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Occupational safety and health (OSH) is a highly regulated area that appears to be based on rational planning and logical management approaches, e.g. OSH Management Systems: employers and employees of organisations should be aware of OSH risks, assess these risks systematically, provide the necessary expertise, to eliminate and / or reduce the OSH risks to an acceptable level, and ensure that these risks remain at their lowest possible level However, since the late 1980’s we live in what Hale and Hovden (1998)[1] called the ‘third age of safety’, where the focus is no longer only on technological (the first age) or organisational measures (the second age) but also takes account of culture and human behaviour (the third age).

The importance of a preventive occupational safety and health culture

Several international and European organisations strongly support the development of a preventive OSH culture. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), a key element for OSH management is promoting a culture of prevention within the enterprise where the right to a safe and healthy working environment is respected and where employers and employees actively participate in securing a safe and healthy working environment. Foremost, policies should seek to prevent accidents and injuries by taking all reasonable practicable measures to minimise hazards inherent in the working environment. Employees or their representatives should be allowed to consult workers’ organisations about such matters, provided they do not disclose commercially sensitive information. They also should be allowed to bring in outside technical advisors, with management agreement. A worker should report to their immediate supervisor any situation which they believe presents an imminent and serious danger. Finally, according to the ILO each worker has the right not to resume work until the employer has taken the necessary remedial action to remove the imminent and serious danger to life or health [2].

Within the European Union, incorporating risk prevention into all facets of workers’ lives and into policy planning is a central tenet of the EU’s community strategy on OSH. The OSH Strategic Framework 2021-2027 sets out a priority for Improving prevention of work-related diseases and accidents in line with a Vision Zero approach to work-related deaths and by strengthening prevention culture, both in organisations and among individual workers[3].

The European Network for Workplace Health Promotion’s (ENWHP) emphasises the importance of organisational culture, leadership principles and values as vital aspects of workplace health promotion[4].

Organisational occupational safety and health culture

The rest of this article will focus on how organisational culture plays a vital role in occupational safety and health (OSH). However, we first need to define what is meant by organisational culture. The culture of organisations comprises the values, norms, opinions, attitudes, taboos and visions of reality that have an important influence on decision making and behaviour of those organisations. Organisations can be regarded as social communities that share a set of core values. The core values of an organisation are increasingly recognised as the main determinants of the organisation’s identity; they underlie the organisation’s mission, vision and strategies, as well as influence the design and functioning of their systems, structure, style of operation, and the selection and development of staff and skills. This is illustrated by McKinsey’s ‘7 S-model’[5].

Figure 1: McKinsey’s 7 S-model

Figure 1: McKinsey’s 7 S-model


Schein (1992)[6]distinguished three levels of culture: basic assumptions; espoused values; and artefacts (including aspects of behaviour). The basic assumptions cannot be directly observed or perceived, but they are the core of an organisational culture. The espoused values are those that the organisation and its higher management proclaim to be important. The artefacts (e.g. working practices) are phenomena co-determined by the corporate culture which can easily be observed or measured. It is more difficult to clarify the link between the artefacts and the two underlying layers of the culture. The influence of the culture of the organisation on its members remains largely unconscious or even subconscious. It is transferred to new members of the organisation through implicit socialisation processes.

Organisational culture influences the attitudes, motivation and behaviours of managers, supervisors and workers. It influences working practices, the perceptions, understanding and management of OSH risks and whether these risks are discussed and dealt with It also determines which risks are considered acceptable and what is regarded as responsible OSH behaviour.

In production companies high productivity is always important. To maintain high productivity individuals might violate certain OSH regulations. In organisations with an OSH culture, production and OSH are not seen as conflicting, but as two sides of the same coin: safety pays, and OSH is good for productivity. The culture supports desired safe and healthy behaviour with a focus on responsibility and competence, and discourages irresponsible action.

There are many different definitions of OSH culture (organisational), and the related concept of OSH climate. Guldenmund (2000)[7] presents eighteen different definitions in his review article on safety culture. We regard OSH culture as the totality of attitudes, (implicit) assumptions, beliefs, perceptions and habits of the members of an organisation that are relevant for OSH. Occupational safety and health culture is expressed in policy, procedures, activities and behaviour, and is always an aspect of the organisational culture. As defined above, OSH culture is a neutral concept. However in this article it is primarily used as a positive concept, to refer to a culture where all members of the organisation feel they are responsible for accident and injury prevention, and where this responsibility is translated into practice.

As organisational OSH culture is intangible, it is not a phenomenon that can easily be measured or managed. An overview of available methods and tools for the assessment of OSH culture is presented in a publication by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA)[8]. In the OSH Barometer, developed by the European Commission and EU-OSHA, online data are made available about the status of OSH in the EU. 'OSH culture and health awareness' is one of four indicators for Working conditions and prevention. The indicator on OSH culture presents data on aspects such as such as sickness absence analysis, existence of prevention plans, or the implementation of measures for better safety and health[9].

Core values and occupational safety and health

Core values are the operating philosophies or principles that guide an organisation’s internal conduct as well as its relationship with the external world. These principles guide the practices and behaviours of managers, supervisors and workers. Core values are more stable than corporate structure or management systems in periods of reorganisations and change, and are an important stabilising factor in the changing world of work.

Table 1: Examples of the translation of core values into desired OSH behaviour

Table 1: Examples of the translation of core values into desired OSH behaviour

In a literature review (2010), seven core values were identified as important for the development of an OSH culture[10] [5]:

  1. Social involvement.
  2. Justice.
  3. Trust.
  4. Sustainability.
  5. Participation.
  6. Resilience and flexibility.
  7. Development and growth.

Each of these core values is important for the development of an OSH culture, and each can have direct and indirect influence on OSH. At the same time, they also contribute to the business success of a company. For example, trust between management and employees is essential to encourage the reporting and analysis of incidents (OSH), and also for effective cooperation and communication; all attributes of a good employer (good business).

To influence company practices, core values need to be translated into key words, and characteristics of (desirable) behaviour (see table 1)[10]. These translations can be used for dialogue and reflection. It is important to realise that the culture cannot simply be planned and deployed, but is generated by all members of the organisation collectively; the core culture has to be ‘lived’ by most individuals and confirmed in interactions with other members of the organisation. Only then can it become the ethical compass for all members of the organisation.

The characteristics of an occupational safety and health culture

According to Reason (1997)[11], an organisation with a positive safety culture has four closely connected characteristics:

  1. A reporting and informed culture: a culture where the people readily report problems, errors and near misses. Reporting is essential to inform all stakeholders.
  2. A just culture: an atmosphere of trust that encourages people to deliver OSH relevant information and where everybody knows what is acceptable or unacceptable behaviour. Justice and reliable information (even if it is bad news) generates credibility and confidence.
  3. A flexible culture: a culture that allows adaptation to changing conditions or new requirements, while retaining a focus on OSH.
  4. A learning culture: where people individually and collectively want to improve OSH and are willing and able to reflect on their own behaviour and that of others.

Kines at al. (2011)[12] focus on the concept of a safety climate, which relates to shared perceptions of safety policies, procedures and practices[13] and emphasise management safety and group safety as essential for a safety climate. Management safety comprises management priority and ability, safety empowerment and justice. Group safety comprises workers’ safety commitment, safety priority and the non-acceptance of risk, the trust in the efficacy of safety systems, as well as peer-safety communication, learning and trust in the ability to maintain a safe work environment.

Reasons to develop an occupational safety and health culture

There are many reasons why an organisation may want to improve their OSH culture, ranging from strategic ambitions, to the removal of operational problems[5]. These may include:

  • the desire to be an excellent and responsible organisation;
  • the realisation that people are the biggest asset of the organisation and as such, this asset should be protected and developed;
  • the realisation that many things are informally orchestrated, and the organisation should use this to strengthen the formal OSH procedures;
  • the prevalence of irresponsible OSH behaviour;
  • acknowledging problems of poor OSH performance (e.g. problems with enforcement authorities, significant production losses caused by incidents, lower productivity than competitors, lower worker morale, serious accidents).


Normative versus open approaches to developing an occupational safety and health culture

There are two types of approaches that are used to improve the OSH culture: normative and open approaches[5].

Normative approach

Normative approaches usually start top-down with a definition of the norms for desired and undesired practices and behaviour. Then a programme is deployed that focuses on compliance. This may include behavioural safety programmes, or programmes to promote well-defined healthy behaviours (e.g. 30 minutes physical exercise per day).

Figure 2: The hierarchy of safety cultures (maturity model) according to the hearts and minds programme


Two well-known examples of normative approaches for the development of a safety culture are the ‘Hearts & Minds’ programme[14] and the Safety Culture Maturity Model promoted by the Health and Safety Executive in the UK[15]. Both are based on similar safety culture maturity models (see Figure 2). The hierarchy of safety cultures (maturity model) according to the hearts and minds programme)[14].

Using the maturity model, the existing safety culture can be assessed. The maturity model underpins many methods used for assessing the safety or prevention culture. Examples are the 5-level approach (Germany)[16] and the Safety Culture Ladder (the Netherlands)[17]. The Dutch Safety Culture Ladder comprises an audit scheme and certification. 

Different outcomes of the assessments made by management, supervisors and workforce, may give rise to useful dialogue. The next step is to discuss with management whether they are satisfied with the outcomes, and their ambitions to improve. Then an action plan is drawn up to progress the safety culture to the next level, paying specific attention to weakly scored cultural topics.

Open approach

In an open approach the intrinsic motivation and self-regulation of the workforce is the central focus. It is realised that “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink". An open approach aims to increase everybody’s awareness and create a shared understanding of OSH and the value of prevention. Training, education and dialogue are often used to achieve this.

In order to start a dialogue on the importance of the OSH policy, a chemical company started workshops for all employees, including managers and the chief executive. External moderators facilitated the dialogues on OSH policy, the dilemmas that were encountered, and the practical implications for daily operations.

This approach was important in order to gain the mutual understanding and trust between management and employees, which generated a range of suggestions for concrete OSH improvements that were welcomed by managers and employees.

Strategic, tactical or operational focus for occupational safety and health culture

In addition to the distinction between open and normative approaches to OSH culture, organisations can have strategic, tactical or operational and behavioural perspectives

The strategic perspective

Higher managers have significant power and their attitude to OSH risks and employee safety and health has a major influence on the whole organisation. Thus, OSH leadership is important and should be included in management development programmes[12].

An important characteristic of a preventive OSH culture is higher management’s commitment to ‘vision zero’, the belief that all accidents, harm and work-related diseases are preventable, and the desire to make that a reality. The opposite of ‘vision zero’ is the belief that accidents, harm and work-related diseases are regrettable, but an unavoidable consequence of doing business and having a job; implying that accidents, injuries and work-related diseases are acceptable. From an ethical point of view, only vision zero is sustainable[18]. The global Vision Zero, an initiative from the International Social Security Association (ISSA)[19], puts forward 7 golden rules for the implementation of a Vision Zero on safety, health and well-being at work based on practical management concepts. These rules are:

  1. Take leadership – demonstrate commitment
  2. Identify hazards – control risks
  3. Define targets – develop programmes
  4. Ensure a safe and healthy system – be well-organized
  5. Ensure safety and health in machines, equipment and workplaces
  6. Improve qualifications – develop competence
  7. Invest in people – motivate by participation

A Strategic approach to OSH culture can also be triggered by a corporate social responsibility (CSR) programme within the organisation. CSR is closely linked with business ethics, and with involvement of both internal and external stakeholders. OSH is often regarded as a vital component of a CSR programme[20]. Therefore, by having a CSR programme in place the organisation is likely to strive for a corporate culture where health and safety is in the core mindset and behaviour of all its members.


The tactical perspective

The ‘7S model’ already described the interaction between shared values (culture) and systems. Indeed, technical safety systems and OSH management systems interact with occupational safety and health culture. The way OSH systems function is an indicator of the maturity of the OSH culture and can be a reason for its further development. On the other hand, improving OSH culture needs support or development of good structures and systems, For example, when workers are participating actively in the risk assessment and their risk perceptions are taken seriously, this directly influences OSH culture.

A Near Miss Management System is important for safety management as it alerts workers to dangerous situations. It involves identifying, reporting, and analysing near misses, with follow-up, feedback, and management review. To be effective, it requires a no blame culture where everyone feels free to report all potential incidents. Reporting incidents should be regarded as delivering valuable management information, allowing the organisation to respond appropriately. It requires a long process in order to achieve trust amongst the workforce.

In a company their near miss management system functioned well. Then, all of a sudden, a new manager blamed an employee after they reported an incident. The consequences were dramatic: mistrust arose, and reporting rates dropped sharply. Higher management realised that the organisation was about to lose its culture of trust and a valuable source of safety information. The CEO openly sanctioned the new manager to demonstrate the company’s commitment to the no-blame culture and safety. Confidence and consequently reporting of incidents, was gradually restored with the company.

The operational and behavioural perspective

Unsafe or unhealthy behaviours are a constraint to operational risk control. Indeed, irresponsible behaviour is often a precursor of accidents or health problems. Exemplary behaviour and positive feedback regarding responsible actions strongly reinforces OSH behaviour. This is also the essence of behaviour-based safety programmes. In the long run, behavioural-based safety programmes aim to make OSH the normal way: “We work responsible or we don’t do it".


[1] Hale A.R., Hovden J., Management and culture: the third age of safety. In A-M Feyer & A Williamson (eds.) Occupational Injury: risk, prevention and intervention. Taylor & Francis, London, 1998, pp. 129-66.

[2] ILO – International Labour Organisation. Join in building a culture of prevention on OSH, 2015. Available at:

[4] ENWHP - European Network for Workplace Health Promotion. Luxembourg Declaration. Available at:

[5] Zwetsloot G.I.J.M. & Dijkman, A., (editors), AI blad 56, Werken aan veiligheids- en gezondheidscultuur, SDU, Den Haag, 2010.

[6] Schein, Edgar H. 1992 (copyright 1985). Organizational Culture and Leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

[7] Guldenmund, F. W. The nature of safety culture: a review of theory and research. Safety science, 2000, 34(1-3), 215-257.

[8] EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work. Occupational Safety and Health culture assessment - A review of main approaches and selected tools. Report, 2011. Available at:

[9] EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work. OSH Barometer. Available at:

[10] Van Scheppingen A.R., Bos, E., Zwetsloot, G.I.J.M., Starren, A.M.L. & Dijkman, A.J., Internalizing core values as a fundament for workers’ health, well-being and safety in a changing world of work, poster presented at the ICOH-WOPS Conference. 14-17 June 2010, VU Universiteit, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 2010.

[11] Reason, J.T., Managing the Risks of Organisational Accidents. Aldershot: Ashgate, 1997. Schein, E., A conceptual model for managed culture change. In Schein, E. (Ed.), Organisational Culture and Leadership (2nd ed.), Jossey-Bass, 1992.

[12] Kines, P., Lappalainen, J., Mikkelsen, K. L., Olsen, E., Pousette, A., Tharaldsen, J., ... & Törner, M. Nordic Safety Climate Questionnaire (NOSACQ-50): A new tool for diagnosing occupational safety climate. International journal of industrial ergonomics, 2011, 41(6), 634-646.

[13] Zohar, D., Safety climate: conceptual and measurement issues. In: Quick, J., Tetrick, L. (Eds.), Handbook of Occupational Health Psychology. American Psychological Association, Washington, DC, 2003, pp. 123–42.

[14] Hudson P.T.W., Parker, D., Lawton, R., Verschuur W.L.G., van der Graaf G., Kalff, J., The Hearts and Minds project, Creating Intrinsic Motivation for HSE, Paper presented at the SPE International conference on Health Safety Environment in Oil and Gas Exploration and Production, Stavanger, 2000.

[15] Fleming, M., Safety culture maturity model. Offshore Technology Report 2000/049. HSE Books, Norwich UK, 2001. Available at:

[18] Aaltonen, M., The Zero Effect Model. In: The Quality of Working Life: Challenges for the Future. Liber Amicorum for the 10th Anniversary of Prevent, Prevent, Brussels, 2007. pp. 166-70.

[19] ISSA - International Social Security Association 7 Golden Rules – for zero accidents and healthy work: A guide for employers and managers. Available at:

[20] EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work. Corporate social responsibility and safety and health at work. Report, 2004. Available at:

Further reading

EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work. Safety culture: a global approach, supported by the hierarchy. Report, 2010. Available at:

EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work. Occupational Safety and Health culture assessment - A review of main approaches and selected tools. Report, 2011. Available at:

EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work. Occupational safety and health in Europe: state and trends 2023. Report, 2023. Available at:

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Klaus Kuhl

Gerard Zwetsloot

Karla Van den Broek

Prevent, Belgium