19 May 2020

Restarting operations? Work safety culture doesn’t happen by accident

As more businesses prepare to restart operations under very different working conditions, the nuclear industry’s established work safety culture could […]

As more businesses prepare to restart operations under very different working conditions, the nuclear industry’s established work safety culture could provide a model for other sectors, says Huw Jenkins, industrial advisor from the Nuclear AMRC, part of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult.

Usually helping companies in South Wales and the West Midlands become Fit For Nuclear, he introduces the essential attitudes and behaviours for a safe return to work.

This month’s VE day anniversary reminded us how the British can be at their best in adversity, working together to defeat a common foe. In the current Covid-19 crisis, we can be proud of the selflessness of our health and care workers, and the kind acts of volunteers helping out those less fortunate.

The British instinctively dislike being told what to do, being generally more amenable to reasoned polite request. “Policing by consent” has been the basis of our approach since the 19th century, and there’s been widespread opprobrium for heavy-handed applications of lockdown law by some officers.

The public also gives short shrift to figures of authority setting a “do as I say, not as I do” example, as several politicians and advisors have recently been reminded.

So you’d expect British workers to embrace a culture that works by consent – a culture that is characterised by leaders setting an example, and individuals accepting personal responsibility.

That is the basis of nuclear safety culture.

This safety culture applies to every business working in the nuclear supply chain, not just those managing radioactive or fissile materials. Any seemingly minor quality issue in the supply chain has the potential to become a safety problem for an operating reactor or waste store, maybe decades into the future.

Many of the companies we help through the Fit For Nuclear programme say that upgrading their safety culture is one of the most valuable improvements they make, bringing business benefits that go well beyond their work for the nuclear sector.

Nuclear safety culture has eight internationally recognised characteristics, which I’ve listed below, along with some questions to ask about how they can be applied within a business. Not all will be applicable to every sector, but the essential attitudes and behaviours can help save lives in manufacturing, construction and beyond.

How well does your company culture match up?

Everyone is personally responsible for safety.

Leaders demonstrate their commitment to safety.

Trust permeates the organisation.

Decision-making reflects the safety-first approach.

Nuclear technology is recognised as special and unique. (This one is really only for companies in the nuclear supply chain, although every business should understand the specific requirements of the industry they work in.)

A questioning attitude is cultivated.

Organisational learning is embraced.

Safety undergoes constant examination.

Ultimately, the key to work safety culture is shared responsibility. While it’s always the legal responsibility of the employer to provide a safe working environment, including all necessary PPE, everyone from the boardroom to the shopfloor needs to take personal responsibility for protecting the health and safety of themselves and their colleagues.

Find out more about the Nuclear AMRC here.

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