When the master of psychology-based safety science speaks, people listen. James Reason has penned much wisdom when it comes to the drivers of safety performance over and above environmental, engineering, and procedural-based approaches.
Central to Reason’s thinking around exemplary safety performance is safety culture. Widely understood as the safety-specific values, beliefs, attitudes, and ultimately behaviours shared among employees, the critical characteristics of an effective safety culture (according to Reason) include being informed, flexible command structures, fairness and equity, commitment to reporting, and a focus on continuous improvement.
Over the course of applying the Sentis Safety Culture Maturity framework and diagnostic assessments, we’ve come to more fully appreciate the wisdom of Reason’s seminal culture model. Across oil and gas, utilities, construction, and mining, we have found support for these safety culture ‘dimensions’ being among the critical ingredients that organisations must get right to progress further in their safety culture maturity and safety performance.
Not what you might expect
The elephant in the room is that most, if not all of these dimensions actually sit outside what many organisations would actually consider to be part of what is typically defined as a ‘safety culture’. In particular, the notion of organisational justice and fairness might traditionally be seen as a HR responsibility and relate more to job satisfaction or productivity than to safety.
This is perhaps the biggest insight that Reason contributed to safety science that nonetheless has not been adequately acknowledged or actioned by organisations and safety consultancies alike. Most of our ‘safety’ problems are actually the observable symptoms of a deeper condition lurking within the organisation. At the risk of stating the blatantly obvious, safety culture deficiencies are usually traceable to deficiencies within the general organisational culture and perpetuated by both system and psychological root causes that sit across all domains of work such as production, talent management, safety and quality.
The hidden impacts on safety culture
We have seen firsthand how people, systems, and processes that site outside safety permeate into the social fabric of an organisation’s safety culture. Of these, the ones that are key drivers of safety outcomes include the following:
Lack of certainty, particularly around future employment
One of the most striking trends we see emerging from our safety culture diagnostics is the impact of job insecurity on all domains of work, and particularly safety. Further, a move towards contingent/contract-based work is likely to breed increased job insecurity. Lack of certainty is a fundamental driver of the psychological threat response. We have known for decades yet still handle it so poorly in many organisational settings.
Sense of unfairness/inequity
Another emerging issue is the impact of rising production pressure, whether implicit or explicit. With falling commodity prices come aggressive growth strategies to compensate for a lack of revenue. Without adequate soft-skills, frontline leaders may be ill equipped to deliver production messages in ways that don’t elicit feelings of pressure or excessive job demands among workers.
Infrequent or shallow reward/recognition systems and practices
Many leaders (and peers) underestimate the power of a punchy ‘token’ to acknowledge good performance. On the opposite side of the spectrum, a mismanaged performance review or poorly implemented incident investigation process has potential to undermine safety culture initiatives through reduced trust in leadership.
Changing nature of work towards geographically-diverse and isolated environments
Isolated work seems to be on the rise, particularly for companies reliant on exploration to uncover economically viable resource deposits. Oil and gas is no stranger to geographic spread, and many companies struggle to maintain a coherent safety culture between sites. High-quality and regular communication becomes a critical tool to ensure employees share ideas, concerns, and ultimately, create a common set of safety values, beliefs, and behaviours.
Automation and its impact on risk and safety culture
A final issue to consider is the role of automation and its place in the modern workforce. Granted, removing operators from high-risk settings is usually a good thing, but what does this mean for the characteristics of the workforce and the safety culture that may (or may not) result? A new type of operator is likely required who may not possess adequate safety skills or vigilance to succeed in this setting. The change in non-automated work (primarily maintenance) may also introduce new risks to workplace safety.
Through our partnerships with our clients we will explore these issues and many more. We also assist organisations with the practical ‘how to’ around designing a safety culture change intervention that leads to positive and sustained safety performance improvements. By thinking broadly and beyond the immediate safety landscape, organisations stand a much better chance of pulling the fundamental cultural, procedural and technological levers that will lead to marked gains in safety performance.
DR TRISTAN CASEY
DPsyc(Org), GradDipOHS Senior Research Scientist
Tristan’s primary research interests include safety climate and culture, safety leadership, human factors, training transfer, and survey-based research methods. Tristan is passionate about synthesising and translating empirical state-of-the-art research into practical applications, such as the development of evidence-based innovative products and services. At Sentis, Tristan has developed numerous research-based tools and offerings such as the Safety Climate Survey, Onsite Safety Evaluation, and Safety Leadership Assessment, and acted as lead researcher on several large-scale research projects across oil and gas, mining, and utilities industries. As a co-investigator, Tristan is currently progressing applied research programs in error management, safety citizenship, and safety training transfer. Tristan has presented his research at national and international psychology conferences (e.g. International Congress of Applied Psychology, Australian Psychological Society, Industrial and Organisational Psychology) and published his research findings in peer-reviewed journals (e.g. Safety Science, Computers in Human Behavior).