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Insights from the BoK- Can culture be managed?

Insights from the BoK- Can culture be managed? 


The OHS Body of Knowledge (BoK) describes key concepts, core theories and related evidence that should be considered by OHS professionals in Australia. We provided an introduction to the chapter on Organisation Culture in our last edition and will address the four central questions raised by the BoK in this and upcoming editions of Safety Thinking. In this Safety Thinking edition, we look at the core concept ‘Can culture be managed or engineered?’
 
Central to the argument is the distinction as to whether culture is something an organisation ‘has’ (a variable) or something an organisation ‘is’ (a metaphor). The variable approach argues that culture is something that can be measured and influenced, while the metaphor view sees the organisation as a socially shared experience and does lend itself to be easily moulded and changed.
 
The BoK suggests that safety culture is a confusing and ambiguous concept with little evidence of a direct relationship between the construct and safety performance. The authors of the chapter however indicate that the amount of energy devoted by business leaders to the safety cause can lead to fewer incidents. The BoK encourages a shift in focus away from ‘changing safety culture’ to ‘changing organisational and management practices’.

The BoK however sees merit in the management of safety climate which is arguably defined as the 'perception of the policies, practices, and procedures pertaining to safety'. It can be measured across seven key elements, as suggested by the NOSACQ-50 research team, and is based on the perceptions of the workforce. Research has shown a strong correlation between safety climate scores and safety performance, leading to consensus amongst researchers that good safety climate leads to fewer incidents and injuries through its influence on safety behavior.

In our opinion, safety culture can be influenced when it’s viewed as ‘organisational and management practices’ and caution needs to be exercised when claims are made that it can be directly engineered. The idea that culture can be engineered fundamentally misses the point that culture is about deeply held assumptions and values, which are not easily shifted. The real element of control lies with Safety Climate, where management can directly impact safety performance.