A positive health and safety culture - the key to success

Author:

Businesses have a legal and moral responsibility for the health and safety of their staff. As well as having good health and safety policies and procedures in place and also safe equipment, another essential element to ensuring staff remain safe at work is a positive safety culture within the business.

What is meant by ‘safety culture’? This has been defined by the ACSNI Human Factors Study Group as “the product of individual and group values, attitudes, perceptions, competencies, and patterns of behaviour that determine the commitment to, and the style and proficiency of, an organisation’s health and safety management”. So, essentially it is the way in which attitudes, values and behaviour within a business influence the approach to health and safety.

Why is a positive safety culture so important for businesses? Positive and visible “buy in” to health and safety from the Board of Directors and senior managers can be a major influence on the effectiveness of a health and safety management system. It signals to those inside (and outside) the organisation that health and safety is important to the business and the way in which it operates. If management lead by example and take an active role ‘on the shop floor’, staff are more likely to be persuaded that health and safety is being taken seriously by the business – and that they are not expected to cut corners to save costs or meet a production target. 

Another important aspect of a business’ culture is communication between management and employees. This needs to be open, effective and two-way. For example, employees need to feel able to report any problems and make suggestions for improving practices and know that it will not impact on their job or position within the business. Good managers will actively listen to their employees and address any issues as appropriate. In doing this, both employees and management will take ownership of health and safety and work together to improve it.

A recent example of what can happen when a business has a poor safety culture involves a manufacturing company which was prosecuted by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) after an employee was hit on the head by a heavy triple-glazed double door which was being unloaded at a construction site.

The employee was knocked unconscious and subsequently suffered from whiplash and headaches. The company was fined £300,000 and ordered to pay over £18,000 in legal costs by Oxford Crown Court.

The court case revealed that the company had failed its employees on a number of levels -

1.     the company effectively turned a blind eye to previous problems - there had been several previous injuries during unloading and handling of glazed units which the company had not properly investigated;

2.     it repeatedly ignored advice – it had been warned by the HSE and its own safety consultant that it needed to put in place a safe system of work for transporting, unloading and handling their products – as a result, the company didn’t mark the different weights of the glazing units or ensure loads were secured safely;

3.     managers weren’t committed to health and safety - according to the judge hearing the case “the culture of the business was at the route of the problem” and “systemic management failings” caused the health and safety breaches and injuries.

In light of this, it is perhaps unsurprising that the company pleaded guilty to breaching the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974.

In this case, the court identified a fundamental lack of interest in health and safety on the part of management, which ultimately resulted in not one, but several people being hurt unnecessarily. There was therefore a direct link between the poor safety culture and the injuries.

If you are interested in looking at ways to improve the safety culture in your business, then the publication “Promoting a positive culture – a guide to health and safety culture” by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health a useful starting point.