Plant & Equipment

Accumulated cultural memory key to perceptions of risk

"Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught …"


Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde’s comment is certainly true when it comes to safety in the workplace.

I have no doubt all of us want to work safely, we want our fellow workers, friends and family to work and live safely and we don’t want serious injuries in our workplaces. How we achieve this, and get the message through to others, is both difficult and time-consuming, but one thing is certain, we cannot rely solely on education and training.

I have learned the things I know, the morals and life experiences, from those I have worked and lived with throughout my life.

The experiences I have had, and things I have witnessed, have shaped my “accumulated cultural memory”. These are not things that can be taught but are critical in shaping the way each of us think and act. These are personal beliefs that are often reflected in our perceptions of risk. I am sure each of you has a story of unacceptable risk-taking at a stage in your life that now makes you cringe when you think about it.

Often when an incident occurs in our workplace, we instantly look for blame and system failures that could have led to the incident. We don’t often consider the perception of risk held by different individuals, their cultural background or the nature of the environment we expect them to work in. We seldom look at culture, the way our people perceive that we want them to act or the messages managers and supervisors send through their actions and language.

There is little point in having a safety policy that espouses “safety first” or “safety is our primary goal” when, in reality, production, profits and/or community acceptance are your primary goals. And there is nothing wrong with having production, profits, etc as primary business goals, provided you are honest about it and consistent with your employees.

Just as leadership is necessary in achieving your business goals, it is also critical in achieving your safety goals. We must be honest and consistent with our communications and our expectations of workers. We must also recognise that not everyone will react as we want them to. Their own accumulated cultural memory will dictate their understanding of our expectations. Some will take longer than others to understand and accept the safety goals you set.

Safety leadership is defined in most organisations but the most common features are as follows:



•    Be clear in your expectations.
•    Be consistent.
•    Support with finance and resources.
•    Be present often.
•    Insist on a safe, healthy and caring culture.

If you follow these simple rules, you will have a significant impact on the safety culture of your organisation and, over time, you will impact on your workers’ perceptions of risk and safety performance generally. This impact will be a lot greater than trying to achieve the same through education and training.


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