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Characteristics of a positive health and safety culture

The purpose of this short article is to provide an overview to AusIMM members of the elements that are important in developing a safety culture that assists in preventing health and safety incidents within an organisation

These thoughts are based on books, essays and papers by many eminent people, as well as the experiences and observations of the authors.

To achieve this objective is no easy or simple matter, as an excellent health and safety culture is akin to a state of grace; to achieve a top performing health and safety culture, all who operate in the organisation must continually strive for improvement.

To identify what this culture should be, a number of key areas in any organisation need to be considered, such as policy, systems (including risk management), leadership behaviour and the behaviour of everyone who works in an organisation. The organisation’s goal must always be first and foremost to prevent health and safety incidents. This is no easy task!

It requires a fundamental and carefully planned strategy to ensure all areas of the organisation are covered and are accepted by all.

Discussion

By addressing each of the above areas, this article attempts to provide some guidance on health and safety culture to AusIMM members, and particularly young professionals embarking on their careers and grappling with direction and how to implement strategies and policies.

The focusing question is: What should an organisation that has a very positive Health and Safety culture look like?

To start the thinking, here’s a quote from an organisation that has a very positive culture:

‘You as a leader manage health and safety in the same way you manage everything else that is important. That is perhaps because you know only one way to manage, but it is also demonstrable that health and safety goes hand in hand with costs, quality and production. For example, a plant that has a low level of uptime or high unscheduled maintenance activity is going to have a negative impact on costs, quality and production, and unfortunately will have a large negative impact on health and safety.’

Additionally, it is fundamentally a culture where everyone looks after each other’s wellbeing.

What an organisation that has a positive health and safety culture looks like

Policies

The health and safety policy of any organisation clearly states a position that the organisation will endeavour to prevent all health and safety incidents to all people who work in the organisation. It covers all activities and includes service providers.

The policy is  easy to read, understood by all, visible throughout the organisation and signed off by the most senior people.

Systems

The health and safety system is readily available to all who work in the organisation. Many would have contributed to its design and content.

Importantly, the system is simple, easy to read and clear to understand, whether in hard or electronic copy.

The system comprises statutory requirements, risk management processes, incident investigation processes and standards (for example electrical, isolation, working at height, fatigue control, emissions, mental illness as well as management of change and training standards, to name a few).

The standards are developed from a competent and comprehensive risk management register as well as learnings from other organisations’ critical incidents and risk exposures.

Leadership behaviours

Leadership is one of the most critical elements of a positive health and safety culture. Leaders demonstrate this by ‘walking the talk’ at all times. When a health and safety issue exposure arises, production/output never overrides that value.

A requisite leadership behaviour that you would expect to observe is visible leadership where leaders are taking every opportunity to promote health and safety in the field. As one very senior manager once said: ‘You can never improve health and safety in your organisation by sitting in your office and hoping it will improve.’

Senior leaders require all leaders at all levels to regularly ‘Go look and see’ to ensure standards, procedures and associated behaviours are being followed.

Effective inductions are an opportunity for the most senior managers to put their stamp on expectations, and safety meetings are always chaired or attended by senior management and their team. Learnings from incidents are discussed and applied at these regular meetings.

A focus on the organisation’s standards, health and safety critical and high risks as well as legislative requirements is a key. In these organisations, ‘champions’ are appointed to oversee that all standards, critical risk procedures and legislated regulations are conforming. Non-compliance is never negotiable!

The senior managers read and review all audit reports with special focus applied to repeat findings.

The organisation has an effective contractor management process in place, where accountability for that management is specific when regular audit schedules are applied. This includes being specific for who has responsibility for what and implementing regular audit schedules and interactions with contracted supervisors and decision makers. All this is about confirming that planning activities are in place and that they trigger formal permit use and other activities to meet site requirements. There is also an effective ‘permit to work’ system in place.

The most senior manager is notified as soon as possible of any high risk incidents and health and safety incidents or injuries. This means any time of the day, night or weekend.

Investigation quality is paramount to ensuring these incidents are not repeated. The most senior manager reviews all investigations for quality, learnings and application of remedial actions.

Importantly, the management always congratulates personnel at all levels on good health and safety performance.

Information

The organisation’s management keeps all employees and service providers informed of health and safety performance metrics, near hits and learnings from incidents not only in its own organisation, but other organisations globally. This information is digitally supplied and also visible on notice boards.

Organisation

The organisation is structured so that there are clear lines of accountability for health and safety with line management. Line management is supported by health and safety technical experts at all times.

What do all people in the organisation do and expect?

All people who work in the organisation expect leaders to do what they say and follow all standards and procedures without exception.

They expect leaders to show they care about their people and if someone has an incident or health and safety issue, either at work or at home, they personally become involved to provide assistance.

Health and safety exposures can override production.

Leaders are expected to:

  • provide feedback on health and safety improvements and seek affected peoples’ input
  • report all incidents and receive feedback on actions
  • be actively involved in the development and trial of safe work procedures
  • follow all legitimate standards, codes and procedures
  • support leaders and team members
  • ensure excellent training systems are in place and effective
  • regularly review and refresh systems for all in the organisation.

Management of change is embedded in the organisation for all activities, whether they be health and safety or organisational change.

The culture is a ‘no blame’ one, unless the action is deliberate and against health and safety requirements.

Conclusion

Achieving a positive health and safety culture is not easy, particularly in the context of the many additional requirements of leaders by the business. However, as a leader once said: ‘As a leader if you cannot manage health and safety effectively then you may not be able to effectively manage all the other managerial requirements.’ It is first and foremost.

The three key areas that comprise culture change are: systems, leadership behaviour and symbols. In summary these are:

Leadership

Showing the people who work in the organisation you really care about them by being visible (felt leadership) and available to do your utmost to prevent them being injured. This is the first rule of good leadership for moving to a more positive culture.

Systems

The systems will work as designed if the right culture is in place. ‘It’s the way we do things around here!’

Symbols

Symbols are such that whatever you see and experience, such as information, signs and recognition, reinforce the culture by the simplicity of symbols.

By Allan Jackson and Peter Standish, Health and Safety Society Committee Members.

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The views expressed in this article are the views of the authors. This article provides general information, does not constitute advice and should not be relied on as such. Professional advice should be sought prior to any action being taken in reliance on any of the information.

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