Culture. It’s ‘the way we do things around here’. The thing about culture is, you often don’t notice it, unless you find yourself in a new environment with a culture you’re not used to – like starting at a new company or visiting a new country. Then it ‘shouts out at you’. It might be all you can see, until over time you accustomise and it becomes your new ‘normal’.
When my husband and I decided to go to India on holiday this January, it was to experience the culture of this incredible country. And there was certainly plenty of it! Whether it was walking the teeming streets of Delhi, enjoying the hospitality of a home cooked meal, or witnessing the moving prayer ceremonies at the Ganges, our senses were spoiled with glorious, joyful and unforgettable experiences.
Working for CIRAS, I couldn’t help but notice the country’s health and safety culture ‘shouting out at me’ too. Everywhere I looked, I saw things which would simply astound workers in the UK. Rickety ladders mounted on mounds of mud. Spaghetti junctions of cables with frayed, open wires. Home-made scaffolding. People (and cows) wandering along rail tacks. And of course the legendary white-knuckle driving in the cities and rural roads. I was fascinated and horrified – but the locals didn’t bat an eyelid. It’s the way they do things.
Another thing about culture is that, while it’s easy to take ‘our way of doing things’ for granted, it’s not a fixed state. In fact, culture is always in motion. Cultures change because people see things which aren’t right, and they act. At first, they may be a lone voice, but history shows us that this can lead to change. In our own country, the health and safety culture in centuries past wasn’t that different from what I saw in India today. But people stood up for change, laws were passed, new practices were introduced, and our workers are indescribably safer now as a consequence.
The point is - corporates don’t change culture. Governments don’t change culture. Ordinary people do. And that’s where personal responsibility comes in. Each and every one of us can make a difference. But it can be daunting. Who wants to challenge the way things are done - to stick their head above the parapet? On the other hand, if you see something that doesn’t seem right, why wait until an incident takes place to speak up? It’s too late then - the loss has already happened. And in our sector, losses can be tragic and costly. Look at Ladbroke Grove.
We are lucky – many transport companies have progressive, effective internal reporting systems which encourage you to report concerns. But confidential reporting helps tackle some of the enemies of change – fear, apathy – by providing an option for raising concerns in complete confidence. For its members CIRAS is there just in case, for whatever reason, speaking up feels a bit harder – or speaking up didn’t make a difference. It’s part of the solution, working alongside internal reporting systems to provide a ‘safety net’. No safety concern need go unreported, regardless of the circumstances.
If we could see into the future, I’m sure that people will look at some of the ‘ways we do things’ now with similar feelings to those I felt in India - but only if we all continue to speak up where we see the need for change – however small. In the words of Ladbroke Grove survivor Pam Warren “I’m appealing to you, it doesn’t matter how small you think it is – report it. Say something to someone. Remember, it’s not somebody else’s problem. It’s yours”.
Susan Gray is CIRAS’ Stakeholder Manager North.