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An umbrella that illustrates components that might be a part of the expression “safety culture"
The umbrella illustrates components that might be a part of the expression “safety culture"

Safety at work

Safety culture

In the scientific literature about Health and Safety, it is common to use the expression “safety culture”. One definition often used is:

“The shared rules governing cognitive and affective aspects of membership in an organisation and the means whereby they are shaped and expressed”

The umbrella above illustrates components that might be a part of this expression. The figure was developed by Dr. D. Høivik, in her PhD: Health, Safety and Environment (HSE) Culture in the Petroleum Industry in Norway, University of Bergen 2009. The umbrella illustrates that several factors are important and necessary to establish a positive HSE culture. Managers and employees are partners in a system of interrelationships, and they have different roles and actions in the HSE work. Managers have the main responibility for making and keeping the workplace safe. However, the employees also have a responsibility to participate in the work for safety. However, behaviour, competence, collaboration, procedures and the physical environment are also important for a good HSE culture.

You have learned about risk assessment earlier in this course. It is important to undertake a risk assessment if you want to improve the working environment. However, the results from this evaluation are useless if you do not understand how to implement them. You need to have support from both the leadership and the workers to make changes. Such changes may happen in collaboration between the workers and leaders. They will be influenced by the competencies of all involved. Lack of knowledge makes preventive work difficult. While the physical conditions can be changed, it is very often necessary to change the behaviour of the workers as well. New procedures must be developed. All these factors are the fabric of the safety umbrella, which illlustrates how the work on organizing a safe work place can be organized.

Many studies from workplaces tell that a good leader is the most important factor for improving safety. Good leadership is of major importance for creating a work place that promotes a health and safety in an organization. If the leader is skilled and knows the safety issues involved, the work place and the employees will benefit.

It is important that leaders have competence in safety issues and that they are free to implement these skills at every level. It is also critical that the application of these safety skills is monitored, by for instance regular risk assessments at the work place. If safety at the work places is not monitored, there might be reduced motivation for further safety improvements. Evaluation is necessary to stimulate improvement.

Ten rules leaders can use to create better safety at work
1. Safety must be given Top Priority
2. Visible Management Commitment to Safety (posters with commitments can be useful)
3. Increasing Visibility around Safety (for instance safety signs at the work place)
4. Safety Reporting procedures must be present and known to workers
5. Staff involvement (ask the workers how to report and how to evaluate risk situations)
6. Create a learning culture (when an accident happens, talk about how to avoid another)
7. Provide recognition (recognize workers who report and improve safety)
8. An open culture ( encourage workers to report and to improve)
9. Effective communication (meeting points at work)
10. A safety system must be present

Effects of a negative safety culture

-Several times we have experienced that workers do not report injuries at their work site, because they are afraid of losing their job. This may happen in companies where the safety culture is negative. Nobody wants a worker that is accident prone - not the leadership or the workers. However, sometimes when workers are seriously harmed and hide it, they may not receive the medical care they need. Sometimes this can be disasterous for the worker. In a safe work environment, with an open safety culture, this would never happen.

Head with bloody bandage Head injuries need medical care, not hiding. © Colourbox

-In a company with a reporting system for accidents, there can be surprising side effects. Every company wants zero accidents. If this is too strongly implemented, the workers can hide their accidents and not tell anyone about them. It they are injured and someone finds out, the company statistics will not show zero accidents anymore! We have experienced workers coming bleeding into the dispensary with a hat full of blood, after a cut in the head which they had tried to hide. This is not the situation we want. The aim of reporting systems must be to reduce injuries and harm to the workers, not good figures in the statistics of the company. In a company with a good safety culture, the workers feel safe to report their injuries.

Effects of a positive safety culture

In the petroleum industry of Norway, there has been a large focus upon safety issues, since the nineties. As the figure below shows, a decrease in injuries among the workers has been observed. Of course, it is difficult to know all the reasons for why this has happened; there are many factors to consider. However, the safety focus may have contributed.

Table showing personal injury frequencies by job category Personal injury frequencies by job category on permanent positioned installations in the petroleum industry (Petroleum Safety Authorities, Norway, 2008).

However, we must add that there are many types of interventions that can be done at work places. In addition the effectiveness of the interventions must be evaluated properly. We need more studies on this, to find the best type of interventions. This concerns both developed and developing countries. If you like to know more on this topic, among construction workes, for instance, you can read this article.

ILO Guidelines and standards

The ILO 2001 Guidelines on occupational safety and health management systems (ILO-OSH 2001) has become a widely used model for developing national standards in this area. If you are interested in safety, you should study these guidelines. The ILO, with its tripartite structure and its standard-setting role, is the most appropriate body to develop international safety guidelines. The ILO guidelines are rapidly becoming the most referenced and practiced model for developing Occupational Health and Safety programmes at the national and enterprise level.

The ILO has adopted more than 40 standards specifically dealing with occupational safety and health, as well as over 40 Codes of Practice. Nearly half of the ILO instruments deal directly or indirectly with occupational safety and health issues. Read more about these here.

Rules and regulations on safety and health at work are clearly needed to establish the safe work environment we want. However, the rules are of no use, if they are not followed by a proper risk assessment and improvements at the work site. Action is more important than words! Personnel working with health and safety need to understand that a company’s top priority is economic gain and Productivity. Idealism exists, but it is better for workers to be protected by laws and regulations than to wait for an idealistic manager.

The countries around the world have very different legislation, but the International Labour Organisation is working to promote rights at work, encourage decent employment opportunities, enhance social protection and strengthen the dialogue on work-related issues. They have a database that provides a snapshot of the current major national legislative requirements world-wide and can be accessed here.

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This article is from the free online course:

Occupational Health in Developing Countries

University of Bergen