One safe world for workers

Can a global organisation have a unified health and safety culture? The simple answer to this would probably be no. However, if the question were rephrased as ‘can a global organisation have a unified health and safety approach’, the answer would be yes, most definitely, given time.
Some drivers for global harmonisation in a company are external. These may be customer-driven – such as the insistence that a supplier has an auditable safety system installed – or they could result from the globalisation of health and safety regulations and standards.

The International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) many conventions and recommendations about health and safety have no legal force, but set objectives and minimum standards that are adopted by many countries. It also produces guidance on implementing safety management systems – again available for global adoption.

A raft of global legislation affects issues such as transportation of dangerous goods, which become global out of necessity as goods are sent all over the world.

There are also ISO standards, set by the International Organisation for Standardisation, which produce benchmarks, for example, for machinery and equipment, or environmental standards (ISO 14001).

The OSHAS 18001 series is an auditable, globally applicable safety management system being adopted by an increasing number of organisations.

Regional government also has a discernable impact. The European Union has done much to remove trade barriers, harmonise standards and bring in legislation for minimum standards of worker protection and equipment safety. Again, these have an effect, and not just on regional standards.

The influences of EU and UK legislation can be traced as those concepts are adopted in Hong Kong, Canada, Australia, and around the world. This also works the other way around: the EU may be heavily influenced by legislation on similar subject matter already in place in other regions.

Such legislation, standards and auditable safety management systems encourage companies to start putting programmes in place, and streamlining processes. It also encourages the use of common terminology, language and systems, all of which help global organisations to embed a good health and safety culture. And the trend for natural harmonisation is set to continue as globalisation increases.

Turning to internal influences, according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), a positive health and safety culture can be developed by giving attention to the four Cs: competence, control, co-operation and communication.

When many international companies seek to foster a homogeneous health and safety culture, they discover that the chief barriers are not, as expected, differences in legislation, culture or language. The biggest hurdle is more likely to be the typical pattern of growth by acquisition.

As they expand, companies often acquire huge numbers of disparate subsidiaries, all with different safety cultures. These companies may fear or resent the imposition of ideas, rules and procedures from the acquiring company.

Blanket policies or directives may be met with suspicion and seen as stealth job cuts representing a step towards centralisation) and unnecessary imposition of red tape. Such central policies may not be implemented locally or, if implemented, may be ignored in practice. The acquiring company may be perceived as predatory, arrogant and unwilling to take on board any good practices from acquired companies.

Defining a safety culture in absolute terms is difficult, but it is the kind of thing you would recognise if you saw and experienced it. Essentially, it is the shared attitudes, values and behaviour of an organisation as regards safety, described as “the way things are done around here”.

Developing a positive safety culture involves changing entrenched attitudes and behaviour. Experimenting with a variety of methods may be necessary because people and organisations are all different.

Co-operation and communication
Flatter, or more horizontal, management structures better facilitate the development of a positive safety culture. Companies with a high performance in health and safety typically have a less hierarchical structure. Health and safety cultures thrive in environments which make two-way communication easier, and which promote involvement and ownership by sharing views and ideas.

Methods to promote involvement, co-operation and communication may vary, but could include setting up committees and sub-committees to promote involvement in health and safety matters and activities such as:

  • safety days
  • workshops
  • toolbox talks
  • incentive programmes (to encourage
  • safety task groups
  • as well as involving people in the actual writing of procedures themselves.

In the past, a manager would write the rules, but it makes more sense for those actually doing the job to be deeply involved in devising safe working procedures. They have first-hand knowledge of the problems and pitfalls and, if they are involved in writing the procedure, there is a much greater chance that it will be adhered to – because they are relevant, workable and the employees have a vested interest in making them work.

It is important to recognise that many people work in teams and are influenced by group norms. Winning over influential individuals (including line managers) can be effective.

Key people can be brought together for meetings, either global or regional, to convince them of the value of the approach and the way forward, providing them with information that they will need to pass down the line.

If you can convince key leaders, they will convince their team members through example and resetting group norms. Like any team, people either change to conform to group norms or become marginalised if their behaviour is unacceptable.

Training is clearly a consideration. This includes both programmes that increase awareness of health and safety issues and courses that improve job competency.

The workforce needs to move from complete dependency on rules to interdependency, where workers are actively thinking for themselves (with a safety mindset) and looking out for one another.

It is crucial to lead by example. If managers make rules, they should also obey them, otherwise the whole credibility of the safety effort is undermined and rules become unenforceable. It is no use having a rule which is just paid lip-service and then routinely flouted.

Leaders should also not condone or encourage corner-cutting. Rules must be enforced by an appropriate level of supervision, with commitment and respect from the top. Large companies need to monitor performance and adherence to standards with audits carried out on a regular, perhaps two-year, cycle.

Be patient
None of this is a quick fix. It takes time and effort to change a safety culture in an organisation. In extreme cases resistant individuals may need to be weeded out and fresh attitudes need time to take root. The key is not to spread your resources too thinly.

Many attempts fail because companies try to tackle everything at once, and make little progress on any one thing. Set achievable objectives and priorities for the year and concentrate on those before moving on. A change of pace that is too fast may also cause uncertainty and make the people you are counting on lose confidence in the programme.

Ultimately, health and safety is a human factor issue, complicated and nebulous. People are different, from one office to another, let alone from one country to another: what motivates one person may not motivate another. Trying to impose generic standards and procedures globally, without recognising different cultures and different laws will simply not work.

To achieve a cohesive policy you need the same basic approach and overall aim. Exactly how you achieve it can be tailored to local rules, cultures and be site-specific. A collective idea needs to be fostered, of wrong and right, what works and does not.

The best a global company can achieve is to have globally auditable and recognisable standards, with a common terminology and approach. Even if the details are different, there are common aims and objectives.

Diversity is good. If everyone was forced to do things the same way, innovation might be stifled. However, the same aim – that of a healthier and safer workplace – can be achieved via many different pathways.

David Towlson is health and safety tutor for RRC. See

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