A New Kind of Globalization:
Safety is Helping Mining Organizations Rethink Their Assumptions About Local Cultures

By Carmen J. Bianco

Creating safety excellence poses special challenges to organizations with a global presence. Perhaps the greatest barrier to success is the perception that local culture determines outcomes. Comparing safety results by region adds to the confusion; the quality and reliability of injury data varies widely. Many leaders fall into the trap of assuming that the data is representative of the local culture, or that it predetermines future success (or lack thereof). We commonly hear leaders say, “People there just don’t value safety,” or “Workers in that country aren’t very educated (or smart).” These assumptions not only skew the facts, they create a sense of helplessness that undermines the potential for high performance. Just as with productivity or quality, the activities that determine success in safety are consistent across regions. Emerging evidence from hundreds of organizations is showing that the what of safety excellence is consistent everywhere, it is the how that changes. Our experience is that this holds true in the mining industry as well.

 Operational Culture

Without question there are significant differences among national and regional cultures. For example, in some cultures there is great resistance to speaking negatively about a superior, while in other cultures people revel in the opportunity to do so. The truth is, organizations operate within layers of different cultures: national, regional, local — even subcultures within the same location. How are we to understand these differences and their affect on safety performance?

Culture, no matter the context, essentially comes down to the way things are done around here. This manifests in formal and informal methods of accomplishing work. Further, when strategy and culture are in conflict, culture generally wins. Data collected and analyzed from hundreds of organizations in over 30 countries has demonstrated that operational culture can be assessed, evaluated, and isolated from local cultural conditions. This data has also shown that there are at least nine clear dimensions of culture that are predictive of performance outcomes—and that these dimensions or characteristics do not vary due to national or local cultures.

 Measuring Characteristics Predictive of Performance

A desired set of outcomes, such as lower injury rates and higher levels of safe behavior, have a predictable set of organizational qualities that lead to the daily practices to produce those outcomes. Moving even farther back, a validated, measurable set of factors reliably predict these desired qualities, and these factors prove to be remarkably consistent across languages, countries, and regions:

Organizational Factors

  • (PJ ) Procedural Justice: Fairness and transparency of supervisor’s decision-making process.
  • (LMX) Leader-Member Exchange: Level of mutual trust and respect between employee and supervisor. Employees treated with dignity.
  • (MC) Management Credibility: Management actions consistent with words.
  • (POS) Perceived Organizational Support: Employees perceive organization values them.

Team Factors

  • (WGR) Work Group Relations: Level of mutual trust and respect among co-workers.
  • (TW) Teamwork: Ability of the workgroup to effectively get things done.

Safety-Specific Factors

  • (OVS) Organizational Value for Safety: Extent to which employees perceive that the organization is serious about safety performance.
  • (UC) Upward Communication: Extent to which safety concerns, suggestions, and ideas flow upward through the organization.
  • (AO) Approaching Others: Extent to which employees are comfortable about speaking to one another about safety.

These factors are typically measured through diagnostic instruments that measure perceptions from the employee population. Results of these instruments are validated and supplemented through focus groups and interviews. To make proper comparisons among sites within the same organization, sites across regions, and sites among industry types, raw scores are compared to percentile scores that an complied into a norms database. Consider the following comparison of culture and safety outcomes:

Consistency across sites and regions the correlation remains the same. This is commensurate with experience: workplaces with positive cultures have stronger safety results.

Safety measurements across regions are not uniform, however performance improvement from the regional baselines show the same outcome results, both in safety and in culture. Extremes in cultural percentiles scores show the same variation, and opportunity, no matter the country:

 Even among different countries, there are extremes in culture percentile scores. What may be surprising is that variation in the U.S. is more extreme than in other countries. In all cases, an individual site’s percentile scores would be used to evaluate next steps for safety performance improvement to take place, but data show that there are fewer “cultural issues” to address than previously thought.

Changes of the quality outlined here involve meaningful engagement from the site’s leadership team. Leadership recommends safety management systems and mechanisms, things such as incident investigation, safety committees, safety action item tracking systems, hazard analysis, behavior observation and feedback, and so on. Leadership also determines the priority in which these activities are measured and monitored. 

The What and the How

Whether you are in China, Indonesia, Germany, or Brazil, the activities that prevent injuries are the same, as are the internal norms of behavior that assure high performance. Site or operating culture is not a manifestation of local culture, it is a result of the organization, its leadership, and it business practices and processes. Therefore, the what of safety excellence is something driven by corporate and site leadership. The how, to be effective and sustainable, must consider language, custom, and local culture. The secret to global high performance is owning the culture “inside the gates” and recognizing the potential for excellence in all of your employees. 

Carmen Bianco is an executive consultant with BST, a global safety consulting firm based in Ojai, California, and helps companies design safety intervention strategies. In 2008, he testified about the importance of comprehensive approaches to safety before the U.S. Senate subcommittee on Employee and Workplace Safety.