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How company culture can affect workplace health and safety

How company culture can affect workplace health and safety

Safety culture is established in a workplace when the business values safety as highly as productivity. In this article, workplace safety specialist Kate Gibbs examines how safety in the workplace goes much further than simply following procedures. Here, she examines the positive and negative influence that work behaviours and cultural biases can have on workplace health and safety, and how to ensure you have a good safety culture.

Every organisation has a safety culture, whether it is planned or not. The safety culture of a workplace comprises the values, beliefs, perceptions and normal behaviours that employees share. In a strong safety culture, everyone feels responsible for safety management. Managers work constructively with employees to resolve safety issues. Employees are committed to safety and feel empowered to act accordingly, working to identify unsafe conditions and behaviours, and intervening to correct them.

Prioritising production over safety and compliance over staff well-being can make it difficult for organisations to create a strong culture and meet legislative requirements regarding safety. In organisations that enforce strong disciplinary measures regarding safety, employees may find it difficult to communicate openly with management about their safety concerns. Each of these dynamics can lead to a negative and unsupportive safety culture in a business.

Risk-taking and rule-breaking in particular industries

A recent study by Safe Work Australia highlights the attitudes of Australian workers towards risk-taking and rule-breaking in particular industries. The report states that ‘workplace cultures appear to play a role in the acceptance of risk taking and rule breaking’ and goes on to say that ‘urgent leadership is needed to change what appears to be a culture in many Australian workplaces that it is acceptable to take risks.

The report indicates that there is a laidback attitude towards safety in some of the more high‑risk industries, including construction, mining and transport. Alarmingly, people in the transport, postal and warehousing industry reported a need to regularly break safety rules in order to meet tight deadlines. Ensuring that managers don’t set unrealistic deadlines is an important step in creating a positive safety culture, as it helps to avoid placing undue pressure on workers to forgo health and safety rules.

Benefits of safety culture

Safety in the workplace goes much further than just following procedures. Businesses that have a strong safety culture manage risk in a collaborative way, encouraging everyone to learn about, document, examine and pro-actively try to resolve risks.

The benefits of a strong workplace safety culture include:

  • low incident rates and associated costs, including workers compensation premiums and lost productivity
  • reduced staff turnover and associated costs of recruitment and training
  • low absenteeism
  • higher worker satisfaction and better morale
  • empowered and committed people
  • higher productivity and performance.

How to ensure you have a strong safety culture

The following steps can help you promote a strong safety culture in your workplace:

  1. Make safety performance part of the key responsibilities of all managers, supervisors and workers, and make sure employees at all levels are committed to upholding the principles of a positive safety culture.
  2. Promptly respond to health and safety issues.
  3. Create a system that allows employees to report health and safety concerns, and encourage them to use it.
  4. Ensure that everyone knows and understands the hazards and risks in the workplace.
  5. Methodically investigate all incidents and near misses, and examine root causes.
  6. Communicate regularly with employees about safety.
  7. Emphasise the importance of health and safety when inducting new workers
  8. Offer regular safety training sessions.
  9. Support employees with mental health conditions in the workplace and prevent discrimination against them. This includes identifying and minimising workplace risks to mental health and encouraging employees to be mindful of their emotional wellbeing.

Changing workplace attitudes to safety can take months or even years. By committing over the long term with continuous, measurable improvement steps, it’s possible for any business to engineer a culture that prizes worker wellbeing as highly as performance.

Kate Gibbs is a senior work health and safety consultant at Business SA and has more than 10 years’ experience in the field of safety management. She holds a Master of Occupational Health and Safety from the University of Adelaide, a Bachelor of Management from the University of South Australia and Diplomas in Human Resource Management and Occupational Health and Safety.

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