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Revealing Peak Hour Train Conversation - The new safety lexicon

It’s a wet day and the early peak hour train is crowded with a mix of commuters relieved to be heading home after a day in the office dressed in their formal wear, along with a group of construction workers wearing their brightly coloured yellow shirts emblazoned with logos front, back and on the sleeves. As I sat waiting for the train to pull out from the station I wondered how safety had played out in their day, what discussions had taken place and what decisions had been made or not made. There were three guys in their yellow shirts across the train aisle loudly answering my silent questions. I get social etiquette but they were keen to share their recent work adventures aloud, and it was kind of difficult given the volume and where I was seated not to join the conversation, at least in my head.

As the conversation progressed it appeared there was a fundamental disconnect between what I imagined their safety management system and risk assessments required and what they did in practice. I started to muse what was it that drove or at least influenced this disconnect. The guys’ shirts were neatly embroidered with a safety first slogan, they wore the carefully laced steel capped boots, they were clearly skilled and competent, and they had plenty of reasons for returning home safely to their partners, toddlers, grown up children and sporting passions; and yet they were prepared on the face of it to take significant risks.


Now clearly, males can egg one another on, and tall tales can easily grow but what grabbed my attention was one guy loudly running through the litany of his work related injuries. He described in detail his head being split open, the loss of the tip of his finger, a badly twisted knee and chronic lower back pain. Not one person flinched as he recounted this disconnect between the decisions made by himself and others and a system designed to keep him and his mates safe.
 
The why question rattled loudly in my head, not out of judgement or disbelief, but from a place of open enquiry and with a view that many answers could be given. I was contemplating asking the guys the question when they began to farewell one another with the friendly banter “mate it better be belting down with rain tomorrow so we don’t have to work”, as they clambered off the train with their cooler bags and hard hats. My first thought was what a lost opportunity not hearing first hand how they made sense of their situation and the decisions made. As the train pulled away from the platform, I started to muse on how current safety thinking might explain this apparent disconnect? Lots of thoughts tumbled around in my head. Maybe the safety system was not well understood nor owned, possibly the procedures were deemed unnecessary, and served as an unhelpful constraint and were seen to be too onerous to follow in the first place. I started to ponder project deadlines and how they might drive the trade off between getting the job done and meticulously doing all that was required. Maybe the leadership around safety was being poorly exercised and leaders weren’t effectively intervening when they observed people not doing what was required. Then I landed on the common prescription it must be about the safety culture in their organisation. It could be argued that over the past three decades we have evolved from it’s all about the safety management system; to it’s all about people’s behaviours, to today it’s all about the organisation’s safety culture.
 
The new safety lexicon
 
Safety culture has become a part of the current safety lexicon:
 
“If you want safe behaviour, you need to have a safe culture.” (1)
 
“It has been observed at the OSHA VPP sites and confirmed by independent research that developing strong safety cultures have the single greatest impact on accident reduction of any process. It is for this single reason that developing these cultures should be top priority for all managers and supervisors.” (2)
 
There are numerous models that abound in explaining the relationship between safety culture, behavioural choices and resulting safety performance. Part of the challenge is how to meaningfully apply the construct when there are multiple definitions used to explain what is meant by safety culture. In the midst of this confusion there is an observed tendency to reduce safety culture to the lowest common dominator, “safety culture is how we do things around here.” Part of the problem with this reductionist approach is that it potentially offers very little guidance to leaders and the wider workforce on how to bring about sustainable safety improvements.
 
Many have argued that it is a misnomer to claim that safety culture exists as a stand-alone construct and is somehow distinguishable from the wider organisational culture. In the Safe Work Australia publication titled Clarifying Culture, Verna Blewett argues that there is no such divide between safety and organisational culture.
 
Verna writes, “There are many myths and misconceptions about organisational culture as it relates to health and safety. Many have envisaged a discrete ‘safety’ culture in organisations. Moreover, this is seen as being concrete, predictable and able to be managed or manipulated in some way … There are dangers inherent in trying to manipulate something believed to be simple and predictable when in fact it is complex and unstable.” (3)
 
Bold move – Safety Culture is Dead
 
Some have gone further and posed the bold question is ‘safety culture’ dead? In a recent Leadership Perspectives blog, Dave Rebbitt wrote –
 
 “When I first heard about safety culture, I thought it made a lot of sense and admittedly, I embraced the concept. … Over that time, I have become less and less convinced of the existence of ‘safety culture’ as my understanding of organizational dynamics has evolved.” (4)
 
Some of the reasons he gives for drawing his conclusion are:

  1. Safety culture is “more about awareness and commitment than anything else.”
  2. “Culture is not something you can see or measure.”
  3. It has become an over used phrase, which has lost its original intent and meaning
  4. No matter how good a safety culture might be envisaged it cannot override the organisational culture. “Expecting an organization to act differently than it normally would or does when it comes to ‘safety stuff’ is not sustainable.”(4)

The article generated a flurry of debate when it was launched on the Oil and Gas HSE Practitioners LinkedIn site. There were 30 comments with the majority disagreeing with that safety culture was dead, and a small group agreeing in part with Dave’s argument.
 
Here are two comments that capture the opposing views – “Safety culture is far from dead. In fact in well performing companies it has become invisible. This is possibly the most desired aspect of a safety culture because safety has become integrated with every part of the business (that’s just how we do things here).”
 
vs.
 
“I fully agree that you cannot treat Safety Culture as a distinct elements of performance, and as you mentioned, the ‘safety culture’ will improve as it becomes intertwined with everything else an organization does. Efforts to change a ‘Culture’ without improving the operational performance are doomed to fail.” (5)
 
Andrew Hopkins, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Australian National University in Canberra, recently wrote an article titled, “Why ‘safety cultures’ don’t work”. Andrew argues that talking about instilling a ‘safety culture is misguided, because its based on a false assumption that if everyone thought differently then accidents wouldn’t happen. He goes onto argue that the focus needs to be on what people, do, as this is something leaders can control. (6)
 
So let’s get back to the busy commuter train and the conversations that took place between the three construction workers and ask ourselves is safety culture really dead?
 
I imagine through the stories told and the questions asked themes would emerge about how they see safety and it would probably be influenced in part, by their view of managers and their fellow workers commitment to safety and level of safety competence. Their view may be influenced by wider organisational factors, such as job security, performance measurements, work recognition, team structure, to just mention a few, as well as the difficulties involved in getting work done, whether it be that day or over the past month.
 
They might go on to tell us about whether or not they see leaders acting with justice and fairness following an incident and if they are meaningfully engaged as active participants in safety or if they feel victims of meaningless compliance. They certainly would hold a view about how useful the safety management system is and the observed levels of risk taking and whether there is real learning about safety in their workplace.
 
All of this information could be accessed through an honest conversation facilitated by willing listening. It would provide a rich tapestry for both leaders and workers in better understanding “lived safety”, and importantly how to go about together reducing injuries and increasing overall wellbeing.
 
For the past 30 years, Dov Zohar, a leading safety researcher in Israel, has pioneered and led the research into safety climate. Dov recently reflected on the past 30 years of academic research across the globe and concluded that safety climate was a robust lead indicator and predictor of safety outcomes across different industries and countries. (7)
 
A group of Nordic safety researchers, led by Pete Kines from the National Research Centre for the Working Environment in Copenhagen, have been working for the past 10 years on gaining a better understanding of the relationship between safety climate safety motivation, behaviours and performance. In their work they have defined “safety climate as a workgroup’s members’ shared perceptions of management and workgroup safety related policies, procedures and practices.” (8)
 
Based on their work here are some safety climate questions you could use to fuel the safety improvement conversation, whether it is on a busy commuter train or in any workplace –

  1. Do managers in you workplace consistently demonstrate a clear and firm commitment to safety?
  2. Do managers in your workplace support you in being genuinely involved and owning safety within your work team?
  3. When something goes “pear shape” do your managers act fairly and when thing go well do you get recognised for your efforts?
  4. Do you and your fellow workers demonstrate more than “lip service” when it comes to being committed to safety?
  5. Do you and your fellow workers manage risks well and not let work pressures and deadlines compromise safety?
  6. Do you and your fellow workers see safety communications and lea