Creating a Safety Culture

An organization with a “safety culture” is one that gives appropriate priority to safety and realises that safety has to be managed like other areas of the business. For the shipping industry, it is in the professionalism of seafarers that the safety culture must take root.

That culture is more than merely avoiding accidents or even reducing the number of accidents, although these are likely to be the most apparent measures of success. In terms of shipboard operations, it is to do the right thing at the right time in response to normal and emergency situations. The quality and effectiveness of that training will play a significant part in determining the attitude and performance – the professionalism – the seafarer will subsequently demonstrate in his, or her, work. And the attitude adopted will, in turn, be shaped to a large degree by the ‘culture’ of the shipping company.

The key to achieving that safety culture is in:

  • Recognizing that accidents are preventable through following correct procedures and established best practice;
  • Constantly thinking safety; and
  • Seeking continuous improvement.

It is relatively unusual for new types of accidents to occur on board and many of those that continue to occur are due to unsafe acts by seafarers. These errors, or more often violations of good practice or established rules, can be readily avoided. Those who make them are often well aware of the errors of their ways. They may have taken short-cuts they should not have taken. Most will have received training aimed at preventing them but, through a culture that is tolerant to the ‘calculated risk’, they still occur.

The challenge for trainers and training, and managers ashore and afloat, is how to minimize these unsafe acts, how to instill not only the skills but also the attitudes necessary to ensure safety objectives are met. The aim should be to inspire seafarers towards firm and effective self-regulation and to encourage personal ownership of established best practice. Internationally recognized safety principles and the safeguards of best industry practice have to become an integral part of an individual own standards.


The purpose of this session is to firstly, examine the current culture in your workplace in regards to the management of safety and health and secondly, look at w hat you can do in your role to assist in creating a safe working environment.

What is safety culture?

There is no single definition of “a safety culture”. The term first arose after the investigation of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 which led to safety culture being defined as “an organizational atmosphere w here safety and health is understood to be, and is accepted as, the number one priority”. In high-risk industries, like aviation, nuclear power, chemical manufacturing and fuel transportation this makes sense. However, the problem is that safety and health does not exist in a vacuum isolated from other aspects of organizations, such as people and financial management, as it both influences and is influenced by them, so safety culture is really a part of the overall corporate culture. On this basis a more realistic definition may be

“A safety culture is an organizational atmosphere where safety and health is understood to be, and is accepted as, a high priority”.

What factors in the workplace contribute towards establishing a good safety culture?

Firstly, it is not possible to graft a safety culture onto an organization, as each organization is unique, and the best safety systems in the world will fail without a supportive culture.

Attitudes, both personal and organizational, affect the development of a safety culture in a workplace. The environment in which people work and the systems and processes in an organization also influence the safety culture. Therefore, each organization needs to consider all of these aspects in developing and nurturing a safety culture that suits the organization and the individuals within it.

The available literature indicates that a number of factors are in place in organizations that have a good safety culture.

1. Commitment at all levels

The organization adopts safety and health as a core value and actively cares for the workforce. The vision for the organization is that the workplace will be free of:

Incidents/injuries and safety and health is integrated into every aspect of the work process. This attitude is evident throughout the organization from the managing director through to the newest and most inexperienced member of the workforce.

2. Safety and health are treated as an investment not a cost

Risk management of safety and health issues is not treated as a cost, but as a way to improve the performance of the organization. Safety and health is reported on as part of the budget development process and funded accordingly.

3. Safety and health is part of continuous improvement

If safety and health is integrated into every part of the organization then it becomes part of the continuous improvement process. This means that resources and time is set aside to ensure that the organization can identify the weaknesses and develop strategy to resolve and strengthen safety performance.

4. Training and information is provided for everyone

People w ho are provided with regular information about safety and health at work is more likely to be mindful of safety and health issues and the ways in which their actions can affect themselves and others. Posters, warning signs and policies are not enough.

Safety and health discussions and information distribution should be built into all aspects of the work process from board meetings to individual interactions.

People who are properly trained in their jobs and are aw are of the hazards associated with the role they, or those they supervise, perform are less likely to suffer or cause injury. Training can take a variety of forms and should be ongoing throughout an individual’s time with the organization.

5. A system for workplace analysis and hazard prevention and control is in place

Management systems, safety systems and individual attitudes and perceptions can be researched, measured and analyzed to gain a picture of the current state of the organization and reveal barriers that prevent people from performing at their best. This is often referred to as a climate survey and assists in establishing a base line for the organization to start from. Climate surveys are conducted at regular intervals in organizations that strive for a good safety culture to measure successes.

Reporting systems are easy to use i.e. compact, open-ended, and impersonal and in practice management want to know and learn from hazard identification and near misses before they become accidents. Attention is paid to the details and small events.

The way reports are analyzed is agreed to ensure that individual and system issues are revealed and appropriate control measures taken.

6. The environment in which people work is blame free

Trust is an essential part of a good safety culture and often the most difficult hurdle to overcome in establishing a safety culture. Everyone in the organization is encouraged to realize that incidents are worth reporting and feels comfortable in correcting unsafe practice across, down and up the hierarchy. If this is the case, management actually knows what is going on and the workforce tell the truth, even if it is not what management may want to hear. Holding people at all levels accountable for safety means embracing bad news.

7. The organization celebrates successes

Recognition, rewards, incentives, reinforcement and feedback are important. A good safety culture makes it worthwhile for everyone to maintain a state of mindfulness by celebrating success whether big or small.

Safety culture is about improving safety and health management with a holistic, whole of organization, w hole of life approach.

How do I develop a safety culture in my workplace?

To develop a safety culture, change needs to be driven from the highest levels. The extent to which you can influence the organization largely depends on your place within the hierarchy.

The first place to start is to talk about the issue to senior management through existing communications structures such as:

  • Team meetings
  • Strategic planning sessions
  • Safety and health representative networks
  • Safety and health committees
  • Suggestion schemes
  • existing information to support your arguments such as:
  • Accident/incident rates
  • Workers compensation costs
  • Absenteeism rates
  • Numbers of reported hazards
  • The existence (or lack of) OSH supporting structures and programs
  • Budget allocation to safety and health initiatives from annual reports etc

If you have commitment from senior management reflected in policy then the next step is to establish w here you are at as an organization and plan to move forward from there. People are both products and producers of their environment. Trying to change people’s attitudes without looking at the environment they work in and the systems they work with is doomed to failure. Any change initiatives need to take account of the interrelationship between people, environment and systems as in Diagram 1.

The Work Safe Plan is a scheme that assists organizations to implement a risk management approach to safety and health in the workplace and many of the elements contained within the plan are those that make up a positive safety culture in an organization.

Work Safe Plan can be used to:

  • Provide information on desirable safety and management practices;
  • Identify the strengths and weaknesses of management systems;
  • Provide a measure for safety performance; and
  • Direct attention to areas that could be improved.

Work Safe Plan encourages the continuous improvement of safety performance as part of a best practice approach to safety management. The Work Safe Plan is suitable for organizations of all sizes.

Remember that occupational safety and health is an area that both management and workers can see benefits in. Any process that brings about cooperation between all levels of an organization can only strengthen its culture. It is easier to promote a safety culture than to bring about changes to productivity, quality and profitability. Yet, establishing and developing a positive safety culture is cost effective, increases productivity and efficiency and improves the organizations financial bottom line.

There is always more than one w ay to achieve a positive outcome.

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