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What is 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”
Safety At Work
© University of Bergen/Authors: O.J. Møllerløkken, G. Tjalvin, B.E. Moen

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 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 responsibility 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.

Safety and Culture

You will no doubt be aware of the concept and role of risk assesments. 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.

Leadership and Safety Culture

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.

How Can Leaders Create a Safety Culture?

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 Positive Safety Culture

Many companies have focused on occupational safety and health management the past years, with different models and strategies. Several factors may be of importance for improving the accident rate, as illustrated by the figure below. This figure is from the construction industry in Hong Kong, and illustrates how a good management system and the safety culture can have important effects.

Fig 1 Accident statistics of the construction industry in Hong Kong© Figure 1 from Yangho Kim et al, Safety and Health at Work 7 (2016) 89e96 “Creating a Culture of Prevention in Occupational Safety and Health Practice.”Licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0

If you would like to know more about work place interventions at construction industry work sites, 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. The ILO, with its tripartite structure and its standard-setting role, is the most appropriate body to develop international safety guidelines.

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.

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.

© University of Bergen/Authors: O.J. Møllerløkken, G. Tjalvin, B.E. Moen
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Occupational Health in Developing Countries

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