How to improve safety culture & leadership in business

A positive safety culture is an organisational mindset that places a level of importance on safety beliefs, values and attitudes. As these are shared by the majority of people within the company or workplace, it can often be characterised as ‘the way we do things around here’. A positive safety culture is key to the successful implementation of safe working practices and policies which not only improves the well-being of employees, but it can also minimise risk, promote productivity and improve organisational performance. In this blog we explore ways a leader can champion health and safety attitudes and behaviours within an organisation to improve safety culture and showcase the many benefits this can have as a result.

Workplace safety

Workplace safety culture: Theory vs practical implementation

Understanding what influences the safety culture of your organisation can make a significant contribution to changing employee attitudes and behaviours in relation to workplace health and safety. While most organisations have a health and safety policy, ingraining this into the attitudes and actions of each staff member can prove difficult. By nature, humans are highly influenced by our environment and those around us. When starting a new job, we are likely to adapt to our workplace surroundings rather than go against the flow, even if it means ignoring the company’s rules. 

Therefore your health and safety plan is just a piece of paper until you and your team commit to it and act on it. Safety needs to become a part of everyone’s daily roles and not be seen as ‘another extra task’, a ‘handbrake’ or just for ‘box-checking’, which are common misconceptions. Ensuring a positive safety culture is entrenched into your workplace is absolutely essential for the well-being of your workers and colleagues and goes far beyond a written document.

The benefits of improved workplace safety culture

A workplace that creates a positive safety culture through the steps outlined above will find less resistance to adopt these practices as they become ingrained in the attitudes and everyday tasks of workers. It will therefore minimise the complacency found in many workplaces, which can reduce workplace accidents and in turn keep your team healthy and safe. 

This will also give leaders of the organisation peace of mind, as there is reduced risk of injury, harm, and time delays which have potential financial flow on effects to the business. For example, Alcoa, an aluminium manufacturing giant based in the USA began to champion health and safety after the arrival of their new CEO, Paul O’Neill in 1987. His innovative measures ensured that “safety always trumped profits” and that “safety was not a priority, but a prerequisite”, striving for a bold zero-injury target. Not only did this approach successfully reduce workplace incidents, but after 12 months the company’s profits hit a record high, and when he retired 13 years later their annual net income was five times higher than when he started. For this business, focusing on the one critical metric of worker safety led to disruption of habits and change of the safety culture, which directly improved the manufacturing process and the bottom line.

Closer to home, Air New Zealand’s General Manager for People Safety & Aviation Darren Evans confirmed after launching their innovative approach to health and safety encouraging team-wide collaboration, that “feedback from the unions, health and safety reps and leaders has been very good and it has been well worth the investment”. 

Taking practical actions to keep health and safety prioritised in your workplace not only means that your organisation meets its legal obligations to protect workers from harm, but also provides an environment where all staff feel safe, valued and supported. This creates a more positive and productive working environment, as it builds mutual respect, loyalty and trust between the team. Employees have also proven to be more committed to company goals and work better together in workplaces where a positive culture exists, which in turn improves the bottom line.

With a global fight for talent right now and HR ‘headhunters’ becoming increasingly competitive in their roles to attract the best and brightest into their workplace, people have become the new commodity. A tool for ensuring that you provide an attractive package to those analysing an employment offer from your organisation is knowing that you prioritise health and safety and care for all workers, allowing everyone to return home safely at the end of the day. 

To achieve these benefits, developing a positive safety culture within your organisation is key. Having a strong health and safety plan that is well entrenched into every level of the organisation and reflected in the actions of all workers will help to ensure that wellbeing is prioritised and the risks of harm mitigated. Below we have outlined five important steps a leader can take to champion a positive safety culture. To evaluate your organisation against these steps, download our new Safety Culture & Leadership Checklist

1. Clearly define and communicate the company’s health and safety expectations

To get started, every company should have a well-documented and understood workplace health and safety plan that should be consistently and clearly communicated to the whole team. This is critical for identifying, controlling and monitoring risks, as well as ensuring all staff are on the same page and aware of what is required of them. As the leader of an organisation, it’s your responsibility to make sure you have the right resources (including equipment, plant, budget, time, people, and training) for everyone to do their job safely. The absence of clear safety policies and procedures or a lack of commitment to safety makes it difficult to develop and maintain a positive safety culture. 

Pedestrian safety

2. Leaders establish the safety culture and should always set an example

For a safety culture to be successful it needs to be embraced and practised by the organisation's highest tiers of leaders and managers. Strong commitment from those at the top by actively demonstrating behaviours, decisions and attitudes that are expected, supported and valued by the company is directly related to safety performance. It shows your commitment to health and safety and sets an example to employees what actions will be rewarded, tolerated or reprimanded, which in turn influences what actions and behaviour employees initiate and maintain.

Inspiring others to work towards achieving a particular safety goal or outcome can be achieved by adopting a motivational, encouraging, transformational leadership approach. This involves transforming your employees’ way of thinking and behaving through inspiration, coaching, support and leading by example to achieve a particular outcome. Methods of adopting this approach can include:

  • Becoming an active listener and encouraging open communication and reporting.
  • Responding positively and proactively to safety issues raised by the team. 
  • Coaching, training and encouraging your employees, rather than instructing them.
  • Fostering the development of attitudes and beliefs that support safe behaviour.
  • Team-wide involvement in creating, implementing and reporting on safety measures.

Promoting close involvement with workers to build trust and respect, while still maintaining authority and adherence to the safety processes is also key. While it’s important to communicate and reinforce corrective actions necessary to remedy ‘at risk’ behaviours, attitudes and actions, you should aim to avoid a mentality of policing. Creating a positive safety culture is about the whole team truly embodying these values, rather than being afraid of them. Positive acknowledgement of appropriate behaviours and actions with praise from those in charge can help to reinforce the desired safety culture. 

3. Ensure there is a company-wide buy-in of health and safety practices

While leadership is an important component for developing a positive safety culture, the effectiveness can often rest with the people in your business who are out there doing the work on the front line. The significance of ‘driving down’ the safety culture to the shop floor or work-site, where the risk exposure is the greatest, cannot be overestimated. As outlined by Air New Zealand, “our employees are such an important resource for us in terms of being at the forefront of health and safety - ultimately they are the ones that see day-in, day-out any potential risks.” 

Below are some tips for keeping health and safety front of mind for all workers within your organisation and promoting safety culture. These actions can easily be implemented by any company regardless of its size, and can be introduced with minimal direct financial cost to the company.

Encourage reporting

All workers should feel confident in speaking up that their concerns will be treated seriously and action will be taken. It’s also important that they understand that reporting issues or concerns around safety will not threaten their job in any way. According to Worksafe Queensland, “companies that encourage managers, employees and subcontractors to challenge unsafe behaviours and attitudes in others, and to also recognise and encourage those who have shown a positive attitude towards safety, will maximise the likelihood of positive attitudes and beliefs becoming shared values, resulting in a positive safety culture”. By developing positive behaviours and encouraging open and informed conversations, managers are creating an environment where it is OK for anyone to challenge unsafe behaviours and attitudes in others.

Involve the team

Encouraging team-wide active participation in all aspects of your health and safety plan, including identifying risks, investigating incidents, and taking part in training and ongoing planning, will help to promote adoption of safer attitudes and behaviours. While establishing health and safety representatives is important, involving the whole team in creating and implementing health and safety measures ensures accountability and helps to embed these safety into the everyday organisational culture.

Personalise the outcome

To encourage company-wide safety culture, it’s helpful to make work health and safety more obvious, relevant and emotional for the individual to personalise their role in preventing and eliminating risks and hazards. This can be achieved by increasing their understanding of the work health and safety outcomes associated with their specific decisions, behaviours and actions and relating it back to their industry and daily tasks. While it’s important that all staff are aware of their legal obligations to keep each other safe, using specific colleagues as examples can help remove the random statistics and enhance personal accountability, as it ‘hits closer to home’.

Additional tips for encouraging safety culture throughout the team

  • Ensure remote workers or those on separate sites are getting the same safety messages and opportunities for training. 
  • Communicate consistent safety messaging across different platforms, such as in company emails, management walk-arounds, weekly team meetings and safety signage.
  • Develop and promote managers with the right knowledge, skills and attitudes to successfully undertake the responsibilities of safety.
  • Develop and foster trust, support and understanding and enhance colleague relationships through social events and team building exercises that involve all levels of the business, as this increases the likelihood that people will behave in a way that will achieve the safety goals articulated in the company’s values.

Warehouse safety

4. Health and safety must always take priority in the workplace

In an organisation that encompasses a positive safety culture, nothing takes precedence over safe work under any circumstance. Investing in systems that enhance the health and safety throughout the workplace, including plant equipment, safety wear, courses and products needs to take priority and not be thought of as additional expenditure. At Vanguard Group, we also have Safety Experts who can review risk areas and help work out solutions tailored to your organisation. ​​The projects we have tackled are varied - wherever protection or safety is required, our services and products will be able to assist.

When staff are aware that their wellbeing and personal safety in the workplace is more important than profit, the workforce never feels as if safe work procedures are an obstacle to getting their tasks done correctly, on time, and without reprimand. If your employees are continuing to take safety risks despite your focus on making safety a priority, it’s important that leadership evaluates the effectiveness of their communication and understand why these risks are being taken. For example, are they unaware of their responsibilities, or is there pressure being put on them by others due to time constraints or financial implications?

5. Ensure health and safety practices are continuously developed and improved

Finally, it’s important that your health and safety plan is continuously developed and improved, in line with changes to your business and the latest safety analysis and reporting. Proactively gathering feedback on the effectiveness of safety actions and other related behaviours from a range of different sources within your organisation will help you to monitor the current safety culture. Worksafe New Zealand recommends setting time aside each year to continually look for ways to improve and adapt your health and safety plan to your changing needs. 

While a proactive approach is best, you may also need to revise your plans if it becomes clear that something is going wrong. Having clear processes for reporting and investigating injuries, incidents, near-misses, hazards and exposure, and health monitoring results is key to ensuring risks are being effectively managed and safety goals met. 

It may help to know that some businesses choose to get help in this area from qualified health and safety experts, and we can help connect you with a suitable service. An external audit or system review is recommended by Worksafe New Zealand, as it can bring an independent perspective as well as identifying any weaknesses in your processes and systems. 

Safety culture

Ensuring your health and safety plan is more than a piece of paper by facilitating a positive culture within your business has many benefits. Not only will it improve the well-being of your employees, it can also minimise risk, promote productivity, attract and retain talent, and improve organisational performance, all of which has positive financial implications on your business - making it well worth the investment! 

If you would like to assess the safety culture within your own workplace, check out our new Safety Culture & Leadership Checklist. Work through the list to gain a deeper understanding of the current actions and behaviours that are recommended and required by WorkSafe and NZ government, and recognise potential areas for improvement. This will help to ensure that you are on the best track for enhancing the safety culture within your business. 

If you would like to discuss safety solutions specific to your project directly with one of our experienced Safety Consultants, please contact us on the form below and we’ll respond within 60 minutes! Alternatively, you can call us on 0800 500 147 and a member of our team will advise your best course of action.