What's Your Strategy for Safe Behaviour?
A strong safety culture within any organization isn't something that just happens. For every successful company though, you can always trace it back to them having a strong strategy. The question for each company this is 'Does the strategy focus on results, people, outcomes?'.
Does the safety culture you seek stand alone within the organization, or is it integrated into the organizational values? Ideally, organizations will envisage their safety performance objectives when developing their organizational values and over time, there'll be no differentiation between the two - doing things safely is just the way business is done.
If we define culture as a shared system of beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes - how do we then determine the appropriate strategy to bridge the void between demonstrating safety leadership and attaining a purpose-driven safety culture. Often what we see is that organizations will make a carte blanche 'Safety First' assertion, expressing their focus on a strong robust safety culture, but time and time again we fail to see these organizations are going to truly attain zero incidents or injuries. Achieving anything requires a strategy - it doesn't need to be complicated, but it needs to guide action at a leadership level.
First up, one of the challenges that organizations will always face is how they influence the behaviour of their workforce. behaviors are something that we learn. There is a mountain of evidence supporting that safe behaviors are an outcome of leadership behaviors. Where organizations demonstrate sound leadership, safe behaviors will follow. This is where the strategy starts becoming important, how can leadership contribute to safer behaviours, how will they help the workforce to learn safe behaviour.
Not every workplace is the same, what works at one site or location may not work at another. If we then consider strategy as 'a plan of action designed to achieve long-term or overall aim' (getting from a to b), then we need to consider that we may need to apply different strategies at each level, site or location of the organization.
Strategy drives performance. Strategy gives individuals, groups, teams, organisations clarity in understanding what the company wants and how the company intends to get there. Organizations have recognized that for many decades having 'business strategies' in place will help to ensure that their vision for the company is realized. Having the right strategy, reviewing it regularly and ensuring that things remain on-track, and ensures that the company focuses their efforts and finite resources in the appropriate direction. This principle is no different when we look at just one aspect (HSE performance) of your business.
The 'safety culture' phraseology has embedded itself across industry because of a nuance in our psyche that means we relish catchphrases. Nowadays, the catchphrase 'safety culture' is all the buzz, and at a very high level, is supposed to represent the way people behave in the workplace and their demonstrate commitment to safe outcomes.
More interestingly though, 'safety culture' has become an integral consideration in nearly every incident investigation process, so much so that often you'll see 'safety culture' being cited as a root cause. The phraseology is infinitely easy to imagine - the workers didn't believe in, value, or had a negative attitude toward safety and this resulted in the incident. Never have I experienced a situation where the root causes for incidents have been that simple.
I struggle, as I'm sure to many organizations, to see how a theoretical set of values and principles contribute directly to an accident - unsafe conditions, unsafe acts absolutely, but assigning a principles and values to a whole organization as the results of an incident is a challenging idea, and certainly something that SMART actions can't be applied to. It must never be forgotten that root causes for incidents should be factual and verifiable - so who's doing the substantiating on someones values and 'safety culture', the investigators?
For me, the use of a neat little catchphrase and the collective blaming 'safety culture' is simply an easy way of saying 'we need to do better'. It isn't helpful, it isn't practical and it doesn't provide insights into failures. But recent industry incidents (Macondo, Tianjin, Fukushima) have placed huge pressure on organizations to define their 'safety culture' and to ensure that they change something, somehow, to improve safety culture. Many organizations struggle to define what their 'safety culture' looks like, how it got to where it is now or where they want to to be in the future.
As mentioned, if we can leverage the same principles we used to implement a well-defined business strategy is a good starting point embed safety culture for organizations are beginning to safety culture journey. Structuring a business strategy that considers, and plans for contingencies will be a key success factor for organizations moving forward. It's not a quick fix, it's a slow and methodical process. But organizations that are built on the foundation of performance, of ensuring that they are doing what they do, and doing in the best possible way that they can do it will reap significant benefits from linking business strategy to achieving their safety performance objectives.