Unsticking the 'Toffee Layer'
Developing and nurturing a positive safety culture takes leadership and an organisational commitment to shared values. Sarah Purdy explores the historical barriers and the dreaded 'toffee layer' that together threaten the growth and advancements of organisations striving to improve safety performance.
The attitudes, values and behaviours of staff all influence safety culture. Trust is the largest barrier that organisations face. Just like reputation, it can take years to build and minutes to shatter, with one simple decision undoing years of work. Without trust, employees are discouraged from reporting into the Safety Management System with beliefs like: 'nothing will get done about it anyway', 'I'll be blamed,' or 'it'll be swallowed into the management abyss'. The result: staff become disengaged and tolerate unsafe conditions, which prevents effective risk management.
The 'toffee layer' is where safety information often gets stuck and safety leadership is absent. It typically consists of middle managers who are busy running the day-to-day operation and 'firefighting'. Safety is inadvertently pushed to the bottom of the pile and managers lose the habit of promoting safety. This same layer is also where staff may report safety concerns in the hope that something will be done, only for the 'toffee layer' to be too busy to deal with the issue, or not pass the information up to senior management to make the necessary safety improvements. This comes across to the workforce as management not taking safety seriously. People in the 'toffee layer' might be heard saying: 'it works, why change?' or 'we've always done it this way around here'. These perceptions might be based on their early experiences when safety was viewed differently in the organisation. The 'toffee layer' plays a vital role in empowering staff to use the resources at their disposal to conduct their work safely and effectively. Without 'toffee layer' support, a positive safety culture will unlikely be achieved.
So, what can be done to improve the Safety Culture and unstick the 'toffee layer'? The activities are not rocket science, but they require continual focus, and there are some practical steps you can take to make this happen. Does your organisation have documented safety responsibilities for managers as well as guidance on their expected safety behaviours? Are there tailored assessment tools in place to enhance Just Culture? Who has 'safety moments' as part of all meetings? When was the last time your leadership team asked about safety or invited you to join an organisation-wide safety improvement initiative? How about a Safety App to share and engage more with safety information? These are just some of the steps that we see making a positive improvement to our customers' safety cultures.