Safety Culture: Shield To Covid-19 And Future Pandemics

Achieving a Calculative / Lindungi Diri Kita Safety Culture level across Malaysian society may be both achievable and sufficient for ensuring successful Covid-19 risk mitigation.

KUALA LUMPUR, August 3 — Even as the various vaccines for Covid-19 are being rolled out, the world remains vulnerable, with the socio-economic impairment being arguably more destructive than the lives taken by the disease.

With the World Health Organization (WHO) cautioning against these vaccines being seen as a true panacea, allowing a return to past norms and other entities such as the Gates Foundation advocating preparation for future pandemics, more lasting and sustainable solutions are needed, lest we allow for a dystopian future for our children.

Prevention has always been better than cure, and over time, humanity has found habits, typically embedded in cultural norms, to be a more sustainable and even cost-effective means of managing threats to life and limb.

As it stands, the establishment of new cultural norms and behaviours, however painful, have been seen as a necessity for combating the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, such new habits haven’t been sufficiently embedded in society, made evident by rapid proliferation of the disease too soon after movement control restrictions are removed from communities.

There is therefore a need for a more proactive effort to establish a Safety Culture in society through its various institutional platforms, be it school, the workplace, places of government, media, religious establishments and others.

This is a short introduction to Safety Culture, some discussion on its value as a sustainable solution to the current and future pandemics, as well as suggestions on how it may be established, based on past efforts in high-risk industries such as oil and gas and aviation.

Safety Culture Vs Health Culture

Let us first clarify the difference between Health Culture and Safety Culture as discussed here. Both are often mentioned in the same breath as Health and Safety Culture. However, the two elements have some clear distinctions.

Health Culture focuses on the personal well-being of individuals, in particular elements directly interacting with our physical bodies, such as the food we eat, our activities from exercise, to smoking and even sleeping.

It is hence typically very personal in nature, even with apparent exceptions such as awareness and avoidance of passive smoking for instance.

This focus on personal physical well-being has by and large been sufficient in the prevention of a host of diseases and ailments. What we ingest and how we take care of our bodies through regular exercise has led to improvements in life expectancy and the lifestyle of many.

However, a good Health Culture does not protect you from external threats, especially from the behaviours and actions of others, whether accidental or purposeful. That is where Safety Culture comes in.

Safety Culture focuses on Risk Avoidance and Mitigation from a variety of external threats through the establishment of correct rules and behaviours.

A good example of Safety Culture that has been embedded in much of modern society is the habit of looking both ways before crossing the road. It is a habit taught by parents to their young and reinforced in schools, with lessons, rhymes and activities.

It is hence a habit that has saved countless lives, with awareness of the risk resulting in proliferation of tools and structures to make the simple activity of crossing the roads safer over the years.

Safety Culture And Covid-19

Where Covid-19 and similar pandemics in history as well as the future differ from most other physical threats, whether disease, accidents or other risks is its ability to proliferate beyond those afflicted.

For example, anyone suffering from a bad fall at the workplace suffers the outcome personally, with the impact on others being relatively limited to subsidiary effects which do not fully propagate.

Hence, the person who fell may be hospitalised, with potential loss of income to his family, and his workload while absent being managed by his co-workers, but the impact generally does not go beyond this.

Pandemics are more insidious, making the person afflicted themselves a health and safety threat to all around him. This is not limited to those closest to him such as his family, neighbours and close co-workers.

A Covid-19 positive person still in his infectious phase but not demonstrating symptoms could innocently infect those in close proximity, such as in front or behind him in any long queue, especially anyone who interacts with him for just minutes.

The disease then propagates from all that he infects, spreading both physical and socio-economic suffering exponentially.

A good example of this in a recent social setting where risk of Covid-19 proliferation escalated was in primary schools across Malaysia on the first day that Standard 1 and 2 students returned to school in 2021.

Parents, concerned over the safe return of their young children to their care, forgot all New Normal behaviours of social distancing to hasten said return.

Some even temporarily removed masks in the relatively close crowd in order to be recognised by their children. All it needed was for an innocent sneeze by a non-symptomatic but still infectious Covid-19 parent for a cluster to erupt. 

The establishment of a Safety Culture is hence necessary in managing the risk of spread of the Covid-19 pandemic as much of the mitigation strategies require the establishment of the right habits in what is commonly known as the ‘New Normal’.

Some of the practices now being advocated, such as masking up, maintaining social distance, and keeping hands clean are among those that now must be made habitual across society.

This is by no means an easy feat and requires persistence with the right application of change management, beyond just the enforcement of rules and regulations.

Safety Culture Effectiveness

The following graphic illustrates the effectiveness of certain actions in mitigating through to even eliminating the threat of Covid-19 propagation.

The graphic actively advocates the application of a succession of specific actions, such as mutual masking, social distancing and hand cleaning implemented incrementally realising a near perfect avoidance of infection from sneezing.

The reader will note, that at the very top of the graphic, it is seen the probability of contagion drops only to high or medium level when only one action is applied by one individual; i.e. when only one of either the person who sneezes or is sneezed on is wearing a mask.

However, the moment two actions are taken in tandem, with both individuals wearing masks, the level of risk drops to low. Successive actions further applied together then results in the risk progressively dropping to relative insignificance. 

The power behind this Reddit community developed graphic is hence not just restricted to the specific actions advocated, but also by its message that actions and behaviours have to be applied together, by all individuals, to achieve safety from infection. T

his reflects the current reality, where behaviours or habits in the New Normal have to be applied by everyone to be effective. It raises awareness and action at the community level, hence instituting a cultural change. 

If the effort of propagating these changes in behaviours is successful, the result will be that all members of the community will be wearing masks, practicing social distancing and cleaning their hands regularly as habitually as we now look right and left and right again before crossing the road.

With these habits then becoming cultural, the outcome is significantly reducing the risk of infection across the community to potentially negligible levels.

The application or ‘layering’ of actions to close gaps left behind by the application of only individual actions as described in the graphic above is akin to the use of Dante Orlandella and James T. Reason’s ‘Swiss Cheese’ Model, now part of the norm for HSSE Risk Mitigation in hazardous industries; note its more detailed application for the pandemic below. Such tools are key to instilling of a Safety Culture in organisations.

The challenge for us now is to present such cultural changes with these developed and perhaps other improved tools to develop a Safety Culture for entire communities, even nations.

It is worth re-emphasising here the need for developing a community Safety Culture not limited to the workplace here due to the nature of pandemics. Recent history has shown pandemic clusters centred far beyond places of work, to markets and malls, religious venues and events, schools and of course, family gatherings.

Any and all efforts cannot be limited to am emphasis on the workplace alone but to establish a Safety Culture as part of the New Normal in the entire community.

The Safety Culture Ladder

The following is the graphical representation of the Hudson Safety Culture Maturity Ladder more typically applied in hazardous businesses. The ladder aims to illustrate the various stages of maturity in developing a Safety Culture.

At the very top of the ladder is when the organisation is safest, when Health and Safety is embedded across all activities and decisions, typically as the primary consideration. At the bottom is where safety is almost a nuisance, considered only to abide by laws, rules or regulations.

Regrettably, most of Malaysian society and businesses are very much in the Pathological or Reactive level of the ladder, and this has translated to specific clusters of Covid-19 erupting prior to the present full Movement Control Order (MCO) in the construction and some manufacturing sectors. However, the Malaysian entities that have managed to reach the top two levels,

in particular, key oil and gas and aviation players prove that cultural change is possible, given enough impetus on the Malaysian mindset. Covid-19 is that impetus, if we are to secure the physical and socio-economic wellbeing of our nation in the New Normal.

The Community Safety Ladder

While the Hudson Safety Ladder can be well applied for organisations, even non-business-oriented ones, it does some adaptation to be suitable for communities.

It must best reflect the religious and cultural norms of a society so as to be more readily understood and embraced into the culture to the point of being part of daily family and community life.

We have chosen to apply some of the more Malaysian cultural norms and values to a Community Safety Ladder as per the graphic below.

While this Community Safety Culture Ladder also focusses on Attitudes and Behaviours, much as the Hudson Safety Ladder does, it gives stronger emphasis on social interactions and how individuals may see themselves relative to the rest of the community they are in.

Malaysians in general are still religious, hence it is natural for the Pathological behaviour in the Hudson ladder to translate to ‘Takdir’ or surrendering to ‘God’s will’ at the bottom of the Community Safety Ladder.

Implicit in this attitude is a denial of one’s own responsibility towards Safety, including the potential spread of the disease.

The following four steps up the ladder then also correlates, seeing an attitude change from learning from other’s mistakes (Ambil Teladan), caring for loved ones (Lindungi Diri Kita), caring for the community (Kita Jaga Kita) and finally, embracing the responsibility for all as what is required in the New Normal.

This final step is quite aspirational, as it requires members of society to truly embrace the notion that we are all as much front liners in the fight against the Covid-19 and other pandemics (Kita Frontliners). As demonstrated graphically here, the climb is steeper as we move up the ladder.

How Can We Begin Building A Safety Culture?

A cultural change can only begin with leadership buy in and commitment to lead by example. For organisations, it can only be successfully delivered through a change management program that considers where said organisation currently sits in the Hudson Safety Ladder and what it wishes to achieve.

Achieving the Generative stage is quite ambitious, so many are satisfied when they have achieved the Proactive stage and more gradually move towards Generative.

One can argue that the need for strong leadership is doubly true in the quest for a Community, let alone a Nation, to climb its own Safety Culture Ladder.

However, such a journey can begin at and with key centres of cultural change, such as schools, mass media and the simple example shown by leaders as most recently demonstrated with great impact by President Biden upon his ascent to the Presidency of the United States of America.

The National Mask Up Campaign which was launched on his first day in office is testament of the way bold and sincere national leadership can move a nation’s culture.

With Covid-19, the Safety Culture development may indeed begin with specific high risk or high impact entities, but eventually has to propagate across all aspects of society.

The approach also has to differ significantly from the one focused on by organisations across the world at the start of the pandemic — business continuity.

Business continuity plans are typically short term in nature with temporary backstops to work around the constraints to business. However, as said above, the nature of the Covid-19 and future pandemic threats is that it is not temporary and will require a New Normal.

Based on the assessment that many of Malaysia’s business organisations sit at the Pathological or Reactive level of the Hudson Safety Ladder, there is immediate need of awareness training, including the introduction of some early tools and practices can be immediately applied by leaders, managers and the first cohorts of change agents for a variety of entities.

Focusing first on high-risk entities such as schools and construction businesses would potentially give the highest immediate impact.

However, it is possible and potentially more sustainable to simply introduce Safety Culture modules in all suitable training and education platforms, adopting a Community Safety Culture Ladder that best suits.

For educational institutions, this can be rather straightforward, but for other entities such as businesses, NGOs and government agencies, training platforms such as those supported by HRDF may imbed Safety Culture modules into existing programmes.

Such modules may also be incorporated into leadership level training programs for Board, C-Suite, Turus and Jusa level development programmes.

What Can And Needs To Be Achieved?

At this stage, achieving a Calculative/Lindungi Diri Kita Safety Culture level across Malaysian society may be both achievable and sufficient for ensuring successful Covid-19 risk mitigation (see below).

However, for the Leadership level, from Parliament through to the community leader or ‘Ketua Kampung’ level at least, a Proactive / Kita Jaga Kita level is necessary in order to sustain real cultural change for the New Normal.

This is by no means an easy feat, and may well require a generation for the cultural changes to truly embed.

However, if the predictions of a longer period needed for Covid-19 recovery and especially if indeed this is just one of a string of pandemics that will continue to plague us for generations to come, the necessity for change will compel us to adopt and embed a Community Safety Culture much sooner.

Past and recent examples of change through the history of humanity have proven when suitably challenged, we can change. With Covid-19, the issue is not whether we can, but that we must change for our society to survive and thrive again.

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