A recent article in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) caught my eye because it reminded me of how complex it is to get a safety culture change programme started. It was about advanced negotiation skills, identifying and dealing with key influences on a decision and using them to help you get the outcome you require.

The complexity in culture change pivots on the fact that in our line of work, you’re not just talking to an individual and trying to persuade them to buy into the importance of a strong safety culture. You’re ultimately energising an entire organisation with myriad competing influences.

The HBR article told the story of union negotiations between the Pacific Maritime Organisation (PMA) which represented 72 U.S and global shipping lines and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU).

These bodies hold contractual negotiations every three years and in 1999 the priority was an agreement to introduce new technology to help “overcome the paralyzing inefficiencies of the US West Coast ports”. Fearful of more job losses, the ILWU resisted this because since the 1950s their ranks had already been reduced by roughly 90%.

In protest, the ILWU began an informal slowdown of the estimated $6 billion weekly trade, causing major retailers and finally the government to pile pressure on the PMA who quickly caved.

Stacked shipping containers

Recognising the mistakes they made in 1999 and to prepare for the 2002 negotiations, the PMA identified the major sources of influence on the ILWU. They were:

  • Internal (the PMA’s shipping-firm members)
  • Business (the companies using the ports)
  • Government
  • The public

Next they then ran a well-executed PR campaign to educate groups and individuals on the importance of this technology agreement and the repercussions for everyone if it wasn’t effected.

When they got to the table for negotiations in 2002, the ILWU began another slowdown but this time the government was on-side. They threatened to severely curb the union activities with sanctions not invoked for 30 years if they didn’t stop the slowdown.

This time the union caved and proper negotiations followed which lead to the technological advances being implemented. And because of this, tonnage and employment was increased by 40% by 2010.

The key lesson here is recognition of just how many influences there are on a given decision, especially in an organisational context.

It’s no less simple with health and safety

There are a variety of importance influences which affect how people behave. A few we often come up against are:

  • Decisions made by management about the priority of safety versus getting the job done
  • Workers’ peers who have different attitudes towards the importance of safety
  • Workers’ families
  • The media
  • Other companies they work with: suppliers and other clients if they work for a sub-contractor
  • Their own existing prejudices

You must have a strategy in place to tackle these influences if you expect your workforce to support a new procedure, risk assessment or near-miss campaign.

Whilst you may not be in a position to meaningfully work on every influence, it’s still worth recognising them and their importance in helping people make the right decisions.

Only then will you start to really ‘win’ safety.