Golden rules set the culture

On my recent visits to a number of different companies in the UK and the Middle East I have seen extraordinary levels of commitment and dedication in getting health and safety right. Striving to create the right culture, these businesses lead from the top with all workers understanding their role in ensuring everyone goes home safe at the end of the working day.

How did I know when a proper safety culture is embedded in an organisation? Although there is no simple answer, asking the workforce is one good way to test.

All too often senior managers are convinced they have first class systems in place and rules are well understood and complied with by all staff. However, talk to those same staff and you may hear a different story, a story of managers prepared to turn a blind eye to safety short cuts when there is pressure on production, or of procedures that simply don't reflect the reality of the job or established practices.

While overseas, I recently saw an admirable attempt to communicate the key safety messages by the use of a "10 Simple Golden Rules for Safety" poster. Or at least, I thought it was until I got about halfway down the list of rules and came across this: ‘Always seek authorisation before bypassing safety systems’

Of course, no-one should ever bypass safety systems on their own initiative, but to me this ‘rule’ implies that it is okay to bypass safety systems as long as you have permission, which is surely creating completely the wrong culture within the organisation.

I did not know how many times such bypassing of systems had taken place but I did ask them to take a long hard look at this so called golden rule and think about whether the message they actually intended is being conveyed to workers. In truly exceptional circumstances it may be necessary to bypass a system but only after careful thought, proper risk assessment, good communication to everyone who is likely to be affected, and the full details of the exception process can be authorised by competent people. Bypassing the system must be a ‘big deal’ and not something that's "Ok as long as you get permission".

How confident are you that all of your "rules" mean the same to your audience as you intended?

Judith Hackitt, HSE Chair