Safety Culture And The Victim’s Chair.

green wooden chair on white surface

We have a propensity to blame workers. We tend to bring out the victims chair. We place the worker in it, congregate around it and set up situations where the worker is the problem that needs to be fixed. We do it all the time and its a flawed form of leadership and reasoning.  It’s an unhelpful fixation that undermines the potential of creating good safety culture. We have all done it.

This Post is about removing that chair.

I start by drawing on the thinking of Todd Conklin because it’s clever and helps to illustrate what I am about to write. Every accident or event has three components, context, consequence (the bad outcome) and retrospect (the way we view the accident). Consequence is the least interesting part of an accident because its already happened. It’s also a seductive distraction because it detracts away from an accidents context. Conklin also suggests workers don’t cause accidents they trigger latent conditions that set in motion the consequence.

I think we deal with context by pulling out the victims chair. We justify this and process it as part of an accident investigation and as a result we keep the victims chair in play.

Why did the worker fall off the roof? Gravity. Inadequate fall protection had failed the worker. Are you now thinking about how the workers behaviors triggered the consequence and are now led to improving systems? Do you see the victims chair becoming irrelevant. And are you being swayed to looking more towards systems?

I am going out on a limb by suggesting workers are as safe as the systems they work within. If a worker is harmed then for the most part, the system is the underlying and inflexible cause.

Don’t get me wrong, workers do have a role to look after themselves and others but their ability to achieve that is heavily influenced by safety culture and its leadership. More importantly, safety culture cannot grow with the risks confronting the worker. What’s the solution? I don’t know the whole answer but I do believe worker participation in designing and evolving systems is critical. Why does that not happen enough in a meaningful way?

In a previous Post I have reiterated leadership tends to focus on practices because they are easier to see, measure and change. It’s another distraction that leads us away from adopting good systems and the capacity to adapt those systems to real time risks. By genuinely including workers in informing systems we start to remove the victims chair and replace it with a reciprocating conversation about safety culture.

Indigenous workers are among the most at-risk in the world. Indigenous Māori workers are 44% more likely to be seriously injured at work than the general population. Alike indigenous workers they are unfortunately conditioned to the victims chair, and not only within health and safety. Don’t be surprised if they roll their eyes at you with a, here we go again attitude. And if they intuitively tell you the answers you want hear rather than the information you need to know.

Using the victims chair is an adverse inquisition. It represents worst practice. There’s an opportunity to show leadership. Get rid of it and replace it with a meaningful conversation about safety culture.

Muhammad Ali’s poem was: Me. We. It’s an adept finish for this Post.


TFZ Safety Conference 2016 – Todd Conklin.

Safety Culture Needs A Blueprint.

architect architecture blueprint build

I am going to start by discussing a few findings from two presentations. Both are well rounded and provocative pieces of work.

The first is by Dominic Cooper. Two words caught my  attention – need to develop a taxonomy of the core basic assumptions or replace with them with values.

Anything to do with tax worries me, but in this case, a taxonomy is a way to classify and rank things and how they relate to each other. I think of it as a blueprint. Māori culture already has a taxonomy. One version includes aronga (worldview), kaupapa (values) and tikanga (ethical behaviors). I think, it would be straightforward to derive a taxonomy for Māori safety culture from traditional Māori values.

A safety culture without an taxonomy is like a chess board without colored squares or playing baseball without bases. Its guess work.

Likewise values exist for Māori culture. For instance, and in the context of safety, the value of manaakitanga equates to a duty of care.

The second presentation is by Andrew Hopkins. These words caught my attention – culture is a characterized by a specified group. In 2017, Māori workers represented 12.7 per cent or 340,100, of the total New Zealand labour force. Culture is the glue. In 2013, 373,000 (70 percent) of Māori adults said it was at least somewhat important for them to be involved in things to do with Māori culture.

Collective values are extremely difficult to change, if not impossible. As mentioned Māori collective values can effect good safety culture. For interest, leadership tends to focus on practices because they are easier to see, measure and change.

Why did I write the above? The keywords that I have noted have been discussed in a negative context. Cooper or Hopkins are mooting them as gaps for improvement and have offered solutions.

When I think about Māori culture and Māori safety culture the opposite applies  – a taxonomy ,values, specified group are already in place. The building blocks or better still anchors are there – they always have been.

But I’m disappointed. I was talking with a predominately Māori forestry harvesting crew last week. The cultural anchors and subsequent actions were used instinctively but were not embedded in procedure or practice. When asked why they were missing, the impression I gathered was that they were illegitimate in “normal” health and safety system. Whether perception or not its disappointing to see a good safety culture being curbed.

For some of you, this post won’t resonate. Try this, if you were starting up a new business and had to design a proper Taxonomy (general) for its safety culture, what would it look like?


  • Professor Andrew Hopkins – The use and abuse of culture.
  • Dr Dominic Cooper CFIOSH – Navigating the safety culture construct: a review of the evidence
  • Mātauranga Māori: An Introduction by Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal
    Published by MKTA in 2009 ISBN: 978-0-9582955-0-5
  • Statistics NZ: Māori in the Labour Market, 2017 p.2.
  • Statistics NZ: Ethnic Group, 2014

When Your Safety Culture Is A Lie

addition black and white black and white chalk
Photo by George Becker on

A quick update on my research.

I recently watched on YouTube and then read Navigating the safety culture construct: a review of the evidence (July 2016) by Dr Dominic Cooper. I think it’s a nice well-rounded and provocative piece of work, something I intend to revisit from time to time. In my first read, I gathered two points that I’d like to share with you:

First, in research terms, core assumed basic assumptions are invisible, taken for granted beliefs and values that underpin safety culture. They can also come with an inherent flaw. Workers can be impulsive and agree with whatever core assumptions are put before them. And as a result, their safety culture can be a facade. The point Cooper makes is that there’s nothing to anchor those assumptions.

A safety culture without credible foundations is like a wardrobe without hangers – an empty closet.

Second, Cooper also moots that core assumptions could be better replaced by values. Oddly enough in a previous post (and as in other studies) I’ve promoted the five common tikanga Māori values as values.

So here I go again about the benefits of traditional indigenous values and safety culture. I think that indigenous cultural values can anchor core assumptions because those values have a longer history and stronger sense of affiliation with indigenous workers. Again, I see no reason why those values could not be supplemented by other values to enfranchise other workers from other cultures.

It feels good to run across Navigating the safety culture construct: a review of the evidence (July 2016). It confirms that I’m on the right track.

So What?

Do your homework – Your safety culture needs to be anchored by strong recognizable values and those values need to be validated.

Next Post

In my next post I’m going to promote a taxonomy for indigenous safety culture.


hands black and white fingers palm
Photo by Josie Stephens on

Does anyone ask workers “is there anything you do at home that, could improve our safety here?”

You’ve heard the catch-phase, work safe, home safe or something alike. We seem fixated to thinking that our relationship between home and safety is limited to getting home safe from work.

Our narrow understanding of home and safety is often seen in negative terms such or preventing unsafe behaviours (e.g. illegal drug use) and is manifested as punitive and rhetorical remarks aimed at getting workers motivated, “you wouldn’t do that at home would you?” or ” think about your family”.

While we continue to focus our efforts on getting workers to turn on their safety switch at work, we lose sight of the fact that workers behave safe at home and some of those behaviours could be used at work.

A 2017 New Zealand survey of worker and employer health and safety attitudes and behaviours concluded employers and employees have different perceptions about many aspects of workplace safety, and the gap is widening in places.

Starting to reconcile this difference may take as little as a question and tweak of current safety practices. Here’s an example:

In a metal fabrication workshop where workers are predominately Māori and Pacific Islanders, a monthly health and safety meeting is taking place. A discussion results in the leader “asking is there anything you do at home that, could improve our safety at here?”

The normally and quiet unassuming senior machinist outlines his families use of manaakitanga to visitors. Another worker talks about their involvement in a local sports club and how new players are mentored using the tuakana–teina relationship. In both cases, the health and safety of people is seen as obligation that needs to be upheld as a matter reputation.

A review of lost time injuries shows that it’s the younger workers that are being harmed. A discussion reveals that they are only receiving minimal supervision. As a result, a new procedure for new and younger workers is introduced based on a tuakana–teina relationship. Training with quality audits is replaced with mentoring over longer periods of time with set times for feedback and skill checks.

So What?

Engaging with workers about their personal lives can be intrusive. However, this can be balanced if it the discussion is explained and focused on finding ways to improve worker safety.


download.jpgI have been asked, “how do I incorporate indigenous knowledge into workplace health and safety?” I offer two steps:

  1. Educate – learn some basic indigenous cultural values and find traits most common in good safety cultures.
  2. Engage – present your findings to workers. Get your ducks in row and agree which value can be used and which practices can reflect the values. I have not yet designed a way to evaluate steps one and two.

By presenting your findings and agreeing with workers which values and practices are relevant, you not only enfranchise them into safer workplace systems but also make the whole process open and practical.


In this example, I am going to briefly describe tikanga Māori (guidelines for Māori culture). Five common tikanga Māori values and their meanings are:

  • Manaakitanga  –  Reciprocity of kindness, respect, humility, responsible hospitality, and caring for others and the environment.
  • Whakawhanaungatanga – Genealogy connects people through generations, kin, and lasting non-kin relationships.
  • Wairuatanga – Spiritual dimension of thinking, being, and doing, with a spiritual and physical being connected by a mauri—a unique life energy in everything
  • Auahatanga – Creativity, entrepreneurship, problem-solving, learning, confronting challenges, and adapting.
  • Kaitiakitanga – Preserving, sheltering, and protecting in relation to the environment.

There is considerable research describing traits for good performing safety cultures. I have highlighted some and included their meanings:

  • A reporting culture – Cultivating an atmosphere where people have confidence to report safety concerns without fear of blame.
  • A fair and just culture –  Where workers are not punished for actions, omissions or decisions taken by them which are proportionate to their experience and training, but where gross negligence, willful violations are not tolerated.
  • A collective mindfulness – where leaders and workers share common thinking and behaviors in terms of safety values, attitudes and practices.


The below diagram illustrates how manaakitangi can be incorporated into workplace health and safety. The wording describes how it relates to workers and their safety. Likewise, collective thinking and proactive reporting are traits for good performing safety cultures.

By placing in parallel indigenous cultural values and traits for good safety cultures,  workers especially indigenous, can appreciate where their cultural fits into their workplace health and safety.

CaptureSo what?

The value of this two step process is not limited to improving safer workplace practices.

Its foremost value is recognizing the good things that workers do at home and endorsing their shift to and use, at work.

I see no reason why tikanga Māori could not be supplemented by other values to enfranchise other workers from other cultures.

In New Zealand, I do think a re-think is in order, where safer workplace systems reflect accords between employers, workers and workplace health and safety. With the latter being a third person with all the rights, powers, duties, and liabilities of a legal person or something akin. Granting legal personage to things intrinsic to humans is becoming more common.

Next post? 

In my next post I will be discussing my upcoming research efforts.


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A very brief “in-between” post in response to queries regarding which workplaces can be made safer if they are attuned with a relevant indigenous culture.


In my mind, those workplaces include:

  1. A high proportion of indigenous workers
  2. A mix of indigenous and non-indigenous workers, where the latter can affiliate with an indigenous culture
  3. A mix of the above workers and new migrant workers, where the latter may feel more inclined to participate where an indigenous culture is recognized.

In workplaces two and three, indigenous culture can bring on board and enfranchise non-indigenous workers that are at no less risk. I see indigenous culture as the peg in the ground. I see no reason why other cultures cannot be included in safer workplace systems.


Reading between the lines, the underlying question is why introduce an indigenous culture into the workplace. I offer four reasons:

  1. Why not? If the worker follows cultural values at home to improve their well-being then why wouldn’t you allow them at work.
  2. Indigenous workers are the most at risk in the world, and other workers in the same predicament usually live in the same communities. They may readily affiliate to notions found in indigenous cultures.
  3. In New Zealand, its a legal duty to engage workers in their health and safety and provide them with opportunities to participate. This can be more effective in some workplaces attuned with a relevant indigenous culture.
  4. Conventional and culturally indifferent safer workplace systems in the kinds of workplaces I have listed can represent square pegs and round holes. They can obscure key safety messages, impede worker participation and thwart a sustainable safety culture from developing. They can inadvertently provide a false sense of safety.


Unsurprisingly, leaders need to set the agenda and workers need to participate but the tipping point may come fast.

That quiet unassuming machinist might just come forward with a wealth of indigenous knowledge and his colleagues may just be able to apply it as a safer practice.

It’s a bold move to legitimately introduce an indigenous culture into a workplace. I take my hat off to leaders who try improve worker safety. After years of being the experts, they have to let go of their inhibitions and expose themselves to skepticism – that takes courage.