Manage safety culture, not safety recruitment

David Broadbent unpacks some elements of managing safety culture.
David Broadbent unpacks some elements of managing safety culture.

There are many ‘safety recruitment’ human resources services offering psychometric testing, but we should rather manage safety culture.

Sure we can test for safe attitudes, assuming the instrument itself is valid and psychometrically robust. The evidence though is very scant, and attitudes often change.

The Australian National Safety Council have specifically looked at this question of recruiting ‘safe people’ and found that the contribution it offers toward reduced workplace injury is less than 4%, among other more effective methods.

Psychometric testing offer some good tools in recruitment for high risk, high consequence, isolated jobs, such as operators of cranes, trucks, aircraft, and so on. They are much less effective for general workers.

The sample size in the test was almost 20 000. Clearly the ‘missing brick’ in our safety systems is not recruitment or appointment screening.

I am not suggesting that these organisations are not providing what they say they are. Indeed I would suggest that they are delivering the safest candidates in terms of general thinking.

But there is something far more discreet, yet powerful, in the foundations of the organisational wall. It is the culture of the place, all the unwritten rules that determine how people behave in various circles, and at work.

Safety culture example

Late last year I was in a reasonably remote mining community giving feedback to several hundred miners about the safety behaviour on their site. I was living in a mine camp and sharing a mess for meals.

It took me only one meal to learn what the norm or “accepted cultural practice” was for that mess. How quickly I was able to learn the unwritten rules in this part of the system.

There were no signs, nobody giving instruction. It was a case of absorbing what was going on around you and modifying your own behaviour to fit within the cultural expectation, by peer pressure.

On the shop floor, the same culture determines health and safety behaviour. Workers are very good at learning these unwritten rules, that the company tolerate, or rather that the company silently expect of them.

This is why the “safety recruitment” approach does not work. People may arrive “safe”, so to speak, but it does not take long and they absorb the practices of the culture at work.

If they do not modify their safe behaviours to “fit in”, then they experience a process we could term cognitive dissonance.

The result is they fit in, or leave to find a workplace that is more in line with what they believe work should be.

Our missing bricks in the wall have much more to do with the prevailing cultures of safety being played out within the workplace.

It becomes imperative then to explore the foundations of our walls to more clearly identify the actual shapes of the bricks we need to manufacture – to ensure that wall has the highest integrity, and inherent resilience.

Safety behaviour example

Incidents and ‘accidents’ continue, despite health and safety laws, systems, and incident investigations.

For example, a worker dropped a wrench on a ledge well outside the safe zone, but he stepped over a physical barrier, and past a “Do Not Enter” sign, lost his footing, and fell to his death. Why? And if the answer is behavioural, why again?

More often than not our safety systems appear to work well, but as “stresses” on that system are increased, the absence of only one or two ‘bricks’ in the safety wall could contribute to failure of our safety system.

We generally recognise system failure, sadly after injury or death. Why did the worker step outside the parameters of safety as defined by the system? There are of course a number of possibilities here, and I am only going to explore a few.

There were signs and barriers evident in the workplace, but was it standard practice to abide by those structures? A stressor was placed on the worker’s own internal system; to recover a small loss.

Some workers would take the safe route, and face the mind consequences of hassle to make arrangements to have the loss safety collected, or replaced. Was there recourse for workers to fix problems the safe way?

Safety incident investigations

As we go deeper toward the foundation of the system, and the workplace culture, we start asking questions about the personal values of the workers, and behaviour that are commonly observed at all levels in the workplace,

After major incidents, managers, incident investigators, government regulators and the media all come riding in to try and work out “what happened”.

Sometimes we do; more often than not we end up with as many questions as when we started.

We usually develop more systems and procedures that are designed to minimise the likelihood of the accident happening again. Finally we pray that our controls work. But they usually do not.

Despite the best intentions and robust efforts, some people step outside the barriers (systems).

Clearly there is something going on in the psyche of individual workers and the psyche of the organization that have greater influence on behaviour than our systems. It is clearly not a matter of willful disobedience.

What are the bricks missing in the safety wall? It is my contention that for any wall to work, the missing brinks need to be identified and replaced.

I suggest ‘psychometric testing’ of the organisation and its culture, instead of individual workers.

• David G Broadbent is a safety psychologist, and founder of TransformationalSafety.Com, based in Australia.

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4 thoughts on “Manage safety culture, not safety recruitment

  1. A well balanced appraisal of the situation. Psychometric testing goes a long way to influence the culture of a workplace.
    If used critically the selection process could be the means of establishing a homogenous approach and as a consequence a homogenous group.
    One of the most successful means of keeping the culture safe is the “buddy system” whereby workers look out for each other – the old never goes out of fashion !
    When I designed the DOVER TEST , this concept of “like minded people can be honed into a pattern leading to safe and productive work place behaviour.. The test in itself is not the whole answer but helps to find competent information managing people in an objective setting. The test has proven very effective worldwide with minimal ,if any negative cultural barriers.

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