Safety, culture and trust in mining
This article discusses the influence that an organisation’s culture and the level of trust in its leadership have on the safety outcomes its people achieve.
‘Safety culture’ is a comforting phrase that has become part of our lexicon.
I’m not a fan of the term, because it implies that within an organisation, a culture around safety can exist independently of the overall culture.
Research and logic support the notion that safety culture is an indivisible subset of corporate culture. It follows that it is simply not possible to have a first-rate approach to safety in an organisation that has a poor corporate culture.
I believe that when we talk about safety culture, we’re really referring to the influence that corporate culture has on safety attitudes, practices and outcomes.
In preparing this article I searched for a definition of safety culture. Results were disappointing. The descriptions were often verbose – the longest I found was 69 words. They were also noticeably lacking in the human element, as if successful safety leadership and great safety outcomes somehow come from treating safety as a purely arms-length, procedure-driven activity (though this latter aspect is still important). The definitions rarely referred to the importance of organisational leaders’ personal commitment to safety, and the trust this helps to engender, both of which are fundamental to making safety ‘work’.
The difficulty of tying down a definition of safety culture is consistent with the notion that a safety culture does not exist in isolation.
We can more readily define corporate culture. I think of it as ‘the atmosphere that pervades an organisation and the experience of working there.’
What is a great culture? In terms of its impact on employees, it is characterised by factors such as people having a high level of trust in the leadership, leadership clearly putting the safety and wellbeing of employees first, leadership caring about people, the clear rejection of bullying and victimisation, low levels of mutual suspicion, and a pursuit of just outcomes for people.
In great cultures, people trust the leadership. In my book From Technocrat to Leader I explore the foundational importance of trust to leadership success.
How is corporate culture set?
It is broadly accepted and supported by research that the culture of organisations and therefore the attitude to safety are set at the top.
Andrew Hopkins’ book Failure to Learn (2009) contains a great illustration of the influence that top leadership’s attitude to safety can have even in a very large multinational corporation. The book details the causes of an explosion at BP’s Texas City Refinery in March 2005 that killed fifteen workers and injured 170, and chronicles the subsequent investigation.
As Hopkins details in his book, the board of enquiry considered extensive evidence including testimony to the effect that the top leadership of BP showed ‘little interest in safety’. The board found that this attitude flowed down the hierarchy and led to bad news about safety, and the potential consequences of underinvestment in safety, not making their way back up the chain and being acted upon.
Hopkins reports that the board found the likely impacts from underspending on safety at the refinery, well understood on site, were not effectively communicated to or understood by the higher levels of the company. In particular, this under-investment reflected in a failure to upgrade the distillation column vent to an industry best practice flare tower (a relatively cheap modification in the context of a large refinery) and was, according to the board of enquiry, a major cause of the accident.
Apart from the immediate consequences to an injured person and their family and friends, a serious accident has widespread repercussions. As a person who held a senior role in a company where an employee suffered a potentially life-ending injury in a work accident, and who was central to managing the devastating fallout, I can assure you it’s a scenario best avoided.
So leaders: you set the height of the bar when it comes to safety, so set it high!
Correlation of safety outcomes with trust in leadership
In a mining industry context, research has established a close correlation between the level of trust that employees have in the leadership and the safety outcomes those employees achieve.
Researchers Neil Gunningham and Darren Sinclair from The National Research Centre for OHS Regulation at the Australian National University conducted one such piece of research in 2012. They reported their findings in a working paper entitled ‘Building Trust: OHS Management in the Mining Industry’.
The researchers sampled ten coal mining sites in three separate companies in two Australian jurisdictions (New South Wales and Queensland).
The study considered the influence that the level of trust between the various layers of management and the workforce had on the culture of these sites and on the safety outcomes the employees achieved.
The research found that safety outcomes were positively correlated with trust in leadership, and leadership’s expectations. Here are two significant conclusions:
‘Our findings suggested that without trust [in the leadership], workers treated almost all corporate management safety initiatives with suspicion and refused to buy into them.’
‘Our research revealed the attitude of mine management to be particularly important because, as numerous workers and middle managers told us, the level of safety that a mine achieves is in very large part the level that the “boss” wants.’ (Gunningham and Sinclair, 2012).
Similar correlations may well apply more widely.
The top leadership of an organisation sets the culture, including the level of commitment to safety and expectations around the priority that safety gets.
Research in certain mining environments has demonstrated that the level of trust in the leadership closely influences safety outcomes.
So as a leader, show the highest unflinching commitment to safety and work to earn and maintain your people’s trust.
Hopkins A, 2009, Failure to Learn (CCH Australia Limited: Macquarie Park).
Gunningham N and Sinclair D, 2012. ‘Building Trust: OHS Management in the Mining Industry’, The National Research Centre for OHS Regulation, ANU, Canberra Australia.