Safety culture needs local ‘geo’ culture support

Visiting London, Paris, Beijing, Mumbai and Pune in early 2011, I again had to consider implications of local geo culture for corporate safety culture.

Geo culture is a term for cultural aspects rooted in local geographical location. Could an optimal corporate safety culture applied across geo cultures? I believe that it could, but that does not imply that implementing or changing corporate culture is easy.

Indeed it is extremely difficult. Regretfully, many safety professionals do not take this into enough consideration. I make this comment on the basis of many emails and conversations in the last few years.

Safety culture is not ‘off the shelf’

I gave a presentation at the South African Chamber of Mines about eighteen months ago, with several hundred people in the room. One of the comments that I support, is that South African mining regularly imported safety practices from other parts of the world, with scant regard for the real world application of those practices in a South African context.

We have often seen the same situation with tools and techniques from well known global safety programmes. It is key to understand multi-layered relationships in South African mining operations.

Chinese mining safety culture

For decades we have been hearing about unacceptable numbers of fatalities in Chinese mining. Many reasons contribute to those horrific outcomes. We are also seeing a continued rush by American and Australian governments, among others, to export safety systems and technologies to China.

Should we be doing that? Absolutely! Anything we can do to try and reduce the loss of one husband, father, brother, is worth the investment. But could a safety strategy designed to operate at a behavioural level in an American or Australian mine, work in Chinese operations? Highly unlikely.

A number of influential cultural factors operate in Chinese geo culture. A methane gas alarm will activate at whatever setting it has been calibrated at, irrespective of the pit or culture where it is used. But individual, team and corporate concepts and judgements about health and safety are very different in China.

The point at which individual, personal ‘alarms’ go off depends on geo cultural factors and corporate culture factors.

Indian culture of corruption wants safety

In India, where I have been regularly visiting for some years, and the largest country demographic of TransformationalSafety.Com community members, there is a great desire to improve safety outcomes.

Unfortunately India is a geo culture that is highly corrupt at all levels, and it is institutionalized. Everyone knows it, as y Indian colleagues and friends openly say. Some senior and well regarded officials have lamented this observation with me.

The Times of India leads every day with a story about political corruption, and similar behaviour permeates many areas of the public and private sector.
If we want to engineer an organisation toward optimal safety culture, we need overt and sustained support from leaders. The same applies in local geo cultures. If corruption, or scant regard for life, of whatever values are displayed by geo cultural leaders, that would filter down into authorities and organisations, eventually to operational workforces.

South African compliance and corruption culture

Geo culture translates into behaviour. I was told that if you are pulled over by a South African traffic policeman, the phrase to remember is ‘can we talk about this?’ This is a key antecedent (a behavioural safety term) for exploring the possibility and amount of a bribe. There is a similar ritual in place in India.

I am not casting stones at easy and distant cultural targets. An election in my state, New South Wales, Australia, brought a ‘landslide’ change in government, due to public perception of arrogance and corruption.

Geo culture factors in safety interventions

We have to consider geo cultural factors when designing safety interventions. The celebrated Abraham Maslow gave psychologists and mangers the most powerful metaphor to appreciate human motivation.

Maslow suggested that our motivations for the whole range of behaviour are in a triangular vertical model. People need to satisfy these factors from the bottom up. Occupational health and safety is generally not perceived to be basic or immediate.

Risk perception and risk appetite dictate local geo behaviour. In Asia and many other parts, entire families are transported on two wheeled motor cycles, as their immediate needs dictate.

Circumstances and culture dictate priorities

On my second trip to India, I was visiting a good friend who is a senior medial doctor, quite wealthy, and spending a lot of time helping people in need. I was asked to spend a few hours teaching at one of the ‘slum school’ that he funds in Mumbai.

The kids in the class may have had breakfast, but few get dinner. What a respectful group they were, hungry for knowledge and keen to use education to gain a foothold in any economy.

There is little point in trying to elevate the importance of personal and corporate safety among people who are unable to feed themselves.

When looking for the most appropriate behavioural reinforcers, we must consider where the person ‘is’ in terms of common human priorities, to which Maslow gave us a rough guide.

Behavoural safety v cultural factors

We have to consider application of the principles of behavioural safety in different geo cultural frameworks, even on one site, especially in economically diverse countries like South Africa.

Some particular employee behaviours are heavily grounded in geo cultural influences. Ignore it these at the peril of your health and safety culture.
European cultures challenge safety culture

My visit to London and Paris were my first sojourns to those fair cities. One of the first things that impressed me was the public bicycle schemes, great for the environment and community health, as I thought.

One of the first things that distressed me was that nobody was wearing cycling helmets. Readers of would know that if I had not been wearing a cycling helmet recently, I would have been dead!

A cab driver told me that cycling helmets were optional. Perhaps since many riders are renting bicycles for an hour, and have no place to store a helmet, that becomes and excuse for accepting more risk.

London and Paris are ‘no helmet’ cultures! Developing countries are not the only geo cultures facing safety culture challenges.

We could not apply Maslow’s model of motivation here. There are other, more subliminal human motivation factors at play.

I am gob-smacked that the required simple change in legislation has not been pursued in Europe. Cycling helmets could reduce costs in the British health system by hundreds of millions of pounds, and relieve direct economic impacts of injuries.

British and French safety practitioners would serve their corporate safety cultures, and their geo cultures, by campaigning for mandatory use of cycling helmets.

Health and safety Payback would be far greater that raising compliance to wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) at work, since workplace culture sustains itself when supported by local geo culture.

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