Assura’s Managing Director Hamish Howard discusses the importance of safety culture – and how, without it, efforts to introduce any new health and safety systems designed to change behaviour or manage risk are likely to fail.

In the past year, 57 people in New Zealand lost their lives due to injury at work, according to WorkSafe data . That’s 57 families, organisations and communities forever changed.

Many organisations are making significant changes to improve health and safety, but New Zealand’s level of work-related injury remains high by international standards. Our ‘number eight wire’ mentality – while great for innovation – increases our acceptance of risk.

How can we change this?

The solution isn’t new health and safety systems, cheesy posters, or token catchphrases – all of which are about as useful as putting a sticking plaster on a broken leg.

Writing for global business magazine Forbes, organisational culture expert Chris Cancialosi explains:

“You’ve probably seen it before: a well-meaning cartoon safety poster hanging in your company warehouse about ladder safety, complete with a kitschy catchphrase like, ‘While on a ladder, never step back to admire your work!

“Reminders like these are good for a chuckle, but are they actually effective at raising awareness and changing behaviour in any sort of sustainable way?”

The answer is no. For some organisations, safety is often not taken seriously until there is a serious workplace accident or injury. But by then it is too late. We need to move beyond compliance and focus on culture – otherwise any attempts at changing behaviour or managing risk are likely to be ineffective.

Introducing safety culture

The term ‘safety culture’ was first coined in 1988 after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine. Subsequent investigations revealed that human error alone could not be blamed for the event – systemic failures within the organisation meant safety wasn’t a priority.

Lessons learned from Chernobyl led to the concept of safety culture being adopted by businesses throughout the world.

There are dozens of definitions and interpretations of safety culture. The Institute for an Industrial Safety Culture (ICSI) defines it as: “a set of ways of doing and thinking that is widely shared by the employees of an organisation when it comes to controlling the most significant risks associated with its activities”.

In a nutshell, it means embedding safety in your organisation’s DNA – walking the talk, practising what you preach, putting words into action…I think you get the picture. At Assura we like to use the phrase: it’s just what good work looks like.

The consequences of not establishing a strong safety culture can be illustrated by BP’s Gulf of Mexico disaster in 2010, which resulted in the death of 11 workers, a sunk rig, and four million barrels of oil flowing into the ocean.

Investigators claimed BP created a culture of complacency that sacrificed safety for profit, and any attempts to address safety issues were only superficial. Talk at the top was not backed up with action.

It’s one thing to develop a safety commitment at the executive level – it’s quite another to ensure workers act differently on the ground. We need to move beyond individual behaviour, to sharing risk, and changing perceptions of health and safety throughout the organisation.

Anything else could be the difference between life and death.

Using technology to create a culture of improvement

We get it… health and safety regulations and policies can be complex and time-consuming. Driving safety behaviour in the workplace can also be difficult, particularly if you have staff working in remote locations or across different sites.

A recent Deloitte report claims many organisations have an out-dated approach to improving workplace safety performance, with some treating safety like a process, instead of engaging people; applying simple solutions to a complex problem; and addressing safety in isolation.

Assura works with New Zealand organisations to provide automated systems that engage their workforces, simplify health and safety reporting, and develop a strong safety culture.

Consider this: You are the manager of a construction company with hundreds of workers in the field. Safety concerns need be reported directly to the site manager, which involves putting down tools and heading back to the office to fill out paperwork.

Assura’s automated, mobile platform instead can provide each of your workers with the ability to report incidents or safety concerns while in the field – without having to lose valuable production time. The platform can be accessed via a mobile app which removes paperwork, and gives staff and contractors the tools to proactively identify risk.

Our platform puts essential data at managers’ fingertips so they can make important safety decisions on the spot. The software also ensures that tasks are completed at the right time and by the right people, so there are no shortcuts.

This means safety becomes entrenched in daily operations and staff are actively involved in problem-solving.

While new technology might seem like a silver bullet, it can only go so far. Businesses must first acknowledge any workplace health and safety challenges and commit to developing a culture of improvement.

You need to walk the talk. Otherwise, you are simply addressing the symptoms and not the root cause.

Keen to know more?

Check out these organisations that have implemented Assura’s health and safety system to drive improvement:

Greater Wellington Regional Council: 450 staff across 1.5 million hectares now involved in health and safety

Trade Assist: Meeting the needs of six divisions with different risk levels

Contact us or call directly on 021 635 237.

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