Safety Culture and Safety Management Systems: Why Management Systems Alone Can’t Guarantee Model Employee Behavior

Jul 17th, 2010 | By | Category: Analysis, News and Notes, Featured Articles, Health and Safety

In the last few years, great strides have been made in regulating previously disorganized and sometimes even chaotic conditions and behavior in the areas of environmental protection and workplace safety.  Companies have invested a great deal of time and money in creating management systems that conform to ISO 14001 or OHSAS 18001.  With these systems, firms have greater objective clarity and structure, but to what extent do these management systems really promote ideal employee safety-related behavior?

The diamond model below shows, in a simplified way, that personal behavior is only partially influenced by the objective standards of the management system (blue side of the diamond).  At least as important as these objective requirements are employees’ subjective personal values (red side of the diamond).

The Safety Culture Diamond Devolped by Peter Fink

Simply stated, the real role of a management system is to define the minimum standard of acceptable behavior; the motivation for ideal leadership behavior comes from other sources.

The Clash Between Systems and Values

In the clash between systems and values, there are four basic behavior patterns:

1. Leadership behavior: Personal values are in tune with the requirements of the management system, and employee behavior therefore not only conforms to the rules but is authentic.  For example, a department manager supports the company-required reporting of near-accidents (“near-misses”) in his own unpretentious and persistent way, and gives his colleagues practical support in carrying out this policy according to the established procedure.

2. Lip service: If personal values conflict with the management system requirements, only lip service is paid to the management system.  For example, imagine that a plant manager needs to assign someone to carry out a safety analysis of newly created positions. Although the manager declares that this analysis is “very important,” he assigns the task to the most unqualified employee imaginable, whose only advantage is having the time to do the project. 

3. Egocentric behavior:  In this situation, rules are deliberately violated, often with the best intentions, because the rules are not compatible with an employee’s personal values.  For example, an experienced supervisor might understand the procedure for safely addressing process shutdowns but choose to ignore the procedure to save time or effort.

4. Chaotic behavior: An employee’s behavior matches neither the prescribed rules nor the individual’s values. For example, when fire breaks out in a plant, the person responsible for evacuating the facility flees, panic stricken, from the building.  Afterward, the employee can’t explain this irresponsible behavior even to himself.

Balance is Everything

For many firms that have concentrated on the management system side of the scales in recent years, the question is now if balance has been achieved.  The often-heard complaint that “No one understands the procedure” can’t be resolved by simply ordering employees to read the procedure.  In this situation, more emphasis needs to be placed on the “red side” of the scale, that is, on the side of values, opinions, commitment, and so forth.

The Balance Between Safety Management Systems and Safety Culture

It is important to find the right balance between the management system side of the scales and the personal values side.  In doing so, it’s critical not to go from placing too much emphasis on the management system side (bureaucracy: everything is done in accordance with formal procedures) to putting too much emphasis on the personal values side (laissez faire attitude: everyone does whatever they want).

The basis for achieving balance between the two sides is a careful and pragmatic assessment of the company’s safety culture, which includes an examination of both systems and values.

About the Authors

Peter Fink is a Partner in the Frankfurt, Germany office of Environmental Resources Management (ERM), a global EHS consultancy. He is in charge of ERM’s Performance & Assurance Services in Central Europe. With a background as an environmental engineer and more than 20 years of experience in EHS consulting, Peter has specialized knowledge and experience in corporate EHS strategy development and EHS management with a strong understanding of the related economic and behavioral aspects.

Edna Besnainou is a Principal Consultant within the Performance & Assurance Team of ERM Germany. She is a graduated Environmental Engineer, an approved Safety Engineer as well as an EH&S Management System Auditor.

Images: Courtesy of Peter Fink, Frankfurt, Germany.

Translation: Elizabeth Gauger, Winchester, Massachusetts, U.S.A.

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One Comment to “Safety Culture and Safety Management Systems: Why Management Systems Alone Can’t Guarantee Model Employee Behavior”

  1. Adam Yates says:

    What methodology exists for promoting personal SHE values? While some studies suggest that these values are best promoted through the inception of employees who already possess them (i.e. hire individuals with high person SHE value and they will spread these values throughout the organization), others would claim that driving accountability will increase, through diligent practice, individual SHE values.
    It seems that most approaches to balancing SHE systems and values, are driven by systems, which ultimately tip the scale further to the left, undermining the original intent.

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