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verna blewett june 2011

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Clarifying culture

Verna Blewett PhD, Director, New Horizon Consulting Pty Ltd (June 2011)

Project background

This paper was initiated as part of the development process of the Australian Work Health and Safety Strategy 2012-2022 (Australian Strategy). This paper is intended to inform and support the Australian Strategy by articulating and analysing the existing evidence base for Safe Work Australia to consider and by identifying the strategic implications for the Australian Strategy of organisational culture.

Executive summary

There are many myths and misconceptions about organisational culture as it relates to health and safety. Many have envisaged a discrete “safety” culture in organisations. Moreover, this is seen as being concrete, predictable and able to be managed or manipulated in some way. In fact, there is no “safety” culture that can be divorced from the wider organisational culture. An organisational culture is largely invisible, subtle, and can only be detected through indicators which are themselves not the culture. Rather the organisational culture is the context or environment within which the organisation is understood. Culture is so elusive that it does not and cannot provide a clear explanation for failures in technological systems.

There are dangers inherent in trying to manipulate something believed to be simple and predictable when in fact it is complex and unstable. However, there is evidence that certain elements can influence an organisational culture to enable and support positive health and safety outcomes.

The UK Health and Safety Executive suggests safety culture is influenced by:

    • management commitment and style

    • employee involvement

    • training and competence

    • communication

    • compliance with procedures, and

    • organisational learning.

The cultural dimensions most closely associated with good work health and safety management in the Australian context have been identified as:

    • mindfulness

    • workgroup cohesion

    • trust in management

    • organisational justice

    • supervisor support, and

    • role clarity.

Although organisational culture is not able to be managed, it may be malleable. This means, rather than controlling a culture as if it were an object external to the individuals within the organisation, culture can be changed from within through the strategic application of evidence-based initiatives.

To separate work health and safety culture from organisational culture and treat it differently can alienate work health and safety from key organisational decision-making.

Employee attitude surveys fail to identify the mechanisms and systems that shape the organisation. Instead data from a combination of qualitative methods and quantitative methods should be collected, then compared and analysed to form an evidence base.

Implications for the new Australian Work Health and Safety Strategy

Culture is an important and increasingly dominant aspect of the work health and safety sphere of activity. It is therefore central to achieving the 2022 Outcomes within the Australian Strategy.

The Australian Strategy must be informed by evidence and initiate actions that will lead to reduced exposure to health and safety risks in workplaces.

The following initiatives can support the achievement of the Australian Strategy vision:

    • Use evidence obtained through multi-method research to form the foundation for strategies for regulators and policy makers.

    • Adopt an evidence-based approach that promotes what is known about culture and dismisses supposition and conjecture.

    • Remove references to “health” and/or “safety” in association with culture and leadership.

    • Increase emphasis on integration of work health and safety into the business systems and processes across organisations.

    • Reduce the emphasis on ‘managing’ culture; instead focus on controlling risks at the source.

    • Differentiate between safety culture/climate and behavioural change.

    • Build and develop the evidence base. Develop methods for capturing the knowledge that has arisen through experience with organisational culture as it affects health and safety, and make it available for peer review.


Project background 4

Executive summary 4

Introduction and background 7

Organisational culture and climate 7

Safety culture and climate 13

Barriers and enablers of organisational culture 22

Strategic policy implications for the Australian Strategy 23

Conclusion 25

References 26

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