Safety Culture does not work without concept


The Corona pandemic is dominating the news. Not only in these challenging times is a developed safety culture extremely important. At thyssenkrupp this is a high priority. In an interview, Dr. David Maus, Program Director, and Dr. Jörg Arnold, Head of Occupational Safety, explain why rules and processes are only the first step of establishing a convincing safety culture at thyssenkrupp.

In principle: Why does a company concern itself with occupational safety?

This is often triggered by a high number of accidents within the company. It may sound trivial, but unfortunately, not everyone tackles the issue thoroughly and systematically before something happens.

What do you observe instead?

Often the first reaction to accidents is to initiate activities that are supposed to prevent exactly this type of accident. It can’t keep going like this, they say. After hand injuries, gloves are procured for the employees, after tripping accidents, the tripping hazards are removed. This usually leads to fewer injuries. But after some time, many things still stand unconnected next to each other and each incident leads to a new activity that has little contact with previous activities.

Dr. David Maus, Program Director, in a workshop on thyssenkrupp's safety culture thyssenkrupp

Dr. David Maus, Program Director, in a workshop on thyssenkrupp's safety culture thyssenkrupp

Dr. Jörg Arnold, Head of Occupational Safety, talking to leaders about saftey culture

Dr. Jörg Arnold, Head of Occupational Safety, talking to leaders about saftey culture

Dr. Jörg Arnold, Head of Occupational Safety, talking to leaders about saftey culture


So it’s not enough to react on a case by case basis?

It’ s just the first step. This phase of individual, unconnected activities for more work safety is usually followed by a simple but valuable insight: If you want to systematize and standardize, you have to set up a system, an occupational safety management system, in which processes, structures, instructions, checklists are developed to strengthen the topic of occupational safety.

You can publish rules and processes and insist on their adherence everywhere and always. What are the arguments against this?

Well, nothing at all. Actually, the systematic development of safety-promoting standards and processes leads to a reduction in the number of accidents.  This is a good success, but soon after the introduction of systems and processes, the number of accidents stagnates at a certain level and simply does not decrease. This is similar to the first phase, in which the unconnected reactions did not lead to a comprehensive solution. So another flash in the pan.

What is the reason for that?

When procedures and processes are minutely standardized, described and documented in order to achieve the highest possible level of safety, this is usually not done by the acting employees, who we should consider as experts of the situation. Instead, experts are involved who are primarily concerned with process standardization or occupational safety. Those who are supposed to benefit directly from this are very often only the recipients of the rules and instructions and should then act accordingly.

 Okay. So, what does that mean?

The world is so complex that even the best expert cannot anticipate all situations and process them into rules and instructions. The results of his work will certainly fit the majority of situations, but never all of them. A world in which there are functioning instructions for action for every situation may seem desirable for many, but it remains an illusion. To reduce the number of accidents even further, all that remains for companies to do is, to work on their safety culture. This is about a clear corporate objective: zero accidents is the culture. This requires a sense of solidarity within the company, a sense of we, in which responsibility for oneself and others is transformed into an unwritten, subtly binding rule: ‚That is how we do things here‘.

Why should this safety culture be valued higher than rules and systems?

The one does not work without the other. Culture does not work without a concept. But there is one important difference. Since the rules are not made by those who have to follow them, a situation is threatening in which, in the event of an accident, the experts are pointed out and accused: ‘It’s your fault – if you experts had given us employees the right rules, we wouldn’t have an accident now’. Unfortunately, it also works the other way around: ‘It’s your fault – you employees obviously don’t follow our rules, because if you had followed them, we wouldn’t have an accident now’. Unfortunately, this is typical for companies that have so far dedicated themselves to occupational safety mainly on a system level.

 Can you describe what constitutes security culture, beyond a sense of “we”?

The term safety culture was first mentioned in the nuclear energy industry. That was in April 1986, after the Chernobyl reactor disaster. Safety culture is part of corporate culture, and this can be expressed in many different facets: Values, norms, attitudes, basic assumptions, models of thought and patterns of action that the individual employee shares with the other employees in a company. But this definition fits more into an encyclopedia. At thyssenkrupp we use a much simpler definition for our context, which we have had very good experience with: Corporate culture is what is important to us and what is normal and acceptable to us. We can remember this definition much more easily, it is intended to guide us in our actions, so it has a much stronger link to the behavior of all thyssenkrupp employees in their everyday work.

Will the program also be effective in health crises such as the current corona epidemic?

Yes, the program also aims to prepare teams for dealing with crisis situations. It addresses the issue of which behavioral patterns in the team strengthen the resilience of an organization and which are more of a hindrance. Prepared teams are better able to handle crises of all kinds, whether serious accidents, epidemics or other emergencies.

For more information about the Pathways programs here