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Safety Culture, Climate and Performance Improvement

22 October 2018

Research over many years has shown that most safety incidents and accidents are linked to human behaviour in the workplace. In this article, Dr Kevin Fitzgerald of Lloyd’s Register Energy says that in order to impact safety at the front-line, we need to work at all levels – top to bottom –  within our organisations to establish the appropriate values and behaviours that will support safe working.

Why Does Culture Matter?

The term ‘safety culture’ was first used by the International Nuclear Safety Group in its report on the Chernobyl Accident. Safety culture has subsequently been defined as:

“Consisting of shared values (what is important) and beliefs (how things work) that interact with an organisation’s structure and control systems to produce behavioural norms (the way we do things around here)” (1)

In other words, ‘safety culture’ refers to the underlying values and beliefs within an organisation that influence individuals’ behaviours in their workplace, and it is the way that culture drives behaviour that is important to us. This influence that an organisation’s culture has on individual behaviour is generally recognised and many organisations worldwide have set themselves the goal of improving their safety culture so as to achieve lower incident rates. But what does safety culture really comprise, how do safety culture failings make themselves apparent, and how can we go about changing culture?

What do Cultural Failings Look Like?

Within the process industries, incidents such as Longford (1998), Texas City (2005), Buncefield (2005) and Macondo (2010) have all highlighted the importance of safety culture, along with other more specific human factors shortcomings. It is tempting to think that the shortcomings behind these incidents are specific to the process industries. But of course, this is not the case.

Take the Marine industry as an example: Lloyd’s Register has recently reviewed a number of shipping incidents, three of which are summarised below:

* A Roll-On/Roll-Off (RORO) ferry ran aground, leading to loss of the vessel and loss of life. Failure of the crew to operate a new autopilot system properly was implicated in the incident. The investigation report found that a training needs analysis had not been completed; consequently some of the crew members were not fully aware of how to operate this equipment once the ferry returned to operation following refit.

* The captain of a container ship was under pressure to make up time following the ship’s delayed departure from port. The ship subsequently took a more direct course than usual and ran aground as a consequence. There was a loss of containment of hazardous cargo, leading to an environmental incident.

* A cruise ship grounded close to the coastline of an island, leading to its sinking and to significant loss of life. The subsequent safety technical investigation report stated that the ship was sailing too close to the coastline, in a poorly lit shore area, at night time and at high speed. “The danger was considered so late that the attempt to avoid the grounding was useless.”

In these examples the cultural barriers include issues such as:

* Workforce competence not being adequately managed.

* Rewards (in this case, an apparent time saving) encouraging at-risk behaviour.

* Personnel not perceiving the risk correctly.

* An inappropriate attitude to safety.

The behavioural failings here are clear – we may have seen parallels over the course of our careers - and, of course, safety culture failings do not always lead to incidents. Lower level symptoms of a poor safety culture can also be observed and can be taken as warnings; within our own organisations, these warning signs might include:

* Shift team “fixes” to equipment to make it easier to operate (do our Projects and Operations organisations engage with each other effectively”?).

Figure 1 – Safety Climate Assessment Output (High Level)
Figure 1 – Safety Climate Assessment Output (High Level)

* Ineffective incident investigation (how often do we really correct the root cause of an incident?).

* Low levels of safety reporting (do we capture all our useful near-misses?).

* Violation of procedures (perhaps necessarily, if the job cannot be performed otherwise).

* High staff turnover.

Aspects of poor safety culture can be easily read in the workplace. But the challenge is to convert what might just be a general recognition that we “have a safety culture issue” into structured action for improvement. This is where Safety Climate Assessment comes in.

Framing Action on Safety Culture

Human Factors practitioners make a distinction between safety culture and safety climate. Safety culture has already been defined (see above). Culture is deep-seated within organisations and understanding safety culture demands that we talk to people to find out what they think and feel, and why – which can take time and resources. A pragmatic alternative to safety culture assessment can be to use a questionnaire-based approach to assess what the people in your organisation think about safety. This is safety climate assessment and it can be very cost-effective.

A number of Safety Climate Assessment tools are available, all designed to highlight improvement opportunities in an organisation’s safety culture. Lloyd’s Register has developed its own Safety Climate Assessment (SCA) tool over 10+ years, building on assessment experience with companies across different sectors and cultures . The Lloyd’s Register SCA tool provides a picture of an organisation’s perceived strengths and weaknesses against eight organisational safety elements:

• Management Commitment to Safety

Does the organisation make efforts to embed safety into the attitudes and behaviours of its workforce? 

• Front-Line Leadership of Safety

Do those with line management responsibility (e.g. supervisors) set good examples through the support, monitoring and facilitation of safety objectives?

• Safety Communication

How does the organisation communicate key messages on safety?

• Effectiveness of Organisational Learning

Does the organisation learn from mistakes and events and make changes so that accidents are less likely to occur in the future?

• Processes and Procedures for Managing Safety

Are the systems that the organisation has in place to ensure people conduct their work safely - the safety management system, permit to work systems and task procedures – useful and usable?

• Workforce Engagement

Do individuals participate in and cooperate with safety expectations and initiatives? How involved are they? Can they report, challenge and intervene on safety without the fear of negative consequences?  Underpinning Engagement is the key aspect of trust within the organisation.

Figure 2 – Safety Climate Assessment Output: Management Commitment (Detail)
Figure 2 – Safety Climate Assessment Output: Management Commitment (Detail)

• Workforce Competence

How is the competence of individuals within the organisation identified and maintained so that they can consistently perform their roles as required?

• Risk Management

How do individuals perceive risk within the workplace? Is there a sense of vulnerability within the organisation? 

These elements are the ‘key ingredients’ for a safe culture and – crucially – they provide a structure within which improvement can be planned. In order for an organisation to have a robust safety culture, all these elements must be present.

The assessment process involves asking every employee – typically via a questionnaire that is made available electronically on-line – to answer a set of questions linked to these safety elements. Responses are then processed to provide a measure of the people’s perceptions of strength and weakness against the eight elements.

Typical output is shown below (Figure 1 - above). Here, green indicates where survey participants have responded positively, and red where responses are negative. Yellow and pink show where participants are non-committal.

Figure 1 shows SCA results for all safety elements. Even at this level of granularity, we can see that Processes and Procedures are perceived very positively, while Management Commitment is seen rather less positively. This immediately indicates that developing improved Management Commitment could be an opportunity for this business, and we can explore what aspects of Management Commitment are important by going into the next level of detail.

Figure 2 (above) shows results for the individual questions that feed into the Management Commitment element. These indicate that employees think a high value is placed on safety by the organisation but that there are some issues, for example with requirements to work overtime. Responses to the final question (at the foot of the graphic) show that a large proportion of employees have concerns that blame is assigned to individuals following incidents. Learning from incidents and near-misses is a critical input to safety performance improvement, and blame is a profound disincentive to people’s reporting of incidents. Therefore this is potentially a high priority issue for the business to focus on.

Starting the Improvement Process

Safety management has traditionally been seen as management of the three dimensions of “People, Procedures, Equipment” – with all having to be in place to ensure a safe workplace.

Safety Climate Assessment (SCA) generates a rich picture of the “People” dimension; how safety is seen within an organisation. This can provide a powerful starting point for improvement planning and for building workforce engagement. But, the “Equipment” and “Procedures” requirements of the organisation should not be lost.

One way of proceeding after the assessment is to hold a planning workshop (over one or two days) to generate an action plan for improvement. The workshop will allow the SCA output to be reviewed in the context of management system audit results, workplace inspections, safety performance, etc.

In Lloyd’s Register’s experience, when an organisation undertakes a SCA it raises expectations that action will be taken. Where there is sufficient trust within the organisation, workforce participation in the action planning process can help demonstrate that there is organisational commitment to improvement. And of course workforce participation can also ensure that the front-line has the opportunity to give its perception of reasons for SCA responses.

Figure 3 -  Dimensions of Safety
Figure 3 - Dimensions of Safety

Every organisation is unique, and needs its own improvement plan. There are common themes though, and the improvement process will often be designed to tackle:

* Leadership on safety (top-down, but particularly at First Line Manager level).

* Improved incident reporting – reporting is the foundation of improvement as without it there is no opportunity for an organisation to learn.

* Improved definition of safety critical tasks.

* Ensuring the usability of processes and procedures.

* Competence management for critical roles.


We have seen that safety culture has a critical influence on workplace behaviours and on safety performance. Cultural warning signs can easily be read in the workplace, but some structure is needed in order turn a general “culture problem” into something which is more easily actionable. Safety climate assessment can be a cost-effective way of bringing the necessary structure, helping an organisation understand how safety is perceived and where improvement is needed. The improvement planning process should also take account of information from audits and inspections as well as incidents to ensure that the three dimensions of ‘People, Procedures, Equipment’ are covered.

Fundamental cultural change requires strong and visible leadership from senior management, who must set clear improvement expectations and enable the change. All individuals within the organisation then have a responsibility to support the process of safety culture improvement in their workplaces by:

* Personally demonstrating safe behaviours (leading by example).

* Ensuring near-misses, incidents and accidents are reported.

* Encouraging and empowering colleagues to report improvement opportunities.


1. Promoting a positive culture: A guide to health and safety culture, IOSH information guide, 2015

About the author

Dr Kevin Fitzgerald has almost 30 years’ experience in high hazard industry and manages Lloyd’s  Register’s Risk Management Consulting business in the UK. He started his career in the chemicals  industry on Merseyside and has subsequently worked in the oil & gas, construction, utilities and  marine sectors, with design and operations businesses worldwide. An engineer by training, his  professional focus is on helping organisations improve their safety performance via culture and  systems. 

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