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Globally 2.5-3 million people are dying from work-related accidents each year and more than 300+ million people have workplace accidents that require them to have four or more days off work at a cost of USD$4 trillion annually (International Labour Organization, 2023).

These are work-related harm rates that none of us are content with, but, when it comes to workplace safety, we’re doing the same things, and getting the same results. If we want a different outcome, to reduce harm, then we need to take a different path.

The answer, at least in part, lies in safety culture. And, more importantly, our ability to accurately measure, identify, track and quantify the impact of an improvement in any one aspect of a company’s safety culture.

Moving beyond the traditional compliance mindset

With industrial activity increasing post-World War II, there was a sense that organisations needed to have a legal defense to protect them if workers were injured or killed as a result of workplace activities. Enter the health and safety profession. In 1945 the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) was formed as a professional body to train occupational safety and health professionals and as a result the profession’s standing steadily rose in the public eye. The status of IOSH was recognised in 1984 by the award of a Royal Charter. (History of OSH)

Ever since, we’ve had this paradigm around health and safety where the regulator regulates and writes the rules, the businesses try and comply with those rules, and safety professionals developed through professional associations help businesses meet their obligations. In all fairness, that approach has mitigated a lot of harm in the economies of the world over the last 70 years. But, in the last 20 years, despite more and more regulation, health and safety performance in the UK, and Australia has plateaued and we’re seeing less and less impact being made on harm reduction. In New Zealand, it ranks 20th out of 37 OECD countries measured.

The fundamental assumption with a regulatory framework is that if you meet the compliance requirements you must therefore have a presence of safety. But that couldn’t be more wrong. Compliance represents the minimum expectations of a business, but not necessarily what ‘good’ looks like, or what an organisation that’s managing things in a really holistic way looks like. If you’re just aiming to be compliant, it’s more than likely there’s a lot of risk left on the table that you’re exposing your people to.

If health and safety is limited to a compliance mindset, we are doing a dis-service to every person that comes to work under our care.

By contrast, a proactive safety approach, tailored around the specific attitudes, beliefs and values required to embed safety into the entire DNA of an organisation, can be really impactful at not only minimising harm but also drastically improving other business performance attributes.

I was exposed to this proactive form of safety culture first hand as a lifeguard, and later General Manager with Surf Life Saving New Zealand and Surf Life Saving Australia. Lifeguards have been protecting people in the water for over 100 years and it’s been an incredibly effective way of reducing fatalities. Lifeguards are inherently proactive in how they think about risk in a very unregulated environment. They’re thinking about things before they happen so they can intercept problems before they occur. At all times, they’re verifying what they’re seeing and hearing and calibrating their thinking. It’s not about having a scheduled time to respond, rather lifeguards are trained to competently assess the environment in front of them and make good, proactive decisions around risk management. As a result, people don’t drown between the red and yellow flags.

When I teamed up with my business partner Mark Kidd in 2016 to start Safe365, I wanted to see how I could take the proactive safety lessons I’d gained in a public safety context across into workplace safety.

Repositioning safety culture in organisations

Safety culture isn’t a new construct, however we, as an industry, need to redefine the safety paradigm around the concept of safety culture and the way it is valued within our organisations.

Time and again we see a continuation of the traditional compliance mindset in the guise of safety culture. Compliance requirements and the systems and processes they drive form an important, foundational part of safety culture. But the presence of true safety culture goes beyond just tangible activities. It includes the realities of how those systems and processes are implemented and to what success. Safety culture itself is an outcome of many ingredients working positively in tandem to create this notion of ‘the presence of safety’.

It’s not simply an employee climate survey, although the attitudes and perceptions of colleagues is an important ingredient. It includes the policies, processes, knowledge requirements at all levels in an organisation, the understanding of risks and controls, and the checks and balances that ensure it is safe.

It’s about leaders demonstrating their visible commitment every day to being proactive about health, safety and wellbeing risks that fosters engagement, commitment and advocacy amongst every member of an organisation.

It’s about having the measurement and insight to understand why things are going right, more than waiting for them to go wrong and working out why after the fact.

It’s about all levels of an organisation being in tune with each other – observing, listening, contributing and taking action out of a genuine culture of care towards colleagues.

When all these attributes are working in tandem, safety culture can create a reality where every individual conducts their day-to-day job with an ingrained awareness of the risks around them, the people those risks could affect, the safeguards that have been put in place to allow for work to be undertaken safely, and the proactive default behaviours to look out for in both themselves and others with every action contemplated and taken.

The importance of long-term safety culture measurement

There’s a raft of safety technology products available to help organisations measure and manage health and safety outcomes. While these are all very important activities, their focus is on tactical, risk by risk solutions versus tackling the wider operation and practice of safety. As a result we see really closed circuit systems for delivering health and safety all built around various regulatory drivers and a lack of focus or analysis on the overt trends or recurring behaviours that impact the overall presence of safety.

On the flip side, we see ad hoc measurement of safety behaviours, attitudes and values, driven by the cost and delivery models of traditional safety culture programmes. Not only is this approach unscalable, it limits participation and usage to those who understand the complex regulations and safety standards, often resulting in a closed viewpoint of a few, versus a deep understanding and widespread participation across the entire workforce.

In order to quantify and manage the impacts of behaviour and attitudinal-based attributes in safety, we need a more consistent approach to both the primary measurement, but also the ongoing assessment of progress and performance.

If we achieve this, then we can also begin to demonstrate the correlation behind those initiatives and the resulting impact to a reduction in harm and improvements in business performance (like productivity, staff retention and profitability to name but a few). All of which, when shared with the right narrative and leadership, will reposition the role and value of safety culture both amongst Directors and the C-Suite, but also across the entire workforce.

We’ll be discussing this approach to safety value and the true cost of harm in an upcoming webinar on August 15th with Director of Group Safety, Insurance and Occupational Wellbeing, Crystal Danbury (also a Safe365 Non-Executive Director). Register to attend the webinar here.

If we want to proactively reduce harm globally, we need to change the perception of proactive risk across organisations and the way we quantify the value of investment in safety culture. Conversations around safety need to be management and people led, not compliance led. By using data we can unlock insights and learnings and pinpoint the strengths and weaknesses at both a business unit and organisation level, but also at an  industry, country, region, and global level. By addressing lead indicators, we can improve the outcomes and impacts of health and safety risk and risk management and achieve a future where more workers go home safe every day.


Portrait photograph of Nathan Hight, Co-Founder & Executive Director at Safe365About Nathan Hight 

Nathan has dedicated over two decades to public and workplace health, safety and wellbeing. Over that time he has advised some of the world’s most recognised brands, helping to elevate standards in health, safety, wellbeing, leadership and culture. He has been the General Manager of Surf Life Saving New Zealand and Surf Life Saving Australia, as well as the Chair of the ACC Drowning Prevention Strategy, Environmental Advisory Committee from 2007 – 2010. In 2016, Nathan and Mark Kidd co-founded 365 Ventures, a technology company focused on shifting companies towards more proactive risk environments and a more effective quantification of  the value of health and safety culture.

Follow Nathan on LinkedIn.