Basic principles

Basic Principles

Safety culture is complex (see 'What is Safety Culture?') and this means that there is no simple set of interventions that guarantee success.  However, there are some basic principles for safety culture enhancement that build on the current level of safety culture of an organisation:      

(i) Do the rights things at right time – this depends on the current level of safety culture development.  There is a progression through the 5 levels of development; at each level there will be a limited number of key enablers that help an organisation progress to the next level.  “Positioning for success” – means selecting those initiatives most likely to take the culture forward, consideration where the culture is now; this is based on:

  • Using the 5 level maturity model as basic guidance for the general progression
  • Building on the local level of “what’s working well”  

The assessment toolkit will identify the current level of safety culture development and provide an overview of the priority enablers.  Bringing it to simplest level, key enablers are: 

Key enablers

Level 0, 1                   

Create the foundations of sound safety management arrangements

Levels 1&2

Establish demonstrable management commitment to safety

Levels 2,3,&4

Increase the level and quality of employee participation & involvement

Levels 3 to 5

Enhance the organisation’s learning processes

(ii) Build on successes and the opportunities presented – successful interventions move the culture forward and frequently mean that people are more willing to try or accept further improvements.  It is important to use these opportunities to further enhance the culture.  For example, an approach piloted on one location that works well may be expanded to embrace more people.  Success – and acknowledgement of people’s contributions – creates a sense of optimism and belief that things can be improved.     

(iii) Keep things simple & deliverable – apparently small changes can have big effects.  It is usually better to go for simple interventions/approaches rather than grandiose schemes.  The most important aspect of any intervention is to deliver it – hence keep it simple, understandable and practically deliverable.  Most approaches require some kind of back-up to ensure people do what is required, particularly changing management behaviours.  Typical back-up actions are audits, action tracking, progress reviews – if it’s not seen as being important and sustained, it will degrade and die.    

(iv) Stop doing things that don’t work; do something different instead – many organisations spend much effort trying to make interventions work when they have failed at the initial implementation phase.  It is better to use the resources on different activities that have more likelihood of success.    

(v) Be flexible – the concept of safety culture development shows the general progression of culture enhancement, and suggests that an organisation needs to move up through each level in turn.  Typically moving from low levels to level 4 or 5 is likely to take several years for a large organisation.  However, we need to recognise that sometimes improvement can occur rapidly, especially at a local level, seemingly “jumping levels”.  If this happens, celebrate it and build on the new opportunities it creates.  

Overall progression requires both macro and micro consideration – culture is never uniform within an organisation, there are always pockets of better and worse.  Consequently we need to adopt a flexible approach to improvement based on:

  • Empowering local managers to move their cultures forward in ways appropriate to their people;
  • Putting in place an overall framework for the whole company/organisation to demand/stimulate progression across the whole business (driven by senior managers)

The absolute golden rule on employee participation, involvement & empowerment is that you must only ever increase it, never take it away – as this can destroy trust and management credibility.


A Simple Management Indicator

See where you believe you are:

Level 1 & 2

Feels like pushing water uphill; everything demands, and driven by, management effort

Level 3

Like cycling on a flattish road, generally not too much effort, occasional bits of freewheeling (no management effort at all to maintain momentum or even increase speed); occasional bits of unexpected effort required to keep up reasonable momentum.

Levels 4 & 5

Cycling downhill; generally very little effort required apart from braking & steering to stop things running away and keeping on course (ie. management not having to put effort in to generate improvement momentum, but need to occasionally restrain enthusiasm, facilitate and support, and provide overall monitoring & direction).