Last reviewed 4 May 2018

Managers play a vital role in the promotion of a positive safety culture. Dupe Domeih explores what is meant by “safety culture” and the impact managers can have on the workforce.

Health and safety management, like all management functions, involves active leadership from the top. Managers, particularly at senior levels, play an integral part of organising health and safety and are responsible for delivering and implementing policies and objectives. In organisational structures, managers provide the link between the Board and the workforce for effective downward and upward communication. They have a direct effect on how health and safety is perceived by those they manage and thereby they are vital in influencing the health and safety culture of an organisation. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has long recognised managers as a key influence on organisational health and safety and emphasises the importance of a proactive approach by managers in establishing the safety culture within organisations.

Poor management of health and safety issues has financial implications for businesses. The Chartered Management Institute (CMI) estimates that poor management costs the UK £84 billion in lost productivity a year. This includes the cost of the many hours that are wasted by workers and ultimately lost each working week due to inefficient managers. Poor management practices responsible for lost time include unclear communication, lack of support and direction and micro-management.

Managers need to demonstrate a positive attitude to health and safety so that it cascades down the hierarchy to their staff. A proactive approach to health and safety is more cost effective than the reactive approach of dealing with the outcomes of failure. So how can managers help to promote positive health and safety culture in their organisations?

What is the health and safety culture of an organisation?

The culture of an organisation is a reflection of the way in which the organisation operates; it describes how, where, who, when and why an organisation operates in a particular way. Effectively — how things are done. All organisations can be said to have a culture of some kind. To promote a positive health and safety culture, everyone in the organisation needs to understand what is meant by “health and safety culture”.

The safety culture of an organisation encompasses individual and group values, the attitudes, perceptions, competencies of the entire workforce and patterns of behaviour that determine the commitment to, and the style and proficiency of, an organisation's health and safety management.

The culture of an organisation contributes greatly to its health and safety performance. Evidence indicates that successful organisations have developed positive cultures that promote good health and safety practices. Having a good health and safety management system can go some way to setting the scene for developing a good culture, but it goes much deeper than that. A positive health and safety culture embodies a combination of factors.

  • Visible leadership and commitment from all levels in the organisation.

  • Visible evidence that investment is made in health and safety including providing adequate resources, training, etc.

  • Good knowledge and understanding of health and safety throughout the organisation.

  • Clear definition of the culture that is desired and what is required of everyone to achieve it.

  • Acceptance across all levels that it is a long term strategy that requires sustained effort and interest.

  • Managing competing priorities with health and safety (eg production, quality, etc).

  • Good communication, up, down and across the organisation.

  • Existence of a good learning culture — the capability and willingness to learn from experience within and without the organisation.

  • Setting realistic and achievable targets and measuring performance against them.

  • Proactive approach allowing opportunities for meaningful involvement of the workforce in all elements of health and safety.

  • Ownership of health and safety across all levels in the organisation.

It should be noted that it is difficult to improve culture directly, but this can be done by improving the factors that influence health and safety culture — and managers play a key role in helping to achieve this.

The role of managers

The attitudes and behaviour of managers is critical to an organisation’s safety culture. Managers can help to promote positive approaches to health and safety by leading by example, communicating effectively and engaging with staff, encouraging a learning culture, promoting a “just, no-blame culture”, and tracking and monitoring progress to fight complacency.

Leadership style

Managers communicate the beliefs which underlie an organisation’s policy through their individual behaviour and management practice. Managers, particularly senior managers, communicate powerful signals about the importance and significance of health and safety objectives if they lead by example. Through this staff recognise what their managers regard as important and follow suit. A manager’s role should not simply be restricted to directing work and monitoring compliance with rules and regulations, but should show initiative and proactiveness. Managers acting as leaders and facilitators encourage suggestions and motivate and engage with their staff to solve health and safety challenges. This has an overall effect of positively influencing health and safety culture.

Communication and staff engagement

Managers may have the right approach and keenness to promoting a positive health and safety culture but this cannot be achieved without effective communication and staff engagement. Employees play an important role in shaping the health and safety culture of an organisation. Managers that work with their staff, engage with them regularly, encourage an open door policy to listen to and discuss issues and provide timely feedback generate effective communication within teams.

Proactive communication by managers can be achieved through regular planned meetings, face to face discussions, health and safety briefings, and so on. Regular communication and staff engagement enables managers to identify any issues that staff may have at an early stage, eg competence issues, additional training needs, welfare provisions and facilities, so that these can be addressed in a timely manner. Active involvement in health and safety empowers staff to take ownership for health and safety, which is a positive step towards preventing and controlling hazards.

Promoting a just, no-blame culture

Managers need to promote a “just, no blame culture”. They also need to demonstrate care and concern towards staff when things genuinely go wrong, which will encourage staff to report issues and incidents without fear.

When investigating incidents reported by staff, managers should have a good understanding of the mechanism of human error and the ability to assess the degree of culpability. This will help them to identify not only the immediate causes but also underlying root causes, which are usually systematic, organisation or management related, and to take corrective action to prevent the incident repeating. An organisation that puts unjust blame on its staff when an incident occurs will often suffer from a lack of reporting and a negative culture.

Monitoring progress and tracking performance

Continuous reviewing and monitoring of health and safety performance is a positive way of gauging the health and safety culture in an organisation and a means for improving on existing processes. Managers need to ensure that reliable performance indicators are in place that reflects the hazards to which staff are exposed. They need to have a competence assurance program to ensure that staff have the right skills they need to work safely and help them identify any issues and establish actions for improvement.

Managers should note that it does takes some time to develop a good health and safety culture and it can be lost easily and in a shorter time than it took to achieve it. Health and safety cultures continually evolve and continuous effort is required to ensure that changes are positive. Managers working at improving factors will have a positive influence on their organisation’s health and safety culture.


HSG65 Successful Health and Safety Management

Promoting a Positive Culture, a Guide to Health and Safety Culture

Leadership for Change. CMI’s Management Manifesto, Chartered Management Institute (CMI)