Load & Haul

The impact of cultural stigmas on safety

Could you elaborate on your role for Caterpillar Safety Services? How do you assist customers with developing safety programs and strategies?

My role at Caterpillar Safety Services is to support our customers to create a context of operational excellence, ie:

  • A place where opinions from the floor are valued, individuals are equipped and trusted to do their jobs well, and where each person – from managers to front line workers – feels their effort makes a difference, and their efforts are recognised.

  • A place where systems, processes and culture works together (and not in conflict with one another).

  • A space where safety, production and quality co-exist, where neither jousts for attention.

While every customer is on their own “journey” to enhance their level of safety and operational excellence in their organisation – so no one method fits all our customers – before an approach is recommended, we gain a picture of where the customer is “at”.

Specifically, we seek to understand what has happened in the past – what has worked and what didn’t work, and why, how the organisation and its teams are structured (who reports to whom and how), the quality, content and clarity of messages sent through the business, the differences between what is espoused and what actually happens “out there” (in meeting rooms, in one on one interactions and on the shop floor), and the unique practices of each business unit and the teams within them, to name a few.

While we are interested in finding opportunities for improvement, we also look for the things that are going well, with a view to build upon the strengths of the organisation, or replicate these practices in other areas if appropriate. This work is done through survey, observations and interviews with people at every layer of the organisation.

{{quote-A:R-W:300-Q:"To suffer from depression or stress was seen as a sign of weakness."}}Once the data is gathered, we invite the customer into the room and have them experience the figures and insights we have gathered. Rather than just re-telling the story of what we were told and the things we saw by way of a report, through a series of facilitated activities, we have managers, supervisors and front line workers experience the existing environment of the organisation – as seen through the different layers.

A shared understanding is what we want to create in this conversation, as it helps build the alignment needed for the business to embark on the next phase of its journey.

As for the areas on which to focus, while our team might recommend strategies for each customer that will support the greater initiative (such as leadership and/or goal alignment, leadership and management coaching) the core activity is that created by those on the floor. We work with our customer to empower the very people who have often been the target of organisational initiatives, to come up with the proposals that are going to make the biggest impact to their day to day work.

These people are the ones who create the numbers that leaders look at weekly to make assumptions about what is going on “out there”, yet in my experience, numbers never tell the full story, and few leaders are willing to spend time on the floor to understand what the numbers actually mean to ensure whatever initiatives come from management are even targeting the right thing.

What are some of the cultural stigmas in the workplace that impact safety?

To answer this question, it is important to define what a stigma is – something that is seen to be shameful, disgraceful or a sign of weakness. Until recently, speaking up about mental health, such as depression, stress or anxiety, was taboo – there was a stigma attached to anyone who admitted to experiencing mental illness. To suffer from depression or stress was seen as a sign of weakness.

Today, there are still pockets of people in society who continue to hold this belief, however, to admit to suffering from depression no longer feels like you have admitted to having some infectious disease! As a psychologist, I find that people speaking about things such as mental health makes my life much easier – no more hushed conversations! It is also encouraging to see mental health and wellness on the agenda in every customer organisation.

The common workplace stigmas I encounter are the taboo of questioning the decision a supervisor has made when it doesn’t “feel” right, admitting to being too fatigued to work, not coping with the workload, telling management what “really” goes on during shift, or not speaking up about a wrongdoing, to name a few. On the surface, these things do not seem like much, but they can certainly hinder the efforts of an initiative that might be targeting fatigue management or fostering a culture of trust, for example. Interestingly, workers freely speak about all these things behind closed doors and among each other, but the taboo is voicing this to management in fear of what the consequences might be.


Do gendered behaviours among workers (eg hyper-masculinity, the need to appear tough, intimidating and uncompromising to peers) form part of these cultural stigmas?

It is difficult to say gender is solely responsible for these cultural stigmas. It is no secret, however, that the industries in which I work are traditionally masculine, where, historically, to survive and thrive in the industry, workers needed to show stereotypically male behaviours such as appearing to be tough, uncompromising to peers, and perhaps even bravado. As I travel from customer to customer, these gender stereotypes are appearing less and less.

Access to information and education has created a greater awareness around what is “normal”, as has the diversity of people now coming into our industries: where once we saw largely men in operational areas and females in the administrative functions, we see people from all walks of life in all types of roles, resulting in people speaking about more things and being less tolerant of behaviours that once were accepted.

Stigmas come from a variety of sources – from the things we were taught to accept/not accept as children, what our peers believe, what the media tells us is “the norm”, what our leaders say and, most importantly, what our leaders do when someone speaks up about something that is considered taboo.

For example, if an organisation wants its operators to call up when they need a fatigue break – let’s admit it, driving around a pit, following the same route for 12 hours a day is not exactly exciting, so we can expect fatigue from boredom to kick in – but when they do, the leaders have a conversation with the operators about “not being cut out to do the work … and needing to perhaps reconsider their choice of employment”, the stigma associated with being fatigued sets in, and becomes hard to break.

What sort of strategies can be implemented to introduce a culture of risk minimisation?

Risk minimisation has been of focus for all businesses across our industry – through the identification of unsafe conditions/acts, addressing behaviours and attitudes of safety, implementing physical guarding, policies, procedures and/or training. If these strategies are all being used as intended and/or updated as required, and results are what is desired, then there is little need to do anything else.

If, however, the risk minimisation strategies in place are ceasing to be as effective as they once were and some seemingly “preventable” incidents are creeping back in, perhaps a review of how these strategies are playing out might be in order. If on quick glance things are happening as desired and yet the results are not what you want to be seeing, perhaps a deeper look into how things are being done and said is warranted. Perhaps a cultural stigma is at play.

Strategies to reduce cultural stigmas that hinder the effectiveness of people and organisations are many, but the list below presents a starting point:

  • Assess the current state. According to the work of Dr Dan Petersen (1932- 2007) – the man considered by many to be one of the fathers of modern safety, who spent more than 40 years trying to change the way safety was being done, from something done to the people, to an approach that was created with the people – behind every unsafe behaviour or unsafe act (conscious or unconscious), there is a reason those people engage in those behaviours. A lot of times, that has to do with managers or the management system. What are we in management doing that is allowing or even encouraging those behaviours? Be it through a survey or observations from the outside in, if addressing cultural stigmas is of interest, it would be helpful for organisations to understand what cultural stigmas are at play as seen through the eyes of another.

  • Education about what is “normal”. It is absolutely normal that people will have energy peaks and troughs throughout their shift or during their week. There are days where we feel flat and other days where we feel unstoppable. This is absolutely normal – we all go through it – yet when it comes to leading an operation, we expect people to be like machines – constant, unwavering and unemotional.

  • Personal awareness and development. We all have a view of what is acceptable and what is not. Many will admit they welcome their people to talk to them about the areas in which they need support, such as managing stress, time or fatigue, yet they would be the last people to have a similar conversation with their peers – it’s the “it’s ok for them, but not me” mentality.

  • Leadership and supervisor alignment, ie of what is expected and how to act on it. It’s all well and good having a corporate vision or policy. However, if the leaders and supervisors do not believe in it, and cannot see (or don’t know) how they play a part in bringing it to life, their actions on the floor will be inconsistent.

  • Process/function alignment towards the desired culture. For all functions and processes in a business to co-exist and meaningfully contribute to production, ideally they need to be working in alignment and not conflicting against one another. On-time delivery targets should not be compromising safety, nor should safety be getting in the way of production.


You talk about “championing intervention systems and accountability”. Can you elaborate on what these systems and responsibilities entail?

Underpinning much of the Caterpillar Safety Services methodology is the work of Dr Petersen. In the 1950s and before, occupational safety was the realm of engineers and inspectors. Industrial safety programs focused strictly on the machine/ tool/environment. Dr Petersen was among the first to recognise and address the human behavioural side of safety.

Championing intervention systems and accountability are two areas that were of keen interest to Dr Petersen. According to Dr Petersen, an effective safety system needs to be driven from the “bottom” and championed “from the top”. For too long, safety has been something driven and championed from the top, thrust upon a workforce, and enforced by reluctant supervisors. Not surprisingly, Dr Petersen saw intervention after intervention fail, and through his work developed six criteria for organisations to adopt when crafting any intervention – safety or otherwise:

  • Top management is visibly committed.

  • Middle management is actively involved.

  • Front line supervision is performance-focused.

  • Employees are actively participating.

  • System is flexible to accommodate the culture.

  • System is positively perceived by the workforce.

Accountability is fundamental to ensuring things are getting done in the right way. According to Dr Petersen, safety is one of the functions that we expect leaders to lead, yet few are told exactly what this means, other than telling them that “your job is to ensure no one gets hurt under your watch”. Indeed, when I first started consulting in the mining industry, signs would tell me that “safety was my responsibility”, but beyond that there was little to tell me how to “do” safety as a worker, let alone as a manager. Yet if I was to get it wrong, I would be held to account. Dr Petersen suggested that four elements be present if we are to be accountable for safety outcomes:

  1. Define what activities must be done for safety at all levels of the business.

  2. Provide training to ensure the ability to complete these tasks.

  3. Measure the quantity and quality of these efforts.

  4. Recognise task completion to motivate further desired behaviour.

What should quarry operators do to initiate a culture change strategy in their organisations?

To respond to this question, I take inspiration from Dr Petersen again by saying, if you want to improve your safety, put away your accident statistics, cast aside what other businesses are doing and start listening to the real experts on safety – your employees. These people are the ones we entrust with equipment worth thousands and millions of dollars, yet rarely are they invited into conversations in which they are asked what they think about the safety culture on-site.

They have far more eyes and ears examining what goes on in a quarry than managers do, so why not ask them?

As for looking to see what your neighbour over the road has done to enhance safety, remember that every initiative is context dependent. What might be “highly effective” in one place can be “a total waste of time” at your place, and vice versa. Every quarry has its own unique context – you, your people, your history and what has been and gone at your place is unique to your quarry. All these things impact the success or failure of a safety culture initiative.

What should organisations do to engage their workers in the safety plan? How do they counter resistance from some workers who may be still rooted in the cultural stigmas of the past?

Engaging workers who have never been asked for their opinion is tough. Even tougher is asking for feedback from those who once had many ideas, yet their comments were unheeded or ignored. While not exhaustive, the following are some areas to consider when wanting to engage your workers in the future of the quarry:

A. Informally ask their views, eg:

  • What does safety mean to them?

  • What would they do if they could address safety?

  • What advice would they give management to improve how things work around the site?

  • What safety practices are working and which ones seem like a waste of time?

  • What gets in the way of good “safety”?

Jump into the haul truck with them, or sit with them during their “smoko”. Most prefer this type of interaction to the one where you ask everyone’s opinion in a pre-start or toolbox talk.

B. Listen to the resistors and seek to understand where the resistance is coming from. Resistance usually is the result of something – a result of a similar idea being poorly implemented, a promise that was never fulfilled, a fear of losing something (ie status, freedom, certainty, etc). Once the source of the resistance is understood, it enables the organisation to tailor the implementation process accordingly.

C. Get the workers involved in crafting, then implementing, the safety initiative. Start with something that will make their lives easier and safer. It is a sight to behold when you see the front line worker educating a senior manager in how to fulfil their part of the safety plan.

D. Rather than throwing away all that has been done with regards to “safety”, keep what is working and then focus on either enhancing the parts that are not working or throw away what isn’t adding value any more. Sometimes the resistance we see towards safety is that the initiative adds yet another layer to the many layers that already exist in safety (ie more reporting, more observations, etc).

E. Communicate and deliver like you have never before! In the absence of activity and information, the mind often assumes the worst – that nothing is happening. When things appear different in the field, people will start believing that change is afoot.

How can Caterpillar Safety Services assist operators with addressing their safety concerns and problems with organisational culture?

One of my favourite parts of my job is being a voice for those who feel unheard. Many of my consulting days are spent sitting with the operators in their trucks, workshops and lunch rooms seeking to understand their world. The tools and approach that my team takes focuses heavily on the voice of the front line – they are the greatest part of the workforce, and if we really want them on the journey, we need to hear their view.

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