With the spotlight on safety culture, Barry Holt discusses the flexible, just and learning cultures that impact on the use of safety footwear.

In a previous article on the subject of safety footwear, I expressed the view that “one size doesn’t fit all”, in other words that there is more to protecting employees from foot injuries than simply supplying footwear, preferably free of charge, and introducing the rule that safety footwear must be used.

As we all know, having a rule in place does not necessarily mean that employees will follow it. In fact, a study by Lawton in 1998 into why employees break safety rules found one of the reasons to be that there may actually be too many rules, leading to confusion among the workers.

So what factors does an employer need to take into account when attempting to overcome their employees’ reluctance to follow rules on safety footwear?

Safety culture

Following investigations into some high profile disasters, including the 1986 Chernobyl incident and the loss of the NASA space shuttle Challenger, also in 1986, the concept of an organisation’s safety culture has become increasingly important.

A number of definitions have been developed with perhaps the most widely accepted being that from the UK Health and Safety Commission (HSC), which in 1993 described it as: “the product of individual and group values, attitudes, perceptions, competencies, and patterns of behaviour that determine the commitment to, and the style and proficiency of, an organisation’s health and safety management.”

This has been developed further in studies by Professor James Reason, who in 1997 identified five elements that go towards making up an effective safety culture. These are defined as:

• Informed culture

• Reporting culture

• Just culture

• Learning culture

• Flexible culture

For the purpose of our discussion I would like to focus on the last three of these components.

Learning culture

The important feature of a learning culture is the ability of the organisation to learn from its mistakes and adapt. As we discuss below, to ensure that we select the correct footwear to control an identified risk and that the use of this footwear is accepted by all employees, this may require the change in culture that we are suggesting. Before we can implement this change, however, we need to learn and understand why it is necessary.

A key element of the learning culture is the need to ensure that all employees at all levels of the organisation understand the benefits that a safety culture provides, for them and for the enterprise as a whole.

Just culture

In an organisation with a just culture an employee would not automatically be disciplined for a failure to wear safety footwear. First of all an attempt would be made to find the reason why the footwear was not worn. Was the footwear too heavy, was it too hot – a particular concern in the Middle East – or was the employee fashion conscious and preferred to wear more trendy shoes? These are all issues that can be resolved by identifying alternative items that satisfy the needs revealed by the risk assessment. To achieve this, however, requires an organisational culture in which employees are actually involved in the selection process. Where this culture exists, employees feel that they have bought-in to the decision and are much more likely to accept the wearing of the necessary footwear.

In organisations with a mature safety culture, employees will themselves enforce the wearing of safety footwear in their colleagues. This is the basis for safety management systems, but to be effective it requires an acceptance by employees that their peers have the authority and duty to draw their attention to unacceptable behaviour.

A potential problem is that a just culture can be seen as an excuse for failing to enforce safety standards; that is not the case and there is still a role for disciplinary procedures where employees continue to take unjustifiable risks.

Flexible culture

The final element of a safety culture that I want to discuss is the concept of a flexible culture. This is seen by Professor Reason as one that has the ability to adapt to changing situations and environments. This may be a result of totally new activities or processes that an organisation may introduce, or changes resulting from updated risk assessments or incident investigations. We must never assume that our selections of control measures are set once and for all. We need, for instance, to be sufficiently adaptable as to identify when more suitable safety footwear is developed.

The concept of a mature safety culture, as mentioned earlier, is illustrated by the Bradley Curve in Figure 1, which identifies four distinct stages of maturity.

These stages are defined by the way in which safety is perceived by the whole of the organisation: from directors, through line managers, to the workforce as a whole. For most organisations the starting point is the reactive phase, where safety is seen as a compliance issue and the responsibility of the safety officer.

Moving to the dependent stage we see management commitment becoming a factor, with rules and procedures being developed and disciplinary measures being used to enforce them. In this stage the way health and safety is managed is dictated by the company hierarchy.

With increasing maturity we see individuals taking responsibility for their own safety, moving into the independent phase, while in the fully mature culture we see individuals taking responsibility not only for their own safety, but also for the safety of their colleagues.

This approach can be used for setting overall targets and objectives. If we consider the issue of safety footwear, for an organisation in the dependent stage reliance will be made on rules mandating employees to wear the equipment provided, without necessarily understanding the reasons and benefits. In an organisation with an independent safety culture, however, each employee would understand the risks of injury to the feet and the reasons why a particular form of footwear has been selected. Employees in an interdependent culture would be fully involved in the selection of the footwear and would ensure that it is worn by everyone.


A critical component of safety culture is the leadership that is displayed. This is often understood to mean leadership from top management; however, this is only part of the picture. Most top managers are not health and safety specialists and so rely on their safety professionals to advise on corporate standards. In other words, safety professionals must be able to lead senior management. As found by Scott and Holt in 2011, employees assume that those in positions of authority such as senior managers and especially safety professionals must understand the risk. If those in authority choose not to wear safety footwear, workers may think that there must be no valid reason other than blindly obeying a rule.

An example of this occurred while I was investigating a fatal accident at a steel foundry. The death had occurred as a result of complications following an employee’s foot being crushed by a stack of falling steel moulds. The rules at the foundry were that safety footwear was mandatory throughout the site, but one of the team investigating the incident, a qualified safety professional, was about to enter the building wearing normal outdoor shoes. From the perspective of the worker on the shop floor, what would have given the strongest message: the safety signs telling them to wear safety shoes or the site of a safety professional not complying?

If we are to develop a culture in which all our employees use appropriate safety footwear where a risk has been identified, not only must we ensure that they understand the nature and severity of the risk and are provided with suitable protection, but that there is visible leadership, with senior managers and safety professionals ensuring that they set an example of good practice. Good safety management and reducing injuries relies on both management and employees working together towards the same objectives.

Social factors

The development of a strong safety culture has to take account of the way groups from a broad range of social backgrounds may have different perceptions of the risks they face and the ways in which these differences should be addressed. This is a particular issue for employers in the Middle East where workers come from many different countries and ethnic groups. A typical large employer in the region is likely to employ workers from the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia and the Philippines, as well as staff from Western Europe and the USA. This is in addition to their own nationals. All these groups have attitudes and perceptions influenced by their upbringing, education and religion.

Some societies, for example, have a fatalistic attitude to possible injury, while others show an inherent respect for rules. Particularly in western culture there is a tendency to question rules, which is at odds with the other attitudes. In addition to this, most of these groups come with their own languages including Urdu, Hindi, Gujarati, Tamil and Filipino or Tagalog, as well as English and the Arabic of the host nation.

Focusing once again on the selection and use of safety footwear, with all these ethnic groups and languages how do we communicate the necessary information about the risks and benefits of using the selected protective equipment? Do we publish everything in one language, possibly English, on the assumption that most workers will understand? If so, this is a very dangerous assumption for us to make.

A few years ago I was contacted by the managing director (MD) of an engineering company that employed a large number of unskilled workers, mainly from the Indian subcontinent, who spoke in total seven different languages. In addition they employed English speakers, of whom a significant proportion were functionally illiterate. The MD asked my opinion about the possibility of presenting instructions, including those relating to the use of safety footwear, in the form of cartoons. My initial thought was that this would belittle the importance of the message, but fortunately I reconsidered and decided that while cartoons may not convey 100% of the message, they would be an effective means of communication given the language barriers.

When deciding on how we are to communicate our message about the use of safety footwear or any other safety message, the process will not be successful unless it results in a common understanding of what is required.

Global business

In addition to the range of nationalities and cultures employed by Middle Eastern organisations, the region has attracted numerous multi-national companies, especially in the petroleum, petrochemical and construction sectors.

As shown in Figure 2, between 1990 and 2010, the proportion of gross domestic product (GDP) for countries in the Middle East and North Africa attributable to foreign direct investment (FDI) rose from around 0.5% to around 5%.

Since the Arab Spring the GDP has declined, but the number of western businesses operating in the Middle East is still significant (World Bank, 1990-2012).

In addition to the social and language factors discussed previously, with these organisations there are additional pressures impacting on risk communication. In many of these multi-nationals the standards and rules to which they work are based on the legislative framework of the country in which they are based. This may be the USA, where the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards are still rule-based in nature, or they may follow the risk-based approach adopted in the EU. These standards may be developed by a safety professional with limited knowledge or experience of the culture or conditions facing workers in the Middle East. If we are to expect workers to comply with company standards we must ensure that they are translated, both linguistically and culturally, to meet the needs of the local workforces.


Persuading employees of the needs and benefits of using safety footwear is a problem in the majority of workplaces. The difficulties faced by organisations in the Middle East, however, are complicated by the number of cultures and languages represented in the workforce and the fact that the standards may be developed by managers in headquarters of multi-nationals, based elsewhere in the world. It is, therefore, essential that these standards should be adapted to reflect the local cultures and that they should be presented in such a way as to overcome language barriers.

Published: 14th Aug 2014 in Health and Safety Middle East