Safety Culture or Culture of Safety, what is the difference?

Every organisation has a safety culture. It doesn't always mean that it is the right one.

02 December 2014

In our last blog we explored what to do as leaders when we err on the wrong side of safety. In this edition we are going to explore behaviours and how they affect our culture of safety.

Does your organisation recognise the importance of culture and do you have a safety culture or a culture of safety? Are they not one in the same? Every organisation has a safety culture, it doesn’t mean it is a good one. The safety culture may be one where it is acceptable to err on the wrong side of safety, where short cuts are encouraged, production is put before safety, and where safety becomes lip service and not lived.

So what is a culture of safety and how do our behaviours influence it?

In the words of Michael Henderson “Your {organisations} culture is a vehicle through which you deliver your brand promise. Brand is the promise, culture is the delivery.” In high risk and high hazard industries we promise our teams and our customers that they can and will work in a safe environment, this is the ‘safety brand’ we promise. Is it then fair to say that having a true culture of safety is the delivery?

As leaders we need to ask ourselves, is safety a priority or a value? This is a difficult question that as leaders we need to answer honestly because that answer has far reaching implications and impact. Priorities change, we can justify why a priority may be put on the back burner ‘just this one time’. However, values are our principles or standards of behaviour; our judgement of what is important in life. It is far less likely to compromise on a value. When safety is a value, it is reflected in our choices, actions and behaviours.

We, the leaders in our fields, are expected to set standards, impart values and encourage behaviour on the right side of safety. To engage every individual to influence the culture of safety, and for every individual to behave in a way that will deliver the safety brand we promise. An effective culture of safety is in the hands of the people in that culture. As leaders we are able to set the tone that safety is a value not a priority, thereby influencing behaviours and our culture of safety.

How do we set that tone and influence behaviour as leaders?

Question and understand what beliefs our behaviours stem from. We need to first understand ourselves and our perception of the right side of safety before we influence our teams.

Acknowledge that there may be dissonance between what we know is right and what we feel pressured to do. This may be internal or external pressure. Develop skills and techniques to make decisions with safety as a value.

Take a safety culture temperature check by conducting a safety culture assessment. This will enable a clear picture of what your current culture of safety looks like and set a path to achieve your safety vision.

There are many steps that we as leaders can take to influence behaviour and the culture of safety in our organisations; sometimes we need a helping hand. At Intertek Consulting & Training we are here to offer guidance and look at a holistic approach to influencing a culture of safety that not only delivers, but lives the safety brand we promise.

In our next edition we will explore the value of taking an organisational safety temperature check to see which side of safety we are sitting on and how that can set us on the right side of safety. If you need a helping hand in the meantime, give us a call.

Today's expert blogger is Nuala Gage, Senior Consultant, Sub-Saharan Africa for Intertek's Consulting and Training group. Nuala brings more than 10 years' experience in the industry of learning development and safety leadership.