How To Develop Your Organisation’s Safety Culture

Last week we highlighted how mindless management actions can destroy an organisation’s safety culture and we explained that building a strong, positive safety culture takes deliberate, concerted and continual effort. But what sort of effort? This week the annual European helicopter expo and conference, Helitech, is being held in Amsterdam.  Three years ago we presented on this very topic at the safety seminar at Helitech 2011 in Duxford, UK.

Safety Culture – the Key to Safety Performance

The term ‘safety culture’ was initially used in the report on the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident.  While there are many definitions of ‘culture’ and an associated concept of ‘climate’, a safety culture can be conveniently considered to be the product of an organisation’s collective, safety related:

  • values,
  • attitudes,
  • perceptions,
  • social norms and ultimately…
  • patterns of behaviour

We think that those patterns behaviours are the most important as they are observable and therefore the strongest manifestation to influence others.

As such an organisation’s culture can not evolve simply by management edict but in response to a whole range of factors including:

  • local conditions,
  • past events,
  • the character of leadership and
  • the mood of the workforce

A safety culture reflects the organisation’s actual collective, shared commitment to safety.  It not simply what is said about safety but the commitment to safety that is demonstrated by normal behaviour, crucially when problems emerge or hazards are identified.

Weaknesses in safety culture are increasingly being identified in accident investigation reports as a critical precursor to accidents.  This not because there is necessarily a widespread decline in organisational safety cultures, but because investigators are now looking more closely at organisations, how they function and how the shared culture is influencing individual and team behaviour.  One example is the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) report on the loss of a Space Shuttle in 2003.

It has been written that:

Safety Culture can have a direct impact on safe performance. If someone believes that safety is not really important, even temporarily, then workarounds, cutting corners, or making unsafe decisions or judgements will be the result, especially when there is a small perceived risk rather than an obvious danger.

The UK Health & Safety Executive (HSE), the occupational health and safety regulator, issue specific guidance on the consideration of safety culture during inspections.

Safety Leadership - the Key to Safety Culture

Leadership is a powerful influence on culture.

The term ‘leadership’ is sometimes misused.  Sometimes as a trendy alternative for ‘senior management’ and occasionally in the Orwellian term ‘thought leadership’ (which was recently labelled “grossly indulgent” in the Forbes list of ‘most annoying business slang’).

Leadership is not the same as managing resources and schedules.  Here we use leadership to represent an activity that involves:

  • Being visible,
  • Focusing on people,
  • Building trust and ultimately…
  • Influencing other people’s behaviour

It is this deliberate, concerted and continual activity that can influence culture, though as we have showed previously, that can be unravelled far more rapidly by poor leadership.

The Relationship Between Management and Leadership

Excellent safety leaders realise that safety leadership is not an alternative to safety management but an essential complement.  They also have a vision for safety in their organisation.  It perhaps goes without saying that safety leaders therefore have a passion for safety.

Safety Leaders Don’t Buy-In To Safety

Its not uncommon to see safety practitioners bemoaning senior management for not ‘buying-in’ to safety proposals.  The shocking truth is that excellent safety leaders don’t ‘buy-in’ to safety initiatives! That’s because their passion and motivation for safety means they are so actively involved in ‘leading’ safety (in many ways ‘selling safety’), rather than followers and in actively developing their organisation’s approach to safety they don’t need to ‘buy-in’.  The term ‘buy-in’ is also distinguished by making the Forbes list of ‘most annoying business slang’.

Equally shockingly(!) is that excellent safety leaders aren’t that committed to their safety management systems!  They see an SMS as a means to an end, and for that matter a means that needs to continuously improve and evolve.  Excellent safety leaders are however deeply committed to safety and the protection of people from harm.  Its for that reason, when it comes to their SMS, they are more interested in effective performance than mere compliance with any particular regulation (as they recognise these are just a minimum standard).

Leadership Development at All Levels

While an organisation’s CEO is influential, in all but the smallest organisations, they can only have a strong, direct and continual leadership influence on a relatively small number of employees.  So when the planning started in 2006 for one award winning safety initiative, the development of safety leadership skills at all levels of this international organisation was a key part of the plan, along with a communication strategy and other initiatives to create a common dialogue on safety across the organisation:

We highly recommend this case study: ‘Beyond SMS’ by Andy Evans & John Parker, Flight Safety Foundation, AeroSafety World, May 2008

You may also be interested in these Aerossurance articles:

James Reason published this paper in 1998: Achieving a safe culture: theory and practice

The International Association of Oil and Gas Producers (IOGP) has also published the report: Shaping safety culture through safety leadership

In June 2013, The Hon. Mr Justice Haddon-Cave addressed delegates at Piper 25 (a conference to mark the 25th anniversary of Piper Alpha offshore disaster in the North Sea, in which 167 workers died).  His paper was entitled “Leadership and Culture, Principles and Professionalism, Simplicity and Safety – Lessons from the Nimrod Review”, a report issued in October 2009, following the loss of Royal Air Force (RAF) Nimrod XV230:

Piper 25: Presentation Transcript

A paper by the Health and Safety Laboratory is worth attention: High Reliability Organisations [HROs] and Mindful Leadership as is one by Andrew Hopkins at the ANU.

UPDATE 6 November 2015: Ed Shein gave a presentation: So You Want to Create a Culture? which emphasised understanding the change you want to achieve.

UPDATE 26 April 2016: We look at the origins of the safety culture concept: Chernobyl: 30 Years On – Lessons in Safety Culture.  We also look at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) framework for ‘strong’ safety culture consisting of five characteristics: Each of these five characteristics have a series of subsidiary attributes.

UPDATE 11 January 2016: You may like this Forbes article Do You Know What’s Really Driving Your Organizational Culture?  This make 4 key points:

  1. Culture is a collective concept.
  2. You may need some outside perspective to get an unbiased view.
  3. Don’t jump to conclusions. What you see isn’t always what you get and may result addressing symptoms rather what is creating them.
  4. Understand the why behind the what.

UPDATE 5 May 2016: The UK Confidential Incident Reporting and Analysis System (CIRAS) has released the presentations from their ‘Safety Culture Under Strain’ conferences held in London and Edinburgh in April 2016.  Aerossurance attended the excellent Edinburgh event.

Also, the UK Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB) commented in a new investigation report:

raib wb

UPDATE 1 August 2016: We also recommend this article: Leicester’s lesson in leadership, published in The Psychologist.

UPDATE: 28 August 2016: We look at an EU research project that recently investigated the concepts of organisational safety intelligence (the safety information available) and executive safety wisdom (in using that to make safety decisions) by interviewing 16 senior industry executives:  Safety Intelligence & Safety Wisdom.  They defined these as:

Safety Intelligence the various sources of quantitative information an organisation may use to identify and assess various threats.

Safety Wisdom the judgement and decision-making of those in senior positions who must decide what to do to remain safe, and how they also use quantitative and qualitative information to support those decisions.

The topic of weak or ambiguous signals was discussed in this 2006 article: Facing Ambiguous Threats

UPDATE 14 September 2016: An article on leadership learning and development in the Harvard Business Review commented that:

…we’ve learned that education and training gain the most traction within highly visible organizational change and development efforts championed by senior leaders. That’s because such efforts motivate people to learn and change; create the conditions for them to apply what they’ve studied; foster immediate improvements in individual and organizational effectiveness; and put in place systems that help sustain the learning.

UPDATE 19 September 2016: It’s worth listening to Todd Conklin’s podcast interview with Prof Ed Schein.

UPDATE 22 September 2016: NTSB Board Member Robert L. Sumwalt presented Lessons from the Ashes:
The Critical Role of Safety Leadership to an audience in Houston, TX.  Its worth noting the emphasis made of safety as a ‘value’ and of alignment across an organisation.  He illustrates that presentation with two charts that show the differences in perception of safety at Metro-North:



UPDATE 26 September 2016: John Bersin writes: Data Proves that Culture, Values, and Career are Biggest Drivers of Employment Brand.  When it comes to recommending your organisation to others:

An employee’s rating of “culture and values” is 4.9 times more predictive of a company recommendation than salary and benefits. The second most important factor is “career opportunities,” which is 4.5 more important than salary and benefits. The third factor is “confidence in senior leadership,” which is approximately 4 times more predictive than salary and benefits.

UPDATE 30 September 2016: Talking leadership: Julia Fernando on understanding culture to enable compassionate care in the NHS.

The difficulty is that once a culture is set and norms are established, it can be hard to change the status quo. Changing a culture of fear and blame can therefore be difficult. Leadership plays a vital role in driving forward such changes…

UPDATE 30 October 2016: For a more general discussion on culture see: New research and a new understanding about culture change in organisations.  This discusses the ‘Mosaic Theory’ explaining that:

In the last few years our understanding of culture and how we take on cultural attributes has shifted away from the idea that culture is a homogeneous solid entity to the understanding that:

    • Cultures are dynamic, ever changing entities
    • Cultures don’t exist nor can be defined on their own. All cultures are in fact made up of a mosaic of different sets of behaviours, thinking and beliefs from a wide range of sources.
    • Individuals navigate the range of cultures they encounter and learn to ‘fit in’. So for example our family will have a culture that most likely is very different from the culture at work or from a social group.
    • From an individual’s perspective cultures are made up of identifiable layers or tiles which are shared or not shared between the various cultures they encounter on a daily basis.

In a follow up article, The 3 Main Conclusions and Findings from New Research about Culture Change in Organisations, it was noted that research has shown that at work “most people take their cultural cues for behaviour and beliefs from the following areas of their life” in descending order:

    1. The culture of the organisation
    2. The culture of their profession
    3. Experience (Age)
    4. Their family values
    5. Their nationality and ethnicity equally
    6. Whether they come from an urban or rural area, so rural or urban cultural values
    7. Hobbies
    8. Religion

UPDATE 8 December 2016: Aerossurance founder, Andy Evans, presented on the topic of safety leadership at a UK CAA helicopter safety culture seminar today.

UPDATE 16 February 2017: See also our article Consultants & Culture: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

For experienced coaching and support on safety leadership and safety culture development, contact Aerossurance:

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