Last reviewed 20 April 2022
Two years of remote working to limit impacts of the pandemic have shown that good communication is vital in creating positive health and safety cultures, a message that will be central to the World Day for Safety and Health at Work 2022 on 28 April. Jon Herbert reports.
One factor distinguishing the response to Covid-19 from previous crises was new opportunities for participation and dialogue between businesses, staff and colleagues made possible by the social media explosion.
This saw new links forged between governments, employers, workers, and public health organisations that helped to protect working environments and safeguard the occupational safety and health of workers, according to the UN International Labour Organisation based in Geneva.
Gains and losses
Social dialogue helps to improve policies and strategies, the ILO says. This is also important in generating a sense of ownership and commitment, plus making the rapid and more effective implementation of much-needed changes and updates easier, it adds.
But while the wide use of teleworking has created opportunities, it also has potential downsides. These include psychosocial risks and violence in particular, says the ILO (https://www.ilo.org/).
A day to make things better
The ILO was formed in 1919 as a tripartite agency of governments, employers and workers in 187 member states. To improve social and economic justice, it sets international labour standards.
To help, on 28 April each year ILO’s World Day for Safety and Health at Work focuses on preventing occupational accidents and diseases globally, a date shared since 1996 with the International Commemoration Day for Dead and Injured Workers.
The 2022 theme, Act together to build a positive safety and health culture, will look at the important role of participation and social dialogue.
Why communication is essential
Throughout the pandemic, strong occupational health and safety systems protected working environments and workers, says ILO. They are also vital in developing and revising policy and regulatory frameworks, plus strengthening the ownership and commitment essential for rapid and effective implementation.
A strong culture is valued by both management and workers, ILO adds. Inclusion makes workers feel more comfortable about raising potential risk or hazard concerns; meanwhile management teams can work with staff proactively on sustainable solutions. Trust and mutual respect are essential.
New and emerging risks at work
However, workplace innovations, plus social or organisational change, can also generate new and emerging occupational risks, the ILO warns. These may come from new technologies and production processes, such as nanotechnology and biotechnology.
In addition, risks can be created by workplace changes — such as higher workloads, more intense work after downsizing, poor conditions for migrant workers, plus jobs in the informal economy.
Other trends — self-employment, outsourcing, and temporary contracts — can also be detrimental. Advances in scientific understanding can mean changes. Examples include ergonomic risk impacts on musculoskeletal disorders created by new views of psychosocial factors on work-related stress.
ILO says some 6300 people die from occupational accidents or work-related diseases every day. There are circa 2.3 million deaths and 317 million accidents annually, many with long work absences.
Another key ILO message is that everyone must help to stop deaths and injuries at work. Governments are responsible for providing the infrastructure — laws and services — to ensure workers remain employable and enterprises flourish, plus systems to inspect and enforce compliance.
In parallel, employers have a duty to ensure working environments are safe and healthy. Workers meanwhile, must work safely, protect themselves, not endanger others, know their rights, and help to implement preventive measures.
A positive company culture is about more than simply complying with health and safety policy and must take into account whether employees are supportive, happy and interested in workplace safety, or ambivalent and even dismissive.
Not all risks can be engineered out of work environments. Some individuals may be tempted to take short cuts. Others make mistakes. Sometimes risk-taking behaviour is intentional. Risks can also follow a poor understanding of hazard and controls, or inadequate training.
The result can be injuries, ill-health and fatalities, plus business costs, lost time, damage, litigation and prosecution.
To answer these questions, the HSE has taken a close look at why organisational culture is important (https://www.hse.gov.uk/humanfactors/topics/culture.htm).
Culture, the HSE says, can be best understood as “the way we do things around here” and is the context within which people judge their behaviour. An organisation's culture affects human behaviour and performance at work, it adds; poor cultures contribute to major incidents and personal injuries.
As such, safety cultures can have an influence on outcomes equal to that of safety management systems, and are a subset of an organisation’s or company’s overall culture.
Many companies see “safety culture” as the inclination of employees to obey rules, or act safety or unsafely. However, the HSE believes the culture and style of management is even more significant.
As an example, it cites a natural if unconscious bias in favour of production over safety. Similarly, there is a tendency to focus on the short-term results and being highly reactive. In fact, success normally comes from good leadership, worker involvement and communication, says the HSE.
Safety climate survey findings
The HSE recommends safety climate surveys as a snapshot of organisational culture in relation to safety. These tend to focus on employee perceptions and behaviours. However, the HSE's Safety Climate Survey Tool is being revised and a new Process Safety Climate Tool developed.
Meanwhile, it lists key influences on safety culture as: management commitment and style; employee involvement; training and competence; communication; compliance with procedures; and organisational learning.
Further important information sources
To take this forward, three further links are given:
Leading Health and Safety at Work offers leadership guidance for directors, governors, trustees, officers, and their equivalents in the private, public and third sectors.
Human factors: Behavioural safety looks at the increasing use in recent years of behavioural safety or behaviour modification approaches.
Human factors: Learning organisations considers that a learning organisation values and encourages learning from its own experiences, but also looks beyond itself for other lessons that help to avoid complacency.
Key organisational culture principles
As an aide-mémoire, the HSE makes the following points.
A culture change process can take several years to complete.
A good starting place is measuring an existing safety culture, perhaps with a safety climate tool, or more informally by talking to the workforce (proportionate to workplace hazards and risks). This can help to target weaknesses within an organisational culture.
A first pass can use questions in HSE’s Human Factors Toolkit.
Measurements are only a starting point. Action on the findings is needed, with feedback for employees. Repeated measurements to track progress are beneficial.
Very positive results can be achieved by focusing on specific issues, such as safety leadership, competence, or procedures.
Many organisations use third parties to help measure and change their culture. But it is important to retain ownership, work in partnership, and acquire the knowledge and skills needed to continue working independently.
A common mistake is to focus on staff levels below the manager who initiates work. Senior managers must have their own perceptions and behaviours examined and challenged.
Safety culture is particularly important in construction where many people are in environments with serious risks and dangers, working around heavy machinery, with construction equipment, and with hazardous chemicals. Death and injury rates are higher than in any other UK sector.
Added business risks
Not having a strong positive safety culture in place can increase the business risk of:
damaging a company’s reputation as a supplier to clients
delaying the delivery of contracts
failing to achieve accreditations needed to win contracts
injuries to staff, with compensation costs and legal claims, plus poor staff retention rates.
World Day for Safety and Health at Work 2022 on 28 April 2022 around the theme of “Act together to build a positive safety and health culture”, will focus on the importance of participation and social dialogue in creating positive workplace health and safety cultures (https://www.ilo.org/global/topics/safety-and-health-at-work/events-training/events-meetings/world-day-safety-health-at-work/WCMS_836801/lang--en/index.htm).
The day is organised annually by the UN International Labour Organization, which also explains the benefits for and responsibilities placed on employers, employees and government agencies.
Information and guidance on establishing a strong health and safety workplace culture is also provided by the HSE here.