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Safety Policy, Leadership and Culture

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The subjects of leadership and culture are the two most important considerations among the conditions necessary to achieve excellence in safety. Safety policy may or may not be regarded as being important, depending upon the worker’s perception as to whether management commitment to and support of the policy is in fact carried out every day. Management often writes the safety policy and then fails to ensure that it is enforced by managers and supervisors on the job, every day.

Safety Culture and Safety Results

We used to believe that there were certain “essential elements” of a “safety programme”. In the United States, regulatory agencies provide guidelines as to what those elements are (policy, procedures, training, inspections, investigations, etc.). Some provinces in Canada state that there are 20 essential elements, while some organizations in the United Kingdom suggest that 30 essential elements should be considered in safety programmes. Upon close examination of the rationale behind the different lists of essential elements, it becomes obvious that the lists of each reflect merely the opinion of some writer from the past (Heinrich, say, or Bird). Similarly, regulations on safety programming often reflect the opinion of some early writer. There is seldom any research behind these opinions, resulting in situations where the essential elements may work in one organization and not in another. When we do actually look at the research on safety system effectiveness, we begin to understand that although there are many essential elements which are applicable to safety results, it is the worker’s perception of the culture that determines whether or not any single element will be effective. There are a number of studies cited in the references which lead to the conclusion that there are no “must haves” and no “essential” elements in a safety system.

This poses some serious problems since safety regulations tend to instruct organizations simply to “have a safety programme” that consists of five, seven, or any number of elements, when it is obvious that many of the prescribed activities will not work and will waste time, effort and resources which could be used to undertake the pro-active activities that will prevent loss. It is not which elements are used that determines the safety results; rather it is the culture in which these elements are used that determines success. In a positive safety culture, almost any elements will work; in a negative culture, probably none of the elements will get results.

Building Culture

If the culture of the organization is so important, efforts in safety management ought to be aimed first and foremost at building culture in order that those safety activities which are instituted will get results. Culture can be loosely defined as “the way it is around here”. Safety culture is positive when the workers honestly believe that safety is a key value of the organization and can perceive that it is high on the list of organization priorities. This perception by the workforce can be attained only when they see management as credible; when the words of safety policy are lived on a daily basis; when management’s decisions on financial expenditures show that money is spent for people (as well as to make more money); when the measures and rewards provided by management force mid-manager and supervisory performance to satisfactory levels; when workers have a role in problem solving and decision making; when there is a high degree of confidence and trust between management and the workers; when there is openness of communications; and when workers receive positive recognition for their work.

In a positive safety culture like that described above, almost any element of the safety system will be effective. In fact, with the right culture, an organization hardly even needs a “safety programme”, for safety is dealt with as a normal part of the management process. To achieve a positive safety culture, certain criteria must be met

1. A system must be in place that ensures regular daily pro-active supervisory (or team) activities.

2. The system must actively ensure that middle-management tasks and activities are carried out in these areas:

    • ensuring subordinate (supervisory or team) regular performance
    • ensuring the quality of that performance
    • engaging in certain well-defined activities to show that safety is so important that even upper managers are doing something about it.


      3. Top management must visibly demonstrate and support that safety has a high priority in the organization.

      4. Any worker who chooses to should be able to be actively engaged in meaningful safety-related activities.

      5. The safety system must be flexible, allowing choices to be made at all levels.

      6. The safety effort must be seen as positive by the workforce.

      These six criteria can be met regardless of the style of management of the organization, whether authoritarian or participative, and with completely different approaches to safety.

      Culture and Safety Policy

      Having a policy on safety seldom achieves anything unless it is followed up with systems that make the policy live. For example, if the policy states that supervisors are responsible for safety, it means nothing unless the following is in place:

        • Management has a system where there is a clear definition of role and of what activities must be carried out to satisfy the safety responsibility.
        • The supervisors know how to fulfil that role, are supported by management, believe the tasks are achievable and carry out their tasks as a result of proper planning and training.
        • They are regularly measured to ensure they have completed the defined tasks (but not measured by an accident record) and to obtain feedback to determine whether or not tasks should be changed.
        • There is a reward contingent upon task completion in the performance appraisal system or in whatever is the driving mechanism of the organization.


              These criteria are true at each level of the organization; tasks must be defined, there must be a valid measure of performance (task completion) and a reward contingent upon performance. Thus, safety policy does not drive performance of safety; accountability does. Accountability is the key to building culture. It is only when the workers see supervisors and management fulfilling their safety tasks on a daily basis that they believe that management is credible and that top management really meant it when they signed the safety policy documents.

              Leadership and Safety

              It is obvious from the above that leadership is crucial to safety results, as leadership forms the culture that determines what will and will not work in the organization’s safety efforts. A good leader makes it clear what is wanted in terms of results, and also makes it clear exactly what will be done in the organization to achieve the results. Leadership is infinitely more important than policy, for leaders, through their actions and decisions, send clear messages throughout the organization as to which policies are important and which are not. Organizations sometimes state via policy that health and safety are key values, and then construct measures and reward structures that promote the opposite.

              Leadership, through its actions, systems, measures and rewards, clearly determines whether or not safety will be achieved in the organization. This has never been more apparent to every worker in industry than during the 1990s. There has never been more stated allegiance to health and safety than in the last ten years. At the same time, there has never been more down-sizing or “right-sizing” and more pressure for production increases and cost reduction, creating more stress, more forced overtime, more work for fewer workers, more fear for the future and less job security than ever before. Right-sizing has decimated middle managers and supervisors and put more work on fewer workers (the key persons in safety). There is a general perception of overload at all levels of the organization. Overload causes more accidents, more physical fatigue, more psychological fatigue, more stress claims, more repetitive motion conditions and more cumulative trauma disorder. There has also been deterioration in many organizations of the relationship between the company and the worker, where there used to be mutual feelings of trust and security. In the former environment, a worker may have continued to “work hurt”. However, when workers fear for their jobs and they see that management ranks are so thin, they are non-supervised, they begin to feel as though the organization does not care for them any more, with the resultant deterioration in safety culture.

              Gap Analysis

              Many organizations are going through a simple process known as gap analysis consisting of three steps: (1) determining where you want to be; (2) determining where you are now and (3) determining how to get from where you are to where you want to be, or how to “bridge the gap”.

              Determining where you want to be. What do you want your organization’s safety system to look like? Six criteria have been suggested against which to assess an organization’s safety system. If these are rejected, you must measure your organization’s safety system against some other criteria. For example, you might want to look at the seven climate variables of organizational effectiveness as established by Dr. Rensis Likert (1967), who showed that the better an organization is in certain things, the more likely it will be successful in economic success, and thus in safety. These climate variables are as follows:

                • increasing the amount of worker confidence and managers’ general interest in the understanding of safety problems
                • giving training and help where and as needed
                • offering needed teaching as to how to solve problems
                • providing the available required trust, enabling information sharing between management and their subordinates
                • soliciting the ideas and opinions of the worker
                • providing for approachability of top management
                • recognizing the worker for doing a good job rather than for merely giving answers.


                            There are other criteria against which to assess oneself such as the criterion established to determine the likelihood of catastrophic events suggested by Zembroski (1991).

                            Determining where you are now. This is perhaps the most difficult. It was originally thought that safety system effectiveness could be determined by measuring the number of injuries or some subset of injuries (recordable injuries, lost time injuries, frequency rates, etc.). Due to the low numbers of these data, they usually have little or no statistical validity. Recognizing this in the 1950s and 1960s, investigators tended away from incident measures and attempted to judge safety system effectiveness through audits. The attempt was made to predetermine what must be done in an organization to get results, and then to determine by measurement whether or not those things were done.

                            For years it was assumed that audit scores predicted safety results; the better the audit score this year, the lower the accident record next year. We now know (from a variety of research) that audit scores do not correlate very well (if at all) with the safety record. The research suggests that most audits (external and sometimes internally constructed) tend to correlate much better with regulatory compliance than they do with the safety record. This is documented in a number of studies and publications.

                            A number of studies correlating audit scores and the injury record in large companies over periods of time (seeking to determine whether the injury record does have statistical validity) have found a zero correlation, and in some cases a negative correlation, between audit results and the injury record. Audits in these studies do tend to correlate positively with regulatory compliance.

                            Bridging the Gap

                            There appear to be only a few measures of safety performance that are valid (that is, they truly correlate with the actual accident record in large companies over long periods of time) which can be used to “bridge the gap”:

                              • behaviour sampling
                              • in-depth worker interviews
                              • perception surveys.


                                  Perhaps the most important measure to look at is the perception survey, which is used to assess the current status of any organization’s safety culture. Critical safety issues are identified and any differences in management and employee views on the effectiveness of company safety programmes are clearly demonstrated.

                                  The survey begins with a short set of demographic questions which can be used to organize graphs and tables to show the results (see figure 1). Typically participants are asked about their employee level, their general work location, and perhaps their trade group. At no point are the employees asked questions which would enable them to be identified by the people who are scoring the results.

                                  Figure 1. Example of perception survey results


                                  The second part of the survey consists of a number of questions. The questions are designed to uncover employee ­perceptions about various safety categories. Each question may affect the score of more than one category. A cumulative per cent positive response is computed for each category. The percentages for the categories are graphed (see figure 1) to display the results in descending order of positive perception by the line workers. Those categories on the right-hand side of the graph are the ones that are perceived by employees as being the least positive and are therefore the most in need of improvement.



                                  Much has been learned about what determines the effectiveness of a safety system in recent years. It is recognized that culture is the key. The employees’ perception of the culture of the organization dictates their behaviour, and thus the culture determines whether or not any element of the safety programme will be effective.

                                  Culture is established not by written policy, but rather by leadership; by day-to-day actions and decisions; and by the systems in place that ensure whether safety activities (performance) of managers, supervisors and work teams are carried out. Culture can be built positively through accountability systems that ensure performance and through systems that allow, encourage and get worker involvement. Moreover, culture can be validly assessed through perception surveys, and improved once the organization determines where it is they would like to be.



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