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Positive Safety Culture: The Case Of COVID-19

Updated: Jun 17

The homo sapiens sapiens global society does not have a good or a positive safety culture! I know that is a bold and daring statement to make. However, against the backdrop of COVID-19, it will require considerable brain power and mental contortion to convince otherwise.

What is safety culture by the way? It is the way a group of people collectively perceive, value and prioritize safety. Here, I am not talking about attitudes of individuals or sections of the society but the conglomerate attitude of the masses. A society's safety culture is a measure of the real commitment to safety at all levels in the society.

Is the desire to foster a positive safety culture with regards to COVID-19 a lost cause? Maybe. The jury is still out on that. However, a careful study of the causes of the poor safety culture being exhibited worldwide shows that these same factors contribute to the negative safety culture in organisations and industries.

This is hardly surprising since it is the same homo sapiens sapiens in both cases. The global scale of COVID-19 just makes these factors more glaring and "in your face."

If a fish rots from the head down, then the failure in fostering a positive safety culture in the face of the pandemic lies in the lap of the leadership. A positive safety culture results from the harmonised implementation of policies that are birthed at the leadership levels of the country, society or organization.

And it is this inherent nature of the conception and the gestation of a positive safety culture that presents us with our first hurdle. The top-down approach of creating policies and expecting seamless implementation is fine and dandy if you can effectively police its implementation.

People will naturally defer and do the authority’s bidding as long as they can feel authority breathing down their necks. The moment there is a slack in policing is the moment the implementation begins to disintegrate. Indeed, it is true what they say that a safety culture is what you do when no one is watching.

In most jurisdictions you will see people observing, for example, social distancing protocols only when there is an efficient and empowered monitoring entity nearby. This same scene plays out in our organisations and industries daily.

Why is this so?

Answering this question brings to the fore the second identified hurdle of fostering a positive safety culture. If the first hurdle is an inherent one about which very little can be done, properly addressing the second hurdle can effectively nullify the effects of the first.

So, the answer to the question "Why is this so?" is because there is little or no buy-in from the masses. If leadership decides to brute force safety down the throats of the masses, attaining or achieving a positive safety culture is doomed from the start. If leadership invests insufficient time and resources to ensure buy-in, the result would still be the same.

It is only when a citizen or an employee recognises that the benefit of implementing a policy outweighs the status quo will he implement the policy, regardless of the presence or absence of a monitoring entity.

If the issue of fostering a positive safety culture, in the face of this epidemic, were limited to only these two factors, I am sure we may have flattened the curve a lot quicker.

Unfortunately, we must deal with sabotage.

In matters of human relations, perception will often trump facts. Nowhere is this more evident than in politics; both at the country level and at the office level.

As previously stated, a safety culture is required to be birthed at the policy level or at the very top of an organization or country. However, it is not enough to have it written as part of the policy documents but also equally important is to have the leadership actively promoting the policies in word and deed. And herein lies the problem.

When we look at the situation with this pandemic across most countries, we see two main pathways that leadership is using to self-sabotage the intention of the policies. These same pathways may be identified in an organization struggling to achieve a positive safety culture.

Pathway 1 - Words: Even though leadership is supposed to sing from the same hymn book, we see some part of the leadership expressing doubt as to the effectiveness of the policies. This is compounded by the fact that these doubts are openly expressed to the populace. It is therefore not surprising that implementation of preventative measures has not gained traction in some jurisdictions.

It is also alarming to have some sections of leadership giving excuses, sometimes ridiculous ones, as to why the policies cannot be implemented. "We were created in the image of God and the wearing of masks will obscure that image" was one of such unfortunate statements from a representative of the people.

If an organization finds that leadership is not singing in harmony, it would do well to suspend any action on the policies and resolve issues at the leadership level.

Pathway 2 - Actions: These immortal words uttered in a song of the late Barry White - baby practice what you preach - should be hanging prominently on the walls of every leader. If the leaders of a country are neither seen in facial masks nor seen observing social distancing protocols, how would the populace embrace these measures? If the actions of leadership of an organization give the impression that profits, rather than safety, is the priority, how would a positive safety culture take root?

Another hurdle to contend with is our psychology as homo sapiens sapiens. Just because we had a few deaths as compared to other jurisdictions does not mean we are safe. Just because we have had no accident in our industry or organization does not mean we are safe. I cannot over emphasize this point enough - safety is not the lack or absence of accidents!

As much as is practically feasible, luck should be removed from the safety equation. Compounding this false feeling of safety is the fact that the effects of lack of safety are delayed. In addition, many have often displayed this irrational concept of invincibility, either as individuals or collectively as a group.

When we see accidents happening in other organizations, we cling to the belief that it cannot happen to us. Ghanaians have a popular saying that goes, "if your neighbour's beard is on fire, you must prepare a bucket of water by your side."

When the number of deaths due to the disease started soaring in some parts of the world, some other parts continued business as normal and the repercussions of this false sense of safety are being felt to this day.

When employees fail to grasp the effects of their actions or lack thereof, either due to the delayed nature of safety-cause-and-effect or by the assumption of invincibility, that organization cannot be said to have a positive safety culture.

On the other hand, a fully "safety functional" employee may report breaches in the bulwark of positive safety culture, for action to be taken. No system is so perfect from birth that it does not require tweaking. Such employee reports help to foster and nurture a positive safety culture. Whether other employees will follow suit will depend on the reaction of both the leadership and peers of the employee.

Unfortunately, with COVID-19, the actions necessary to contain the risk of further spread after someone reports sick are very dramatic, to say the least. This is a necessary evil and there may be nothing to be done about it. Luckily, an organization has several options at its disposal and needs to employ the least dramatic reaction as much as possible.

What is more disheartening is the reaction from peers. In the case of COVID-19, it is the stigmatization of recovered individuals and sometimes, unfortunately, of whole communities or nations. Such an attitude would not encourage reporting, a key component of any positive safety culture. Are workers stigmatised and labelled after reporting an error in your organization?

It takes time to build or change a culture. No one expects attitudes to change overnight. However, identifying these barriers or hurdles that lie on the path to building and sustaining a positive safety culture will go a long way in ensuring that we get to our destination sooner rather than later; before the unthinkable happens and we are forced to take more drastic measures.

These hurdles are present and true for worldwide positive safety culture as it is true for an organizational positive safety culture. They can only be overcome by constant and continuous education of all levels of the society. To achieve a positive safety culture, repetition, and not just repetition, but effective repetition, in words and in deeds, is the surest way.

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