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Safety Culture: Faster, Higher, Stronger – Safer

Safety culture was embedded in the construction of the Olympic Park for the London 2012 Games. At the Health and Safety Laboratory (HSL), the expression, "It's just the way we do things round here" is one way of explaining what we mean when we talk about safety culture.

It's about the explicit safety practices in an organisation, but also the less explicit things - the customs, values and norms - that influence how people actually behave when at work.

Whatever the business sector or company size, taking safety culture seriously is vital to improve health and safety.  

But it is not easy for health and safety professionals to persuade people up and down the management chain to recognise the value of safety culture - people who might be sceptical about its value. So, how do you make the 'case for culture'?

When things go wrong

The safety culture phrase first came to the public's attention to describe issues that arose from the Chernobyl reactor disaster in 1986, and the realisation, in particular, that the organisational safety structures that had been in place - the formal roles, rules and procedures - had been insufficient to prevent a catastrophic accident.

Official enquiries following many subsequent accidents and incidents have also focused on the gaps between policy and practice: what should have been done, and what actually was done. At the Health and Safety Laboratory (HSL), which is closely involved in accident investigations, this is something that we see frequently. A weak safety culture is often very apparent after things have gone wrong.

According to some studies, up to 90% of accidents can be attributed, at least in part, to human factors. [1] Human factors doesn't just focus on individual employee characteristics such as physical abilities, educational attainment and personal values.

It also looks at factors in the workplace (such as equipment design and availability, the procedures the job involves, the design and pace of the work); organisational factors (such as leadership style and the resources the organisation commits to health and safety); and more wide-ranging influencing factors (for instance, the political context employees are working in and the influence of the media).  

That's why it's too simplistic to say that accidents are caused by human error, and leave it at that; to say, as people in some organisations do that, "Our employees had the training, so why didn't they follow the procedures?" For every accident, there will be any number of underlying causes.

Strong versus weak cultures

Every organisation has a safety culture. It may be a strong culture, where there's a commitment from management together with good communication, excellent training and supervision and the close involvement of employees.

Alternatively, it may be a weak culture - where leadership is lacking, or where management expectations get lost or mistranslated as they travel through the organisation; where a blind eye is turned to risky behaviour; or where subtle hints are dropped that it's OK to take shortcuts, especially when there's pressure to meet production targets.

Put another way, if safety culture is "the way things are done around here", then every organisation has a "way things are done"; and it's human nature to "go with the flow" and behave in a similar way to colleagues.  

Although an assessment of safety culture is not a legal requirement, it does demonstrate a proactive approach to health and safety management within the company and that health and safety is taken seriously. Some high-profile projects, for instance, the construction of the Olympic Park for the London 2012 Games, had safety culture built into them.

The outcome there was an accident frequency rate on-site of just 0.16 per 100,000 hours worked - far less than the building industry average of 0.55, and less than the all industry average of 0.21. There were no work-related fatalities on the whole London 2012 construction programme.

In every sector, the assessment of safety culture will take into account things which are required by law, in relation to health and safety, such as employee involvement in health and safety management.

It makes good business sense to pay attention to safety culture. In doing so, an organisation also focuses on good business practice in general - key aspects like organisational leadership, communications and the effectiveness of procedures. A recent study demonstrated that building cultures of health and safety provides a competitive advantage to companies in the market place. [2]

Factors like organisational commitment, trust, usability of procedures, peer group attitudes, resources for health and safety demonstrate that an organisation is going in the right direction when it comes to health and safety-related behaviours; that its actions are likely to lead to reduced workplace accidents and ill health.

While quantifying the benefits of a strong organisational safety culture is by no means straightforward, the results of several studies show indicators of a strong organisational safety culture to be associated with reduced risk-taking behaviour by workers and fewer injuries to workers. [3, 4, 5]

This is partly because these organisations have well-developed and effective health and safety management systems, but also because the managers in those organisations are good at sending cues to employees about their commitment to health and safety.

One such study of how organisational safety climate impacts on safety-related behaviours argued that it underlies over 20% of the injuries suffered by workers.  [6] The financial implications of failures of health and safety are by no means insignificant.  There is an obvious cost for the people too often affected by a serious accident, but there is an often less well documented cost to the company involved. A single major accident alone can cost a company £1.9m [7]

The costs of unplanned plant downtime, a common result of breaches of process related health and safety in the chemical industry are equally significant financially, which have been estimated for some organisations to be as high as £2.8m per day of downtime. [8]

When you add these costs to those that additionally may be realised as a result of reputational damage, the case for improving the safety culture of businesses becomes much stronger.

Then there are the subtler things that good safety culture is also associated with - fostering good staff morale, high levels of staff retention, and a good reputation for corporate responsibility. Safety culture therefore impacts on productivity, reliability and competitiveness. It pays to take it seriously.

All well and good, a senior manager might say, but surely we're talking here about attitudes and behaviours that are complex, and difficult to pin down. "What gets measured gets managed" - but is it possible to measure safety culture?

The answer is yes. Safety culture can be assessed by taking a snapshot in time. Typically, safety culture is measured through questionnaires and additional   discussion groups that explore an individual's attitudes and perceptions regarding safety, as well as their understanding of how things are done in an organisation.

The HSL Safety Climate tool has been designed to do just this. The tool is a revised, online version of the original Health and Safety Executive Climate Survey tool (HSCST). The original HSE tool was used by approximately 825 organisations, many of which also signed up to a benchmarking service. The updated, online tool makes it easy to measure culture reliably and allows an organisation to target its resources effectively.

Behaviour change

Once an organisation has identified where its resources can best be targeted, it is possible to change the culture and make safe behaviour the norm. The HSL has resources to help organisations take a holistic approach to improving the safety of employees.

This might include improving the physical environment, for example, by redesigning workstations or improving layout design to improve safe behaviours. This may also introduce business efficiencies. It might include working at an organisational and social level to train managers and supervisors with the right leadership skills and competence so that they 'walk the talk' in terms of safety e.g. wear the right protective clothing when visiting the shop floor.  Support can also be provided to teams to make sure to identify common goals, so that they work more effectively together.

Finally, it might involve working at the 'individual' level in order to understand the values and beliefs of employees, so that they are motivated to work safely.

Involving employees is vital. They're the ones doing the job day in and day out, and, if given the opportunity, will often suggest cheap yet effective approaches to safe working. These suggestions may also prove to be more efficient and therefore will benefit the business. Improving safety culture doesn't have to be expensive and time consuming.

Creating a good safety culture involves getting all of these elements right and recognising that there are both conscious and subconscious drivers of behaviour.

Taking an organisation's pulse

Before making these interventions, however, it's important first to understand the current state of an organisation's safety culture. That means knowing where the baseline is from which to measure progress and where then to focus action.  

The HSL Safety Climate tool consists of 40 statements, which map onto eight key factors and measure employee's attitudes on health and safety issues. A quote from Dr. Peter Bonfield, Chief Executive of research and consultancy establishment BRE, who recently used the tool in his organisation, illustrates why it's so important for senior managers to understand what safety culture is all about.

"I wanted to know what my team really think about health and safety," he said. "I wanted to know whether my commitment was shared at all levels. I wanted to understand more about our culture and attitudes and where we are doing well and where we need to improve. And I wanted it, warts and all, from my people."




Lunt, J, Bates, S, Bennett, S, Hopkinson, J. (2008). Behaviour Change and Worker Engagement Practices with the Construction Sector. HSE Research Report. RR660

Flemming, M.  (2001). Safety Culture Maturity model.  HSE:  Keil Centre.

Tyers C. & Hicks, B. (2011). Occupational health provision on the Olympic Park and Athletes' Village. Olympic Delivery Authority. London.

Temple, M. (2014). Triennial Review: An independent review of the function, form and governance of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). Department for Work and Pensions.


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