Getting the right insight

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Safety culture is one of those phrases that is banded about by lots of people in the profession and industry, but the more I hear people talk about it the less sure I am they know what they are talking about.

One of the main areas of confusion, it seems, is how you actually measure it. Back in 2005 my first ever article for a safety magazine was on this very subject. As it happened 12 years ago, I thought it would worth dusting it off and refreshing a few of the key points.

The facts

You cannot measure culture. The phrase ‘safety culture’ means the collection of people’s attitudes and beliefs towards how health and safety is managed in an organisation. It is widely agreed upon by academics that it is difficult to measure in absolute terms. What you can do is take a snapshot in time. This is often called the ‘safety climate’.

To work out what your safety climate is like, you need to build a picture based on three dimensions.

  • Physical safety —how well are occupational health and safety risks managed locally across the organisation. This can be measured using an audit or a series of them
  • Colleague perceptions — what do your workforce think of how you manage health and safety. This is often measured using a questionnaire or by interviews
  • External perceptions — what do your external stakeholders think of how you manage safety relative to your competitors, legal standards, customer expectations and best in class. This can be measured via a range of key business metrics.

Building a picture of the physical safety and external perceptions is relatively straight forward, however colleague perceptions isn’t. You have a number of decisions to make:

  • You include a handful of health and safety-related questions in a bigger employee attitude survey.The downside of doing this is that when you get the results you often need more insights to identify focus areas, hence another more detailed survey; or
  • You use an off-the-shelf questionnaire with all the pros and cons associated with them; or
  • You use a face-to-face interview approach like appreciative enquiry, where you ask people to tell you what’s good or what they like. What they don’t mention, gives you the insights you need — again the pros and cons of this approach are obvious; or
  • You develop your own questionnaire based around the key ‘what it will feel like’ measures in your safety strategy, these are the statements that any good strategy aiming to deliver cultural change will have.
  • Whatever you do, you need to make sure the questions are valid; in other words they test what you think they will test. The results are reliable, so if you repeat the survey you will get a similar result. Just as important is to pay attention to the response rate.

A poor response rate, or low uptake for the interviews actually tells you as much as a high response rate or great uptake on interviews. Though, ideally, the rate will be representative of the workforce, the results are questionable.

The results of a climate survey are the results, you can’t change them. All you can do — even if the results are beyond your wildest dreams— is to celebrate success where you can and then focus on a handful of improvement actions. Those actions will make a real difference. If you keep referencing back to the climate assessment as to why you doing what you are, it makes colleagues realise they are being listened too.

Measuring the safety climate is not as easy as simply doing an audit and having a chat with a few people while you are there. It’s multi dimensional and best considered when you’ve cracked the obvious stuff and want to get more insights into what will give you the next leap in your organisation’s safety performance.

Richard Byrne is Health and Safety Director for the contract merchanting division of Travis Perkins.

HSE's guide to measuring health and safety performance is here.



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