There’s a mistaken perception that culture change only benefits big organisations, denying smaller organisations the dramatic improvements it makes to safety, efficiency and quality.

“It’s not true; culture change definitely benefits us” says Stephen Binns, logistics manager at Ashland Inc.’s Bradford site. The site’s 40 employees produce polymers and other specialty ingredients for products in the personal care, construction and oil and gas industries.

“Even though Bradford is a small site we still have a varied mix of people and priorities” agrees Ray Swaddle, UK operations manager.

That means familiar challenges arising from differing attitudes, values and beliefs about safety. In fact, small and large organisations have more in common than you might think when it comes to safety culture change. If anything there’s more at stake when incidents affect a close community with fewer staff.Small fish and big fish staring at one another

Common obstacles still apply

Stakes are higher when incidents happen in small organisations because the effects are potentially more devastating on the fragile personal and financial ecosystem which defines them. Yet you might assume that closer relationships between fewer co-workers means discussions, not just about safety, would be more candid and commonplace.

Despite the relatively small number of employees at Ashland’s Bradford site, Ray still observes common challenges to better engagement:

“Even within small departments there are still reporting lines, sections and different teams with competing goals. There are always barriers there to break down.”

These habitual working practices are familiar to large organisations too, sometimes referred to as ‘silo mentality’. It results in people from different teams unintentionally not sharing critical knowledge like near-misses or speaking up even though they work in the same room.

So an active approach is needed to get people engaged, and it’s often the simplest techniques that are the most effective.

Simple first steps

Ashland began with team workshops designed to help their staff recognise and complement one another’s personality traits, explains Stephen:

“At first people are apprehensive, maybe because you’re disrupting a routine… but now people here are much more receptive and engaged because of them.”

Workshops are just the beginning says Stephen: “you have to do something with what you find [and] keep up momentum with actions.”

Jason Mellor, Ashland’s UK manufacturing manager, reveals one of the main changes they made:

“We set up a site meeting once a month and provide lunch, everyone comes along for safety updates and we let them know how the business is doing.”

Stephen elaborates on getting staff engaged with their monthly meetings:

“We make them informal. People can ask questions anonymously beforehand which we answer, even tricky ones. People like to know what’s going on so you give them full visibility… Some present work they’re proud of, or they share interesting SUSA conversations they’ve had. You pick out what’s relevant.”

Human footsteps in sand

Something as simple as an informal get-together might seem obvious. Yet it’s surprising how infrequently they happen because of time constraints and other pressures seemingly more important than safety. But if you get dates in people’s diaries early enough and choose engaging topics, attendance grows rapidly as does its impact. Jason recaps:

“Sometimes you need to come away from your day-to-day work life, and get help from professionals like JOMC to reflect on the bigger journey you’re on.”

Ashland’s method of recording SUSA observations is equally simple yet effective. The Bradford site uses paper forms to record safety discussions. Ray already sees the benefits:

“It’s really effective for getting quick fixes done… now people are going that step further to come up with solutions to stop incidents happening again.”

An increasing number of safety observations is a classic early indicator of the foundations of safety culture change. And this proves you don’t need complex systems like large organisations to begin your journey as a small organisation. Building safety into your existing processes like Ashland did, with on-site training from JOMC, is an excellent start.

Personal experience

Effective culture change is always spearheaded by leaders who believe that no one should get hurt and who demonstrate their commitment to it in every aspect of their lives. Stephen shares his personal experience of safety development at Ashland:

“I used to think things like holding the handrail and closing doors were trivial but you realise safety is a choice that begins with the individual. It wasn’t other people telling me what to do, it was me changing my own behaviour. It’s a snowball effect: start with small things, then get bigger. You think ‘if I can change things doing something simple, imagine what we can do together’ – it gives you enthusiasm when you realise how much control you have.”

Jason agrees:

“People have to internalise it. Change has to come from within individuals. I’ve spoken to people here who’ve changed their total outlook to the point where they do things differently at home… that’s a massive step for safety.”

Ray adds a final thought:

“Training is the catalyst that makes all this happen. You’ve got to promote safety as often as possible, so people know it’s as much a part of operational excellence as everything else is.”

Ashland’s Bradford site is now a centre of excellence within the group of companies which compose Ashland.

This article was written by Chris Kenworthy