Can all types of cultures be safe cultures?

What is a culture? 

Culture definition. The sum of attitudes, customs, and beliefs that distinguishes one group of people from another. Culture is transmitted, through language, material objects, ritual, institutions, and art, from one generation to the next.

The term ‘safety culture’ was first used in The International Nuclear Safety Group’s (INSAG’s 1988) Summary Report on the Post-Accident Review Meeting on the Chernobyl Accident where safety culture was first described.

The U.K. Health and Safety Commission developed one of the most commonly used definitions of safety culture: “The product of individual and group values, attitudes, perceptions, competencies, and patterns of behaviour that determine the commitment to, and the style and proficiency of, an organisation’s health and safety management.

“Organisations with a positive safety culture are characterised by communications founded on mutual trust, by shared perceptions of the importance of safety and by confidence in the efficiency of preventive measures.”

There are four basic types of organisational cultures according to Robert E. Quinn and Kim S. Cameron –

  • Clan oriented cultures are family-like, with a focus on mentoring, nurturing, and “doing things together.”
  • Adhocracy oriented cultures are dynamic and entrepreneurial, with a focus on risk-taking, innovation, and “doing things first.”
  • Market oriented cultures are results oriented, with a focus on competition, achievement, and “getting the job done.”
  • Hierarchy oriented cultures are structured and controlled, with a focus on efficiency, stability and “doing things right






Having consulted and worked in all of these types of cultures, implementing a cultural change programme to enhance the safety and wellbeing can be potentially challenging as it depends on the true focus of the organisation and its leadership team and if it possesses more than one type of culture –i.e. many have two markets driven and hierarchical.

The Clan culture values flexibility, employee autonomy and teamwork rather than competition or conformity. While this business culture has many positive features, there are also some potential issues (i.e. family run businesses).

The Adhocracy culture can be a dynamic, entrepreneurial and creative place to work. Innovation and risk taking is welcomed by staff and leaders, they strive to be on the leading edge of new products. A good example of this is Apple.

The Hierarchy culture can be a highly structured place to work, where rules and procedures govern behaviour and can be challenging to enhance as ‘we have always done it this way and it works’. Management want security and predictability. Examples of this sort are the armed forces and many universities.

The Market culture is predominantly a results driven organisation focused on job/task completion. People are competitive and goal orientated. Leaders are demanding, productive and too busy for safety, as this is low on their list of priorities. A good example – banks and insurance companies.

All organisational cultures promote some forms of behaviour, and inhibit others. Some are well suited to rapid and repeated change, others are suited to slow incremental development of the establishment.

The underlying belief that people are selfish and only out for themselves might unwittingly influence a company’s attitudes and behaviours toward outside salespeople, vendors, and consultants. This is profound stuff that is largely invisible, unspoken, and unknown to an organisation’s members. So is it possible to really know a company’s culture?

Sometimes it’s difficult as you can’t see the wood for the trees however, to help, Cameron and Quinn have developed an Organisational Culture Assessment Instrument online at

  1. What sort of culture do you have within your organisation?
  2. Have you a safe culture?
  3. Have you the buy in from the senior management?

Other potential roadblocks to an effective safety culture

In my experience, there are five barriers that frequently prevent managers from being more effective in promoting a safe culture –

  1. Management by exception – until there’s a problem the manager or leader is not seen, they react to an incident when it happens and often say they have no time to carry out ongoing safety.
  2. Poor communication – both in terms of verbal and nonverbal, saying one thing about safety then doing another; i.e. taking short cuts.
  3. Management by fear – employees frightened to report incidents in case of reprimand. Motivating staff through fear only leads to problems, usually hidden issues that only come to light when preventative action is no longer an option.
  4. Over emphasis on statistics –numbers don’t help to build trust and statistics may identify individuals who, whether deliberately or unwittingly, are underperforming and continue to do so without any remedial action being taken by those who are responsible for doing so. There may of course, be circumstances unacknowledged by those whose duty it is to acknowledge them (such as the conditions of equipment, plant and premises or weaknesses in the management of documentation, policies and procedures) that are beyond the control of particular underperforming individuals.
  5. Directors and owners of the company who are not interested in safety cannot see the benefits and pay lipservice to the whole thing, just ticking boxes to comply with statutory provisions.

What is the solution?

The first essential step is to engage the top tiers of the organisation, directors and senior management, the people who set the tones of the operational and strategic working environments, in the institution and evolution of a culture of safety.

This has the added benefit of encouraging the smaller companies who contract to them to take safety as seriously as their client does. This can have a domino effect of getting the supply-chain businesses to strategise full programmes of compliance and building a safer culture instead of just ticking compliance boxes.

The ramifications of the values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviours that leaders communicate, both directly and by personal example, to those for whose safety and prosperity they are responsible for have profound and far-reaching effects on team-integration, morale, safe attitudes and behaviours, production and productivity.


Many organisations can change with time and commitment; some are more challenging than others, much of this has a lot to do with the way it is led and sticking to its core values help to sustain and solidify the culture each and every day.

Commitment must come from the top in a visible format, not just signing the policy documentation, real leadership – leading by example getting out onto the shop floor on a more regular basis, etc.

So please arrange a meeting with your board and sell them the incredible benefits to implementing a strong tone for your site.

Cameron and Quinn (1999)
Four organisational cultural types – by B.M. Tharp