get on with doing the job.

See the Hearts and Minds Roadmap, which provides a structured plan for implementing change.

Related files:

Registered Hearts and Minds users gain access to facilitator presentations and additional resources. (Log in at the top of this page)