Building a Safety Culture

22 December 2014

Phil La Duke Interview

Phil La Duke is a twenty year veteran of Training and Safety leadership. He is a partner at ERM in Performance Assurance Practice. He is a genuine thought leader with his weekly blog and many contributing writer positions with various safety publications worldwide. He is a widely sought-after speaker at conferences including the American Society of Safety Engineers and the National Safety Council.

Speaking with Phil La Duke opens your eyes to what safety leadership should look and sound like. His style is both hectoring and instructive. He is hugely passionate about the failures in safety culture and feels his work at the coalface places him well for helping to frame the discussion on a difficult topic like instituting as nebulous a thing as ‘culture’.

Company Culture and Its Difficulties

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Obviously there will always be disagreement on what constitutes culture in any organisation but, at root, it can be described as how the population survives by using shared values, having taboos and customs. This is how Phil describes it and draws the distinction between the way these values and customs are written in company documents and how it is really done.

To build safety in any organisation there is a necessity to get an organisation’s culture to chime with its’ stated safety practices. I asked where exactly company culture needs to originate from and Phil was clear that it must come from the top, or at the very least the management level. There will always be hazards in any organisation, there will always be human error but rooting out reckless behaviours and processes is a must for any company’s management if they are really serious about safety.

That said, it is far from easy to build a strong safety culture in a company, as is testified to by the annual roll call of preventable workplace injuries and deaths that issue from our various government health and safety bodies. Phil points out that, oftentimes, the worst people to change a culture are those that are a part of it. Outside influence can be needed to bring about a change of perspective for an organisation and consequently a change of direction. This is described as an ‘intervention’ – no, nobody is drinking on the job – simply put this is the bringing of a plan to a company and helping to implement that plan.

In his practice he tries to do two things when he arrives to a company:

  • Show clearly the broken processes within a company and how they are hurting workers
  • Set a vision – this involves getting ‘buy-in’ from workers to the plan

Building a Safety Culture

The constituent parts of building a company safety culture

  • Competency – any company that wants to have safety at its core will need competent staff to marshal the processes. With this in mind it is up to HR to screen, recruit, train and retain these people.
  • Process capability – does the company have procedures that can return a consistent result to ensure that safety is maintained.
  • Process discipline – linked to the first point is the idea that there are competent and well trained staff capable of running these processes with discipline and authority.
  • Risk management – Risk management is a two-step process where the coming together of hazard and catalyst creates a safety incident. For example, an overhanging obstruction (hazard) meeting a driver with impaired function because of tiredness (catalyst). The more hazards you have the more time those hazards are going to spend interacting with the workforce and therefore the greater likelihood of an incident taking place. Controlling the number of potential hazards is the first step and the second is to try to cut down on catalysts in the workforce by providing good safety training and ensuring workers are fit to work.
  • Engagement – allied to the vision setting required in a company intervention, engagement is about getting all staff to ‘buy-in’ to the culture and value it.

These parts are not a guarantee of a good company culture with regard to safety but they are a very good start. As Phil says, “Safety begins with compliance”, and he is a strong advocate of the idea that safety must be owned by Operations Management not by Health and Safety Managers.

So this hero of the corporate safety must be pretty pleased with himself saving companies from themselves? Phil is nothing if not the phlegmatic safety consultant, as he says, “Reminding people not to die is not the same as saving lives!”

Sonya Sikra

Sonya is the Brand Strategy Manager at GoContractor. She specializes in communicating how implementing tech in construction can drive productivity and profit.

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