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
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.  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
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
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
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. 
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
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.  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 
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
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.
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
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
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
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.