Safety culture assessment by numbers, not buzzwords

A health and safety culture could be toxic, or even a killer, writes safety psychologist David Broadbent. Managers should keep a close eye on small deviations.

Safety culture assessment measures your ability to prevent disasters, injuries, and losses, but many people misunderstand the term, safety culture.

Many health and safety risk management terms, such as human error, incident, accident, even hazard and risk, have different meanings to most people, and even incident investigators do not define the term Safety Culture.

Intervening in Safety Culture requires management to understand where the organisation is within a recognised framework. This is a critical point of departure for many businesses.

For over twenty years now we have seen major accident investigations almost always point to failures at the level of Safety Culture within the operation/s. Yet, there is almost never an explanation of that they are talking about.

It has too often been some esoteric concept that has very little meat attached to the bones. A recent recognition of Safety Culture relates to the quite recent Spanish rail disaster where it has been said: “…the formidable safety culture that characterises Europe’s railway has, in each case, tragically failed”.

Even this comment shows an ignorance of what Safety Culture actually is. For a start, when we are exploring the efficacy of Safety Culture we are concerned about Process and later, how that “process” might meld together with other factors to influence organisational safety behaviour.

This might be thought of as the often quoted “how we do things around here”. The quote with regard to the Spanish disaster is equating the success, or otherwise, of the underling Safety Culture with the outcome. That is always a mistake.

What we can say, is that the Safety Culture of this operation was not robust enough to push back against an inclination by the driver to travel at a speed way beyond that which was rated for that section of track.

There are also a raft of engineering issues contributing to that outcome as well – so we should not focus solely on the driver. My point is this, I am seeing lots and lots of people (and some who should know better) talking about Safety Culture – when they really do not know what they are actually talking about.

As a Safety Psychologist, my own very deep focus is on ensuring that when I am talking about Safety Culture, I am using an evidence based framework in doing so.

If you Google “Safety Culture Assessment” you shall likely be bombarded with hits. That’s no surprise, there are many out there who have created their own Safety Culture Tools – and are now trying to flog those to the market.

I see some absolute rubbish getting a foothold – yet they have no real basis is effective measurement. When I was at university (all those years ago), I use to lament the degree of intrusion into my real work, that the study of statistical analysis required (it was actually a compulsory subject and if you failed it, you failed the course and could not continue).

It was only after that I truly appreciated that statistical analysis is arguably one of the most valuable skills that were obtained. Survey design is a science in itself.

Key questions that need to be asked when assessing the usefulness of a Safety Culture Tool are:
• Has the tool been factor analysed? (you want the answer to be yes)
• What is the test/retest reliability?
While there are many other important questions, these two can act as quite good discriminators.

Now there is a phrase called “face validity”. What this essentially means is that is “looks good”, and intuitively makes sense. That is all well and good.

Are you in a position though to navigate your multi-million dollar business toward an objective identified by something which “looks good”. There are still icebergs out there.

Organisational Safety Culture Review

If you actually wish to conduct a Safety Culture Review of your organisation you really should use a tool that has been designed for that purpose. It is a serious error to just grab a tool designed for individual use and then collate large numbers, and thinking that shall do the trick. It will not.

The Transformational Safety Culture Assessment has been developed specifically for macro (organisational use). Yes, it has been factor analysed under the supervision of Prof Sue Cooke from Loughborough University in the United Kingdom.

TransformationalSafety.Com then adapted some aspects to enable it to be presented to large groups. The smallest organisational Safety Culture Review using this method has been a workplace of 80. The largest has been several thousand.

The primary purpose of administering the Transformational Safety Culture Survey is to measure, in a quantitative and objective way, topics which have been shown to be powerfully correlated with quality safety performance.

The safety culture factors that are assessed by the Transformational Safety Culture Survey are:
1. Communication
2. Personal Priority/Need for Safety
3. Supportive Environment
4. Priority of Safety
5. Competence
6. Personal Appreciation of Risk
7. Managing Change
8. Work Environment
9. Co-operation
10. Involvement
11. Safe Behaviours
12. Systems Compliance
13. Management Commitment
14. Shared Values
15. Management Style
16. Safety Rules
17. Accidents and Incidents.

Each of these factors is an important element of the overall fabric of your organisational Safety Culture. Now it’s fine to see a list of 17 Safety Culture elements. That alone won’t cut it.

They need to be analysed and presented in such a way as to actually add enormous value to where you need to be. It is for that reason that I do not see any value in the “land of averages”. People often ask me “…can you give us norms to compare ourselves to”? My response is always, No.

There is no value in comparing your Safety Culture to the place down the road. There is even less value in comparing your performance to the industry norm. Statistically that is very dangerous. We know that the larger the data set the greater the chance of seeing a drift toward the centre.

Being above a corrupt average adds no value, and actually is quite toxic. What it often leads to is a totally dangerous sense of bravado. It is for that reason that I refuse to play in the toxic quicksand of norms/averages.

I am far more comfortable playing in the world of Best Practice Zones. In that way we always know where we are required to be directing our efforts – and it’s not about comparison, it’s about excellence.

The image above allows you to know where you are sitting with regard to the 17 identified Safety Culture elements. What you are also able to do is slice up your organisational footprint.

You can explore the variations in Safety Culture elements across site locations, age ranges within your workplace, length of service etc. Indeed one very interesting analysis was a comparison of Safety Culture elements within an offshore petrochemical operation.

Organisational and individual culture

I discriminated earlier between the organisational and personal Safety Culture assessment. The Transformational Safety Culture Assessment referenced above is specifically designed for an organisation. The mathematics associated with this process makes it unsuitable for individual use.

At the level of the individual, and small groups (not exceeding a dozen), the Transformational Safety Culture Self-Assessment Instrument is the tool of choice. It allows you to consider the Safety Culture, within which you are operating, and to map your perceptions of that environment against the Safety Culture Maturity Ladder.

The Transformational Safety Culture Self-Assessment Instrument has been specifically developed as a companion tool to the Transformational Safety Culture Survey.

While the Transformational Safety Culture Survey provides a very empirically sound and detailed analysis of the contemporary safety culture operating within a business, the Transformational Safety Culture Self-Assessment Instrument allows individuals to gain a personal understanding of where they see the safety culture functioning within their immediate work environment.

Lethal Safety Culture

If your result finds you in the “red zone” on the Lethal Safety Culture dimension, then there is reason to be concerned. Results in the “red” suggest a safety culture where there is little attention and focus on safety matters.

People have a strong tendency to ignore safety issues in the workplace. Research has shown that behaviours that are demonstrated within a Lethal Safety Culture have significantly contributed to major workplace disasters.

If you see the safety culture of your workplace as being consistent with a diagnosis of Lethal Safety Culture it is in your interest to contribute in any way to assist its movement toward a more positive (safer) direction. If you truly believe that cannot be done then it may be in your interest to re-evaluate whether you feel “safe” functioning in such an environment.

Avoidant Safety Culture

If your result finds you in the “red zone” on the Avoidant Safety Culture dimension, then there continues to be reason to be concerned. An Avoidant Safety Culture shows a strong tendency to distance itself from any proactive actions toward safety improvement.

It usually requires something to “happen” before there is any real recognition that safety is deserving of attention. People operating within an Avoidant Safety Culture often behave in such a way that safety is not a priority at all.

They will function from a reference point that safety is a bit of a game. You need to be seen “playing” only when someone is watching or you are being monitored in some other way. At other times they really just do their own thing. This is not the sort of safety culture you really want to operate within. Avoidant safety cultures are only a step away from being lethal.

Developing Safety Culture

It is a long way from Best Practice, although it is also not lethal. Within a Developing Safety Culture a process of safety communication has begun, and is being recognised by the workforce. People are being encouraged to actually raise safety concerns – they are not necessarily being acted upon at this time. Workers are also willing to help out a colleague if necessary.

This is the stage of safety culture where people, including yourself, are recognising the value of safety within the overall work environment. It is also a time where we are seeing recognition of “risk” in the workplace. If you are seeing your safety culture as “developing” then it would seem that your workplace has begun the journey toward optimal safety culture.

Functional Safety Culture

If a work environment understands the importance of safety throughout all levels of the business, it is functional.  Safety performance is frequently recognised – quite a difference from what happens in the Avoidant Safety Culture described previously.

There is a belief, at least expressed by you, that you can have a positive influence on the safety performance of those around you – that is no small thing. In addition the Functional Safety Culture has a number of conversations occurring throughout the various levels within the business which are focused upon the safe way of getting things done.

This demonstrates a more pro-active and interpersonal approach to safety interactions within the business.

Transformational Safety Culture

The pinnacle of behavioural safety performance in a workplace. The ideal Transformational Safety Culture profile shows all five safety culture descriptions with results in the “green zones”. Within a Transformational Safety Culture we see recognition that the vast majority of employees are working together when it comes to all matters involving safety performance. There is also a strong recognition, that is backed up by behaviour that safety is never to be compromised.

Getting a job done safely surpasses getting a job done quickly every time. Within a Transformational Safety Culture there is a significant focus on learning’s from incidents that may have occurred within the workplace (including near misses). Organisations that have reached the level of Transformational Safety Culture might also be recognised as a “learning organisation”.

The levels of interpersonal communication when it comes to safety are very high. It is the “norm” to genuinely consult with employees when there may be process changes that might impact their work areas. This is a key element of Transformational Safety Cultures – poor management of change is often identified within major investigations into workplace disasters.

• David Broadbent is a safety psychologist based in Australia, with several clients in Africa and India. This post is an extract from a post on

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