What makes a safety culture programme fail?


The returns to be got from a successful safety culture programme implementation are huge. Tangible, ongoing safety performance improvement; better employee engagement; higher productivity – what’s not to like?!

With the stakes so high, you’ll want to avoid the pitfalls and get the best you can from your safety culture programme. Each of the following are issues that we’ve seen impact negatively on a safety culture programme in the past – ‘red flags’ to watch out for and mitigate as much as is possible. Let’s take a look.

Lack of Commitment From (Top) Management

How much do the leaders in your organisation value safety and to what extent are they committed to the safety culture programme? How much are they perceived to value safety? The latter is one of the key predictors of the likely success of an organisation’s safety culture programme. It’s based on what leaders regularly do and say.

Soft signals – such as how managers express concerns about unsafe behaviours and how/whether they comment on safe behaviours – can play a major role in embedding safety throughout an organisation. The consistency and authenticity of leaders at any level in the organisation is crucial to building a strong safety culture. Employees will quickly get a sense for the relative importance of safety in the organisation by the extent to which leaders talk about and are seen to genuinely value it in comparison to, for example, production and profitability.

Expert Insight

  • Are leaders at all levels of your organisation getting out on site and seeing what people are doing? Behaviour is your best leading indicator. It can give you some great clues as to where your next accident is likely to come from. Just because you give people PPE does that mean they are using it? Just because you give people Safe Operating Procedures, does that mean people are following them?
  • Are your leaders trained in the art of curious conversations? Do they notice and praise desired behaviour? Do they pick up on unsafe acts and conditions, find out what’s prompting the behaviour and work out a fix (involving the employee(s) concerned)? In other words, do they know how to ask the right questions, about the right things, in the right way, at the right time? (and do they find it easy to do?! – if not, talk to us – we can help!)
  • Even if you’ve got the above nailed, are your leaders walking the walk as well as talking the talk? Do they all take personal ownership of safety? Do leaders ask others to let them know what they could do better themselves (and thank them)?
  • Read more on our Safety Leadership page.

Poor Learning Culture

How well does your organisation react to and learn from incidents and near-misses? Better still, what is your organisation doing to proactively identify what could be done better?

A successful organisation needs to eliminate any barriers to reporting and any ‘weak links’ in the follow-on incident investigation and close-out chain:

Poor Reporting

If employees feel uncomfortable reporting an incident or a safety concern – or if a frontline improvement team fears their input will be ignored – you have incomplete incident and near-miss data. Complete data are important because if things go unreported, you can’t investigate what is going wrong and why. The same applies to audit findings – if these are simply filed and forgotten, rather than fed into an improvement system that tracks progress, they’re good for nothing.

Expert Insight

  • Getting the whole picture requires skilful questioning and mutual trust and respect.
  • We want to know why people are doing what they doing. If we just look for the culprit and blame them – or even replace them! – have we solved the problem? What will the next person do?
  • Remember it has to be safe to talk before you can talk about safety. Learn how to make it safe to talk.

Poor Investigation

Assuming things are reported, next take a look at the quality of your incident investigation. Perhaps the most common issue here is a failure to get to the root cause of an incident.

If you’ve arrived at the conclusion that ‘behaviour was the cause of the incident’, you haven’t got to the root cause!!

Expert Insight

Let’s look at a quick example – someone reversed into a pile of pallets and damaged the fork lift truck. So the cause of this is they didn’t look behind before reversing… right? Well sort of – that’s the immediate cause. But why didn’t they look behind? Were they fatigued? In a hurry? A momentary lapse? Did they look at the reversing camera, see it had mud on it and then assume all was ok? The fix for all those scenarios is very different:

  • Fatigue – are rota changes needed?
  • In a hurry – is the productivity/safety balance out of kilter?
  • Momentary lapse – lack of warning sensor?
  • Reversing camera – is vehicle maintenance below par?

How close to the root do your incident investigations get? If your organisation is just pulling off the top of the weeds rather than pulling them up from the roots, take a look at our Incident Investigation Training.

Poor Follow-Up/Close-Out

The end goal of incident investigation is to support the business in preventing future accidents and ultimately improve employee wellbeing and productivity.

So whilst it is crucial to get to the bottom of what happened, it’s just as crucial that remedial actions are implemented. If people are not completing their actions, that in itself is a high potential incident – something has gone out of process and if it’s not fixed promptly and effectively it will lead to a belief that “it’s not worth the effort because nothing ever gets done”. And it won’t be.

Expert Insight

  • What are we doing to enable timely completion of actions? Have we got the resource? Have they got the time? Have they got the skills? Are they getting the recognition?
  • Is top management properly accountable for ensuring close-out? (see section on Accountability below)

Clashing Priorities

It’s not uncommon for different organisational priorities to clash. If people are cutting corners because they’re too busy; if incidents are occurring because there was a deadline that had to be met and there was no other way to do it – you have a mismatch between safety and other operational constraints.

To move beyond broad safety compliance and avoid getting into a system obsessed state, it’s crucial that valuing safety becomes embedded in every part of the organisation – ‘it’s the way we do things around here’. In a fully integrated safety culture, safety best practice is embedded in everything that the organisation does. That means every line manager ‘owns’ safety – rather than it being a ‘bolt on’ done by the safety department.

Expert Insight

  • It goes without saying that if the appraisal process is ineffective, then it’s impossible properly to cascade organisational improvement plans into personal objectives.
  • Is the tension between Health and Safety and Production at an appropriate level?
  • Who regards themselves as responsible for safety? – the H&S department?… or everyone?
  • Have you got a functioning process improvement process?

Lack of Ownership and Accountability

A lack of ownership and accountability is one of the most common reasons for actions not being implemented – and as a result, for programme failure.

Ever been assigned an action without being present? Is it commonplace in your organisation that everyone is too busy to cover off their actions? If this sounds familiar, you’ll probably have noticed the impact it has and the messages it sends about the importance of actions being thoroughly implemented.

Expert Insight

  • Only assign an action to someone who is present. If the relevant person isn’t in the meeting, someone that is should be assigned an action of asking the other person to agree to take the required action on.
  • No is a reasonable answer. Try the following: “Of course I can do that. What would you like me not to do to make the time?” (assuming it’s safe!)
  • Consider using the RACI matrix. For example, if a task is due by the end of the month, ‘Accountable’ will ideally check 1 week before that everything is on track:
  • Responsible – the one who does the work
  • Accountable – the one ultimately answerable for the completion of the task
  • Consulted – those whose opinions are sought
  • Informed – those who are kept up-to-date on progress/completion
  • Check you have formal programme management in place. In the context of a 2 year safety culture programme, regular check-ins are essential to assess what’s changing/what’s not working. And just as essential – insights should be recognised, addressed and followed-up… before you get to the end of the programme and realise all is not well.

No Trumpeters Present

Who doesn’t like a bit of recognition now and again? As human beings, we have an innate need for knowing how we’re doing and getting some recognition when we do well. A lack of feedback and recognition is a common theme in sub-optimal safety culture programmes.

Consider how an employee might feel if the only time they get recognition is when they make a mistake. Safety conversations should recognise safe behaviours as much as they challenge unsafe ones. Likewise, if you’ve set up a frontline improvement team but there’s no acceptance of its recommendations or recognition of its achievements, you may struggle to get fresh volunteers to join.

Expert Insight

Two of the strands in our employee engagement model are Caring Managers and Esteemed Employees. The two are inextricably linked – and it needs to be genuine. When thinking about recognition and trumpet blowing, make it more than a gimmick. Make it authentic.

Research indicates that to be motivated, employees need to:

  1. know what they have to do
  2. know how to do it
  3. know why they have to do it
  4. value the outcome

Number four is the difference between having to do it and wanting to do it. With the former, all you have is compliance; with the latter, you have compliance AND engagement. Giving appropriate recognition is one valued outcome (there are many others!). What desirable behaviours might you want to positively reinforce? How might you seek to positively reinforce them?

‘Same Old, Same Old’

Gaining traction across the organisation for a new change programme is often a challenge. This is particularly the case if previous initiatives haven’t been as successful as you’d have liked. In particular, things can get very stale if it’s the same people who are involved/driving programmes/elements within a programme – ‘the same usual suspects’.

Expert Insight

One fantastic way around this problem is to get a frontline improvement team up and running. Once the team get a couple of successes under their belt, they then co-opt a couple of new people in with new ideas and insights. If it’s working well, people will want to be part of the action and volunteer. Ring the changes and ensure you keep things fresh!


As we noticed at the beginning of this post, the returns to be got from a successful safety culture programme implementation are huge. If you’re embarking on a safety culture programme and aiming for outstanding results, contact us to discuss your project and how we can help you avoid the pitfalls – and instead achieve tangible, ongoing safety performance improvement, better employee engagement and higher productivity.

Resilient People in Resilient Organisations

Our specialist culture change consultants work with organisations across the globe to create a culture of safety and wellbeing. We harness the impact of improved leadership & engagement to create organisational resilience and optimal health & safety performance. OCAID stands for Organisational Culture And Individual Development

Contact us to discuss your project or dig deeper:
Cultural Safety   |   Behavioural Safety   |   Engagement & Wellbeing

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