Cabbage Salad and Safety is a series of podcasts based around conversations with Siobhan Flores-Walsh, a work health and safety lawyer with Corrs Chambers Westgarth, and Kevin Jones, a workplace safety consultant and editor of the award-winning SafetyAtWorkBlog.  Each episode will focus on one or two safety topics.

Episode three features a discussion about a major buzzword in WHS - safety culture.

Click here to hear the podcast.

We welcome enquiries and comments about the Cabbage Salad and Safety podcast, so please send them to Siobhan or Kevin


Podcast – Cabbage Salad and Safety

Episode Three - What is Safety Culture and what should I do with it?

Conversation between:

Siobhan Flores-Walsh (Workplace Health & Safety Lawyer) and Kevin Jones (Safety Journalist)


Siobhan: Hi everyone this is Cabbage Salad and Safety. It’s Siobhan Flores-Walsh with Kevin Jones. Today we are going to talk about safety culture.

Kevin: I was going to leave a really long pause there because this is one of those issues that I think everybody knew that eventually we would talk about and it’s one of the most contentious, complex, confusing concepts that is bandied around in safety at the moment. And I have got lots of thoughts on it, that’s what I am here for on the podcast. But I really want to ask you the question straight off.

There is so much talk about safety culture. Is there anything in safety legislation that requires anybody to have a safety culture?

Siobhan: Well I don’t think that there is a requirement to have a safety culture I’d answer it this way. I think that every organisation has a culture and it has a safety culture within it. So nobody requires us to have it it’s just there whether we like it or not. The real issue is whether, for me anyway, safety culture is a positive culture or if it’s a negative culture because over time I have really come to the view that safety culture exists and it’s either a hazard or it’s an enabler of safety.

Kevin: I think you are right I was going to make the point that safety culture is an ambivalent term if that’s the right word, it’s not negative or positive it’s just a thing. It just exists. But we know examples of bad toxic safety culture. We hear these sorts of phrases all the time and we hear positive safety culture so it is something that – it’s a concept that exists but it always seems to me to have some qualification on it to give it a little bit more of explanation. And to tie that in a little bit is that there is no one really definitive accepted definition for safety culture. We would use the term probably a dozen times already, but there is going to plenty of people listening to this that still don’t know – “what’s a safety culture” – well I admit that I have read these things for ten years, fifteen years and I still struggle.

Siobhan: I struggle to, but I really don’t think you can go too much further than you know the old saying, it’s the way we do things around here. It’s more than that, it really is I think about how we are lead within an organisation to think about safety. So I think organisations, the old expression, the fish rots from the head, at the top if there is a commitment to genuinely keeping people safe and it’s more than mission statement and spin then it’s going to need systems and a lot of hard work to deliver that cultural commitment. If the stated commitment really is a matter of spin and mission statement and it’s not supported by those systems and it’s not supported by enforcement at all levels top through to the bottom. Then the safety culture will be a negative safety culture. It’s going to be a hazard or its going to be an enabler.

Kevin: I will take you up on that, I reckon it’s a myth about the fish rotting from head. I reckon it rots from plenty of other places first.

Siobhan: Kevin I don’t want you undermining my entire theoretical basis for this podcast.

Kevin: And it’s a terrific myth so let’s just run with it.

Siobhan: Alright.

Kevin: But one of the things that – the concept if you take your working definition at moment of you know it’s the way things are done around here. Quite often that can be used of look that’s the way things are done around here if you don’t like it clear off. I think there is possibility of actually using a safety culture to exclude as well also trying to build an inclusive safety culture.

Siobhan: Look I think that is entirely right. It gets back to I suppose that that mantra in a way that I have a safety culture it’s going to be a hazard or its going to be enabler. If the culture is really narrow and it says look we don’t bother hooking on our harnesses and if you delay us because you stop and hook on the harness basically the message is – get out. Then that’s clearly a hazard so it is exclusionary.

Kevin: Yes.

Siobhan: The same thing we know the definition of bullying for example includes where you isolate people and exclude them. So I totally agree with that. It’s really something that if you are going to have an expressed position you have got to have an enforcement of it because otherwise everybody just goes back to a default.

Kevin: Yes and the default can be nastiness.

Siobhan: I think that the default position will necessarily be a negative one to be honest with you because the truth is to drive safety it really has to be a conscious decision to drive safety I think because there are too many other market forces out there which mean that safety will I think, necessarily be left as not one of the key priorities.

Kevin: I wonder if when we talk about safety culture. Well we know that one of the major motivations for companies to have a safe system of work and a safety management system other than legislation is that they want to be seen as a good employer, an employer of choice and reputation is very important. I would go out on a limb and say that it’s impossible to have a good reputation for safety without having a good and positive safety culture.

Siobhan: I think that’s probably right. Although I think that you can do a lot from a marketing prospective to create a reputation which may not be consistent with the substance of your safety culture. So without naming names I think you and I and the listeners will know of a couple of not just serious incidents, catastrophes, safety catastrophes that have happened over the last few years where the organisation involved had a mantra of something like zero tolerance, safety is our priority and it probably would have been recognised as a leader in safety. They would have had a history of data that shows that they have had no lost time injuries etc and yet when the catastrophe occurred and the analysis was done you dug in and the finding were safety cultures, in all of these incidents that you and I are smiling about, these safety cultures were extremely poor, there was no compliance with existing systems, there was an ignoring of reports that told that it was a tragedy waiting to happen. So I guess I probably don’t necessarily agree that reputation will follow substance.

Kevin: Well it shows that reputation can be so fragile I think.

Siobhan: And manufactured.

Kevin: Yes truly and I think that safety culture has been one of those things that almost always comes up in every enquiry of a disaster. There are heaps of them over decades that shows that. One of the things that I struggle with is a lot of safety culture stuff is based on disasters.

Siobhan: Yes.

Kevin: And all of that sort of stuff. I would really be interested in the safety culture of small business. You know, what does it mean? I think you mentioned bullying earlier and the Brodie Panlock issue – a small café and safety culture. Clearly it had a defective culture in that workplace. It sort of shows that culture is irrelevant to company size and resources. It is something that exists in every business. We might not see it as a safety culture, but it is there and it’s something that we continually need to work on.

Siobhan: I think that’s right I mean look culture whether it be broader organisational culture or whether be safety culture it exists everywhere. So culture exists in families. Each of our families have a particular culture. My culture is the recognition of - I can’t cook in my family. It ties in I guess with the current debate around the culture, not safety culture, but culture in financial institutions. Really interesting to read about calls for enquiries into financial cultures. You have got recommendations that in fact there may be a need to regulate culture within the financial institutions. I think what it really says to us is that culture is absolutely critical to safety, it’s critical to our attitudes to anything where it’s suspected that there a discretion. So if we look at safety there is a lot of discretion as to how you actually fill the legal duty. If you have a look at the issues that were raised in terms of financial institutions, ethical considerations etc. where it’s really difficult to draw lines around it. It’s difficult to control but it doesn’t take away from the fact that’s its absolutely critical.

Kevin: Because culture is such an amorphous concept I think you are right it deals with a whole range of ways that we do business. Not just safety. So there is an organisational culture of which safety is part. But your examples about the finance sector I think are useful in terms of I don’t know if we talk about the ethics and the morality that actually underpins Health and Safety Law because the law is a reflection of what we want our workplaces to be and how we want them to operate. Maybe when people are talking about safety culture it’s a way of seeming to talk about ethics but not really or talking about safety culture means we don’t have to talk about ethics because if we talk about ethics -gee maybe it’s a pretty uncomfortable conversation.

Siobhan: It’s really hard. You know it’s really interesting that you put it that way because it occurs to me that when the discussions about the financial institutions were occurring there was this discussion about – we need to look into their ethics, we need to look into their culture. But in fact that seemed to me to be a little bit of a distraction because in fact they were just breaking the law. And in safety it is often a little bit the same we get all caught up in safety culture issue. You know in an incident – it was safety culture. Well it may be, but actually they were just breaking the law. So maybe safety culture is also a little bit about what do we do in terms of complying with the law when we are outside of the regulator. When somebody isn’t looking. Because it doesn’t seem to me that there is anything peculiar it’s safety culture whatever that is might inform why you have you broken the law but you don’t need additional things, the law is the law. What you choose to do out of sight of the regulator and your mum and dad, that’s a different issue, that’s ethics.

Kevin: One of the things that has been happening a lot in Australia lately is a lot of deaths in agriculture or it seems more so than in the past. But it ties in with what you were talking about with safety culture being how we do things. It is also how we do things around here when no one’s looking. Because I would think say if you have imbedded the values of safety you will do it the right way, the safe way, a matter to the circumstances. And I often wonder whether and I have known farmers and worked with them and lived with them. Quite often it is because no one’s looking they are more confident in – no this how we used to do it. Really it’s not necessarily the safest way but it’s the way that they are comfortable with they have a culture of independence of self-reliance but is it necessarily safe and I am just wondering how in terms of how we can actually get safety culture up in sectors, industry areas where no one’s looking.

Siobhan: Well that does sort of put an interesting spotlight in a way because when I talk about culture it’s really something that exists when people are together and working together but of course in agriculture you are probably thinking about what are those things they drive.

Kevin: Quadbikes.

Siobhan: Quadbikes. So a lot of the time when people are riding quadbikes and then suffer serious injury or fatality they are on their own. They are not really being affected by a culture that’s necessarily been informed by co-workers or any system imposed on them. It’s their own system. I think though we might be talking about something then slightly different to what we generally are talking in terms of safety culture. I think we are talking about an industry which comes from, well obviously it’s not an industrial background, it comes from the history of really needing to be incredibly self-reliant and there is a movement away. But having said that when you were speaking it reminded me of my first job out of university which was working as an industrial relations trainee or graduate trainee out at the Clyde Oil Refinery here in Sydney the Shell Refinery and we were required to do I think it was a three or five day course I can’t remember now, on safety before we walked in to the refinery and I was trained into looking at safety everywhere, not just in terms of the cracker or anything else like that it was in the office as well. You know you were just trained to take down the cords etc. Now at first I thought that was really odd, are you for real, like I am just going to plug it in and jump over it. But the safety culture there was so strong that to this day I will take down a cord and I know that I would only change because of the constant messages I got about safety. The constant enforcement so it became part of my DNA.

Kevin: What you went through was a fairly complex safety induction and I think inductions are one of those things that are poorly applied usually or they are over applied and they are just so boring that everybody switches off. Except that that’s a core element of developing a state of knowledge of safety in a workplace and how things are done. You get, I was going to say indoctrinated, you are introduced to the culture and what are expectations. Inductions are important basis for safety culture and I am just wondering if it’s just a neglect of wanting to rush into production makes us discount the importance of a good induction. Not a long induction but a good effective induction.

Siobhan: Yes I think the thing for me is the induction is really important. But it wouldn’t have been the induction alone that transformed me. It was the constant reinforcement and the constant exposure to a culture that reinforced. So it was expressed enforcement but it was just watching what other people did as well. But having said that I think that that issue about rush is really important because what we are constantly trying to do I think if you are trying to take your existing safety culture and do something different with it is bring about sometimes really substantial change in an organisation. And if you are embarking on a change management program so you want to restructure your organisation then change management plan carefully you sort of get out there with a bit of information, you create recent activity or whatever it is so that you are not going to hard soil and yet the same is very rarely applied to safety. It’s as is because we think it also an ethical thing that people should get it like that and that’s not the case. We just don’t apply if you like the same tools and mechanisms to change in that space as we might do to other corporate change.

Kevin: Most of the decision about safety cultures in some academic books and management books vary rarely is it in guidance from regulators. I think SafeWork Australia has one about managing risks in your organisation but they seem to keep away from the culture element and yet it seems so crucial to all businesses that they have a safe system of work as part of a safety management system which is supported by a safety culture. I am not sure why regulators are weary.

Siobhan: Well I think they are getting a less weary. I know Comcare’s put out not a bad piece on it. But I wonder actually if it’s been tackled a different way because it has become such a emphorous thing if you have a look at the structure I guess of the current model Work Health and Safety Act I think the fact that officers have got skin in the game. So they have got specific duties to ensure that their organisation complies with their duty. What you have really got is a mechanism I think for changing – making safety culture positive. If your directors and your other officers are actually doing what they are required to do under the Act, if they got their safety literacy, if they are making sure there is adequate processes and resources, if they are monitoring data, if they are making sure that they are complying with the Act and if they verifying that their instructions in relation to all these things are actually being undertaken. Then you are going to have people that are actually engaged in safety and it’s going to be really positive and you are also going to have the mechanisms in place that will actually if you like to fulfil the mission that they ultimately trying to communicate. So to me maybe we have actually got the mechanism in place to bring about positive safety culture it’s just that the officers duty it hasn’t had much time I guess to actually take ground.

Kevin: You raised an issue that we might take up in another episode and that’s really the issue of safety leadership and what that means and being active as a crucial element to developing and reinforcing a safety culture. But I think do you think that safety culture is going to be something that is going to fade away, or do you think it is going to become even more important to businesses?

Siobhan: Well to me it is interesting that you separate leadership from safety culture because I suppose without having realised it my view is that all safety culture is dictated by leadership. It’s leadership that will set the tone, will make available the resources and processes and will require enforcement. For me the two things actually can’t be separated. So if that is right and I am sure I am right, if that’s right then safety culture however it’s labelled is actually going to become more and more important as we accept that Work Health and Safety is a governance issue. As is compliance with the laws in the finance sector.

Kevin: I think that’s a great teaser for a future episode of Cabbage Salad and Safety. We might wrap it up there.

Siobhan: I hate it when you tease me but we will leave it there. Thank you Kevin.

Kevin: That’s all right, thanks very much and look I hope have enjoyed Cabbage Salad and Safety and please give us some feedback on the various connections on the website. We would love to hear from you.