CATEGORIZED | 2007, September/October

Facilitating a change in HSE culture must begin by identifying, understanding existing culture

Posted on 28 October 2009

By Curt Cranford, Grant Prideco and Stacey Greene, Oceaneering International

Facilitating a culture change in organizations, both large and small, is a daunting task. The first basic step in this process is to identify the existing culture of the organization.

One of the modern technical definitions of culture — “socially patterned human thoughts and behaviors” — shows us that we must identify an organization’s true culture through the behaviors and beliefs of all levels of employees. Being able to correctly assess an organization’s culture is imperative to understanding what changes must occur in order for the entire organization to progress.

An organization’s HSE program and its culture share a symbiotic relationship. Culture — employee behaviors and beliefs — initially defines the HSE program. The HSE program, once implemented, will then affect the culture. As the culture progresses, this in turn will allow the HSE program to shift to a level of greater prominence, which will then again affect change in the organization’s culture. This process will continue until halted by the culture reaching a point of resistance philosophically in which beliefs and/or behaviors can no longer be changed.


There are numerous theories of what an HSE program is and is not. Consequently, there are numerous ideas of what essential elements a progressive HSE program will require. This article will examine seven elements: management commitment, employee involvement, management system, operations vs. HSE, HSE responsibilities, reactive/proactive nature of hazard identification, and housekeeping.

We will use these elements as a guide in identifying an organization’s existing culture, as well as how the elements can change an organization as it migrates through a six-stage matrix. In each stage, characteristics of each element are identified, and by using these characteristics, one can track how the elements progress in order to affect employee behaviors and beliefs, or culture shift, either forward or backward toward the next stage.

A brief description of each stage will be provided, in addition to identifiable measures/characteristics of each stage.

STAGE 1: Ignorance is Bliss

This is the initial stage for most organizations. In this stage, there are few written documents, a management system is non-existent, and the HSE program is best defined as instinctual. Management commitment and employee involvement in HSE matters are low to nil. In most cases, an HSE program does not exist and no employees have been designated with formal HSE roles and/or responsibilities. The organization is in total reactive mode (reacting to hazards only when identified to be a cause of an incident) in relation to hazard identification and elimination.

Measures/indicators commonly exhibited by an organization in this stage include;

• Very high recordable incident rate (greater than 10.0).

• Very high lost-time incident rate (lost-time rate is equal to recordable rate).

• Poor housekeeping and organization of the facility(s).

STAGE 2: The Paper Tiger

Organizations are often forced into this stage by external influences — regulatory- and/or customer-driven, in most cases. However, in some cases, personnel charged with HSE responsibilities will push for implementation of a management system as a means of furthering their own ambitions through attaining certifications in the area of HSE.

In this stage, written documents are developed but seldom used other than to demonstrate compliance to laws and regulatory standards, or customer requirements. The HSE program (written documents and some simplistic processes) that exists does not effectively function as a management system. Management commitment and employee involvement in HSE matters are low. HSE responsibilities may be identified, and someone who is generally not a HSE professional is designated with formal HSE responsibilities.

In most cases, there are no resources to support the HSE program and no visible management support except when using HSE as a tool for self-serving reasons, such as being referenced in contract qualifications, or cost justifications for price increases. In this stage, the organization is in a reactive mode, primarily reacting to hazards when identified to be a cause of an incident, but may have some proactive processes of identifying hazards not associated with an incident in relation to hazard identification and elimination.

Measures/indicators commonly exhibited by an organization in this stage include;

• Very high recordable incident rate (less than 10.0 but greater than 5.0).

• Very high lost-time incident rate (lost-time rate is generally about 50% of the recordable rate).

• Poor housekeeping and organization of the facility(s).

STAGE 3: Big Brother is Watching

Organizations move into this stage generally as a result of natural progression from Stage 2. The HSE program becomes more prominent through an acceleration of implementation and converging influences both external (customer/regulatory) and internal (the recognition of the need for a formal HSE program).

Management commitment increases in this stage but is generally limited and, in most cases, is given to only initiatives that support regulatory compliance or customer requirements. Also indicative of management commitment in this stage is an “approval by inaction” posture. Managers/supervisors will verbalize their commitment to HSE but in many cases will not act when they become aware of obvious HSE issues.

Employee involvement also takes on a limited role. In stages 1 and 2, employees are allowed, even encouraged/rewarded, to disregard HSE concerns in lieu of getting the job done.

In this stage, employees are confronted with following HSE procedures regardless of the circumstances. The majority of employees will not accept that HSE requirements must be followed in all cases and therefore do not initially adhere to them. This lack of acceptance leads to disregarding HSE requirements and pushes the organization to enforce the new standards.

Unfortunately, this leads most companies into the “Safety Cop” pitfall where personnel with HSE responsibilities are perceived to have an enforcement responsibility, and are watching. Management may step in with additional enforcement assistance, but this often will create an atmosphere of fear and punishment that will hinder the HSE program in several respects, i.e. non-reporting of incidents.

Employees often move toward a pseudo-acceptance but often only follow HSE requirements when they feel they are under observation and don’t truly modify their beliefs or behaviors. Often organizations will use employee incentives to gain employee cooperation in the HSE program. This tactic, although successful initially, will eventually lose effectiveness and can lead to a mentality of entitlement, which can detract from the HSE program in the future.

Organizations realize that staffing with an HSE professional(s), or allowing those with HSE responsibilities to be properly trained, is imperative. Unfortunately, from this realization is spawned a common, centralization of the HSE program responsibilities to only a few people.

Centralization of responsibilities hinders the HSE program in two ways: by supporting the Safety Cop pitfall, and not allowing other employees to become involved and develop a sense of ownership of the HSE program.

Written documents begin to migrate toward being able to support a true management system in its infancy. Some organizations begin to set goals or objectives. However, they are generally not linked to a continuous improvement cycle but rather are a superficial attempt at setting minimum aspirations that are easily achieved and can provide a sense of accomplishment. Often goals or objectives set in this stage are vague and open-ended, and cannot be measured. Examples of such goals or objectives are “improve safety awareness” or “generate less waste.”

Hazard identification and elimination also starts a migration toward becoming proactive with the implementation of a hazard recognition processes or similar program that allows workplace hazards to be identified and eliminated prior to contributing to an incident.

Measures/indicators commonly exhibited by an organization in this stage include:

• High recordable incident rate (less than 5.0 with declining trend).

• High lost-time incident rate (less than 2.5 with declining trend.)

• Housekeeping and organization of the facility(s) begin to improve as importance is stressed and measured.

STAGE 4: It’s All About Me

For most organizations, the transition from stage 3 to 4 is generally the most difficult. The first culture shift from having no HSE program to truly modifying both belief and behavior of employees to accept and participate in it, occurs here and is a task that often requires years to achieve.

Management commitment in this stage is generally conditional. Management views an HSE program as a necessary evil and, in most cases, a negative to the balance sheet. Many organizations are faced with upper-level managers not being committed to supporting the HSE program and therefore do not provide the necessary support in either words or deeds (time, resources, leadership).

A common failing seen in most organizations in this stage is the HSE vs. operations/profit struggle. Upper management supports HSE until it affects the one true goal of profitably, then HSE is trumped and becomes a secondary concern, if not totally ignored. To maintain profitability, upper management often places middle and lower management in a position to fail by assigning responsibilities to establish and further the HSE program, but also withholding necessary resources. This inequity sends a powerful and unmistakable message to employees that HSE is optional if pitted against profitability. The “HSE is optional” attitude must be removed before employees will fully accept that HSE procedures must always be considered and for them to become engaged and participate in the HSE program. The lack, perceived or real, of management commitment is a major dilemma that must be addressed.

Employee beliefs and behaviors begin to migrate from “HSE is important if I am being watched” to “HSE is a part of the way I work.” In this stage, employees realize that the true benefit of the HSE program is they are protected. Once this realization occurs, HSE evolves from being a requirement to becoming a benefit, and employees do change their beliefs and behaviors.

Written documents become cohesive and interrelated, and support a management system. Setting goals and objectives becomes a required part of the organization’s aspirations to implement a functional management system.

During this stage, hazard identification and elimination continues to migrate toward becoming proactive. The organization realizes the importance of conducting incident investigations in cases where injuries do not occur, such as near-miss or property loss incidents. Organizations begin tracking internal statistical measures. Some organizations will progress from simple incident investigations that identify basic causes to more sophisticated techniques that allow for identification of root causes.

Measures/indicators commonly exhibited by an organization in this stage include;

• Moderate recordable incident rate (less than 2.0 with declining trend).

• Moderate lost-time incident rate (less than 1.0 with declining trend.)

• Housekeeping and organization of the facility(s) is now measured. Additional programs that affect behavior through housekeeping (5S and Lean Manufacturing) are implemented.

STAGE 5: One for All, All for One

The most apparent sign an organization has moved from stage 4 to stage 5 is the transition of employees beliefs from “I am responsible for me” to the “I am responsible for everyone, and everyone is responsible for me.” concept. This signifies that the HSE culture within the organization has shifted and adopted the team philosophy of shared responsibility. However, it is important that the behaviors associated with this team concept must be exhibited for an organization to be confident they have achieved this cultural shift.

Management commitment has matured and adopted a “talk the talk and walk the walk” credo. No longer does management, specifically upper management, look at HSE as a necessary evil that is a drain on profitability. Management sees HSE for it true worth, as an aspect of doing business that can affect operations in positive ways and can be an additive factor to profitability. This realization also allows the organization to nullify the profitability vs. HSE struggle.

In this stage, management and employees realize that throwing money at a problem is not always the best alternative. Management realizes their most valuable commitment to moving HSE culture forward is their visible participation in it and acknowledgement that HSE is simply an aspect of doing business. This acknowledgement of HSE being a part of operations, on the same plane as quality, engineering, accounting, scheduling, production, inspection, etc., is essential to putting HSE as a focal point in day-to-day activities. Also during this stage, HSE considerations become a part of both long- and short-term planning at all levels of the organization.

In this stage, employees adopt the “I am responsible for everyone, and everyone is responsible for me” concept. Words are cheap in this instance as initially when this concept is put forward in the HSE program employees are willing to conform in words but not deeds. Therefore, it is important to gauge the behaviors of employees in the team concept and not rely on superficial statements some may make.

Clear examples of a team HSE culture include: near-miss reporting in line with statistical values compared with incidents (safety triangle model); mentoring programs for new employees; routine peer-to-peer job competency evaluations; high level of employee participation in a hazard recognition program; and declining unsafe condition observations with increasing unsafe behavior and near-miss observations.

The concept of using leading indicators as a measure of an organization’s HSE program develops in this stage. As an organization reaches this level, the lagging indicators (recordable and lost-time incident rates) have been lowered to a point where they provide little, if any, information. Now an organization is forced to look for other performance measures, and most will have become sophisticated enough to want leading rather than lagging measures. Common leading indicators include closure rate of actions to address root causes of incidents; closure rate of actions to address observations; trend analysis of observations and/or root causes of incidents, etc.

Hazard identification and elimination takes on a proactive approach. This belief in being proactive and to identify and resolve hazards before they contribute to causing an incident is a characteristic generally seen in this stage.

Measures/indicators commonly exhibited by an organization in this stage include;

• Low recordable incident rate (greater than 1.0 with declining trend).

• Low lost time incident rate (greater than 0.5 with declining trend.)

• Housekeeping and organization of the facility(s) moves toward excellent status. Additional programs that affect behavior through housekeeping (5S and Lean Manufacturing) are implemented.

STAGE 6: Transcending Traditional Boundaries

In stage 6, an organization has reached or is reaching a level in which it has maximized its internal processes. The organization now looks outward for objectives to supplement its internal processes.

For organizations aspiring to move into this level of HSE culture, profitability must be evaluated with respect to legal, ethical and moral considerations, as well as community involvement/improvement.

Organizations can provide resources to the community on many levels, but possibly the greatest of these is the expertise and time of their employees.Therefore, the idea of employee activism outside the workplace is championed by an organization in this stage. This belief that involvement in the community will benefit all involved and the organization is committed to allowing employees time off to contribute to the community, is a clear signal that an organization has evolved to this stage.

The idea of social justice becomes a focus of the organization. “Just society” refers to more than the administration of laws. It is based on the idea of a society that gives individuals and groups fair treatment and a just share of the benefits of society. Therefore, an organization must be committed to expect social justice in itself as well as with those it interacts. If social justice is clearly ignored by another organization, the possibility of not doing business with the offending entity must be more than an idle threat. These standards and ideas must be established in the organizations first, but ultimately must also include organizations such as suppliers, vendors, business partners and customers, if change in the area of social justice is to be gained.

Forward planning for organizations includes new variables for consideration. Issues such as environmental sustainability, wise use of natural resources, energy conservation measures, zero waste generation, employee safety off the job, health and safety for employee’s family, etc., now take their place as goals and objectives that the organization sets for itself.

The concept of an employee’s value to the organization is expanded to include off-the-job safety. The organization understands that productivity can be linked to employee health and that an injured or sick employee, regardless of where the injury or illness occurred, is an employee that will not be able to contribute to the organization. This realization allows the organization to promote health, safety, and environmental responsibility both on and off the job.

Commonly tracked indicators for an organization in this stage include:

• Low recordable incident rate (greater than 1.0 with declining trend).

• Low lost-time incident rate (greater than 0.5 with declining trend.)

• Housekeeping and organization of the facility(s) move toward excellent status. Additional programs that affect behavior through housekeeping (5S and Lean Manufacturing) are implemented.


Changing the HSE culture at an organization is a challenging task that must begin by identifying the group’s existing culture through employee behavior and beliefs. The seven elements discussed above — management commitment, employee involvement, management system, operations vs. HSE, HSE responsibilities, reactive/proactive nature of hazard identification, and housekeeping — can be used to guide this identification. Once there is understanding, progress can begin.

This article is based on a presentation to be made at the IADC Drilling HSE Europe Conference & Exhibition, 9-10 October 2007, Copenhagen.

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