Safety Culture, Attitudes, and Beliefs Around the World


Q. Ok, Larry, we know you’ve been to a lot of places. But maybe just to set the stage, tell us all where you’ve been?

Well, for the first 10 years before SafeStart I used to do safety observations (BBS) at companies all over Canada and the United States. And even when you’re on vacation you will see people working: some safely and some – well…not so safely. You will also see the way they drive cars, motorcycles, trucks and other vehicles. So, even though you may not be speaking at a conference or to a management group or to the employees of a company directly, you will–like it or not–get a pretty good idea of the safety culture in those places as well. Sometimes just seeing the way people drive, city workers doing maintenance, or construction workers as you’re driving by gives you a pretty good indication of the “way things are done around here” in terms of safety. I’ve been to all the provinces in Canada as well as the Northwest Territories in winter when there’s no daylight and also in the summer when there’s almost 24 hours of daylight. I’ve been to every state in the USA including Alaska and Hawaii, with the exception of Rhode Island but I’ll be going there in June for a family day with Materion. I’ve been to Mexico many times and I was just back to speak at a conference in Mexico City last month. In Central America and the Caribbean I’ve been to Panama, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Bonaire, Antigua and Cuba. I’ve been in Columbia many times, Venezuela, and I just got back from speaking at a big mining safety conference in Peru. I’ve been to Chile, Brazil (many times) as we have an office there, Argentina, and I’m going to Bolivia in September. In Europe I’ve been to Belgium, France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, the Czech Republic, and Sochi and Moscow in Russia. I’ve also been to Portugal, Greece, England, Ireland, Scotland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland.

I’ve also been to Istanbul in Turkey, Egypt, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and in May I was in Bahrain. Then there’s Nigeria, India, China, Indonesia, Thailand, Australia and the Philippines. And in June I’m going to Japan for the first time. And… I think that’s it. But there are other places like Mongolia and even Antarctica where we have implemented SafeStart. It just wasn’t me who did the implementation.

Q. That certainly is a LOT of places! You must have seen a lot of things. So, what have you seen or experienced in terms of Safety Culture, Attitudes and Beliefs as you go from place to place, and country to country around the world?

Interestingly enough I got asked this question in Peru by one of our global customers that operates in 107 countries just last month. But, we probably don’t need to go into as much detail as to differentiate from province to province, state to state or even country to country, although there are differences as you go from east to west in Canada or north to south in the United States. And whatever you do, don’t say to someone in Scotland: “well, it’s all the same now isn’t it – England and Scotland?” unless you want to hear a 45 minute lecture on Bonny Price Charlie and how he lost the war 3 or 4 hundred years ago…

So, let’s just start with Canada and the United States, then we’ll move on to Europe, then Mexico and Latin America, then we’ll talk about Russia, the Middle East, Africa and then India, Asia, China and then finally, Australia.

Q. Ok, sounds good. We’ll start with North America. What’s good and what’s not so good?

Well, there are lots of good things about safety and safety culture in Canada and the United States. However, many people around the world think that it’s a “cake walk” here. In other words, they think talking to people about safety and getting them to change their behaviour is easy. But what they don’t really understand is that although there are laws and regulations, there are also injury lawyers. Lots of injury lawyers. Back in the days of yellow pages in a phone book, I was speaking at a large safety conference in Las Vegas about “Safety and the Law.” I checked out the phone book in my hotel room. There were as many pages for injury lawyers as there were for escorts. I remember flying into Orlando for another, even bigger, safety conference and I saw a billboard that said, “who do I” and then the name of a law firm and their phone number. So there is a culture of “entitlement to safety” here in North America that is pervasive. It’s never my fault. There’s always someone or a company to sue. To be clear, I am greatly in favour of creating a blame-free culture. But there is a difference between blaming someone and being willing to take responsibility for your own personal safety and being willing to help yourself and your co-workers in terms of improving your skills and safety-related habits. These skills, like self-triggering on the active states (rushing, frustration and fatigue) and improving your safety-related habits such as moving your eyes first, before you move your hands, feet, body or car are very important when it comes to preventing accidental injuries.

Q. I see your point. It’s not like someone else can do the looking or thinking for you.

And it’s not like anyone can keep your balance for you, or make sure you have a good grip on things. Just think about how many times you have dropped your keys or your cell phone.

Q. That’s why most people have bought a protective case. “Too many times” is the answer. But how does North America compare to the rest of the world?

Well, in some cases, better. Because we have a lot of rules and regulations, and inspectors that–for the most part–aren’t corrupt or easily bribed. I’m not saying it’s perfect or that it never happens, but it’s a lot less frequent than it is in some other parts of the world. In many places it doesn’t cost much to get an inspector to renew your elevator permit or your building plans. So if you don’t want to properly maintain the equipment or build it properly, it’s fairly easy and inexpensive to get things signed or approved. In other words, don’t stick your hand out when the elevator door starts closing in Brazil. Because it might just close on your hand and then when the elevator goes up, it rips your arm off. Although, to be fair, that was over 10 years ago. And things are getting better there. But back to North America: in general it’s fairly good. However, that’s also part of the problem in terms of things getting better. There is a reluctance for folks in Canada and the United States to look beyond our borders for new ideas or better methodologies. We tend to think we’re the best, so we don’t look beyond the four walls, so to speak. And this attitude really annoys the Europeans because, quite often, they have better safety records than we do. In some countries, much better. They measure recordables in terms of a million hours not 200,000. Yet their recordable injury frequencies are quite often the same as ours, which means they are 5 times better! However, for the most part the Europeans don’t innovate or come up with new ideas very often. Behaviour-Based Safety was invented in the USA. Training on Human Factors was invented in Canada…

Q. You invented it!

No, I just discovered the pattern. The pattern of rushing, frustration, fatigue and complacency (or more likely a combination of those states) leading to eyes not on task, mind not on task, moving into or being in the line of fire or somehow losing your balance, traction or grip – it existed long before I was born. It’s like a lighthouse. The rocks existed before the lighthouse. That’s why they built the lighthouse. It wasn’t the other way around. What I tell people is that if you let the light burn out in the lighthouse, now all you have are the rocks, or in the case of industrial safety: the hazards. That’s one of the main problems in Europe, they would prefer to only deal with the hazards. They don’t really want to deal with the people. And again, just to be clear, I’m all in favour of removing the hazards or engineering them out whenever and wherever possible. But the reality is, just like the lighthouse, you can’t get rid of the rocks or all the hazards. We need electricity to keep the lights on. We need heat, we need fuel, we need to mine the minerals and no matter how good your engineering is you can’t eliminate gravity. So, when you go to Europe to talk about behaviour and human error, it’s only been in the last 5-10 years or so that the majority of safety professionals want to listen to you. It’s only recently that they have realized that you can’t fix everything with checklists or risk assessments, permits, rules and procedures. However, like I said, they are coming around.

Q. Ok, so what about Latin America and Mexico?

Well, there it’s almost the opposite. Their culture has no issue with behaviour or human error being the problem. But there is a big problem, culturally, with risk tolerance. Seeing 3 or 4 people on a motorcycle isn’t unusual (although I have seen 6 on a motorcycle in India). So it’s there on the highway and on the streets, it’s at home, and it’s also in the workplace. Things like ergonomics, and redesigning the work so people won’t hurt their backs are not everywhere, that’s for sure. I was just at a plant a few weeks ago where a man had to paint roofing tiles. Every time he had to reach for the paint brush he had to extend his back and his arms fully in a horizontal position. I asked how many tiles he typically has to paint every day. They said his quota was 125, but for each one he had to turn it over and paint the other side too. So that’s 250 “bad reaches” per day. Multiply that by 250 days per year times 10 years and you have 625,000 – over half a million – bad reaches! When I told them that all they had to do was reposition the paint brushes so they were at the side of the table, the man who did the painting was receptive, but the supervisor and the safety pro just looked at me and you could see that this kind of thing just wasn’t a priority. Yet, they made sure I had steel toed work boots on to walk in the designated walkways where nothing could fall on my feet – because it was one of their “rules.”

So, yeah, there’s still a long way to go in Latin America when it comes to workplace safety. Conversely, in terms of things like taking SafeStart home or involving the family with safety, they are miles ahead of us, and many, many miles ahead of the Europeans.

On my last trip I saw more and better family initiatives at every plant–not just here and there–but every plant I visited. They all had campaigns and initiatives to get the family and the children involved. They had superman capes made for the children so they could pretend they were “Ouch-Busters” like they saw in the BooBoo Bandits. They had glasses, armbands, and puzzles made up. They had spent over 40 or 50 dollars on all of these kits that they gave all of the children of all of their employees. They had taken it to the schools. They had coloring contests and posted the pictures so everyone could see. It was phenomenal. But like I said, they didn’t jump to do something as simple as move the paintbrushes which would have cost-maybe a hundred dollars. So, some parts of their culture were better…and some were worse.

Q. Interesting. They care about the family and their family’s safety, and yet, not so much about the ergonomics workplace. That’s very interesting…ok, what about Russia?

Before I begin, I should say that I’ve only been to Russia once and only spoken at one conference. Our Russian consultant, Lyubia, told me “Larry, Russians don’t laugh. So don’t be surprised (if they don’t) when you’re presenting.” Well, in about 5 minutes, they were all laughing. And loudly. So much so in fact, that a lot of the people left the other conference rooms and came into mine. Until we had crammed, standing room only. Canadians are very well liked in Russia. I don’t know why. All we ever did was steal their good hockey players. But even the cab driver said, “Canada!” and gave me a big thumbs up, so that part was a bit surprising. But they really liked the concepts and the Critical Error Reduction Techniques. They even started buying the program instead of just taking it or stealing the concepts. Which is good, because I can’t imagine getting very far trying to sue a mining company in Russia that has a million employees or an oil company that used to be state-owned.

Q. Yes, I can’t imagine that would go well.

Like I said, I’ve only been to Russia once so I can’t really comment with the same depth as I can compared to Mexico or Latin America or the Middle East. However, they are selling lots of SafeStart there, our office in Moscow is doing well, and hopefully if the war ends soon, I’ll be able to see them again and visit some more companies.

Q. Yes, let’s hope it ends soon. Ok, what about the Middle East? What is the safety culture like there?

It’s changing, and for the better. They can move so fast there, so I imagine that it won’t take long until they’re better than everyone, or at least the big industries like steel, aluminum and oil will be. When I first went to Dubai 10 years ago it was mostly “cosmetic.” In other words, they wanted to “look good”, make sure they got silver-star awards from the British Safety council, and things like that. Now there is substance! In my opinion, they have some of the best safety professionals who really know what’s good, what’s real and what isn’t. Dr. Waddah Ghanem from ENOC, Salman Abdulla from EGA (Emirates Global Aluminum), Dr. Ronald Otte, and Ahmed Khalil, are some of the best high-level thinkers I’ve met in my career. They have very commendable injury rates (below 1 for a million hours), but it’s more than that. Most of the workers come from countries where there is not much when it comes to safety culture. Like I said, six people on a motorcycle and the only one wearing a helmet is the father.

So to be able to capture the hearts and minds of these folks is a real challenge. Their senior leaders also seem to be committed. So now, it’s real; there is substance. It’s not cosmetic. And, as mentioned, they move fast. They take the best ideas, the best technology and they implement it without dilly-dallying. Yes, they want to have the tallest buildings and the most opulent shopping malls. It’s not like they don’t care about looking good or attracting tourists. But they are using their wealth to move things in a better direction-very quickly. It’s really quite impressive. So I’ve been spending a lot of time since Covid in the region, and we will be opening an office there in the next few months.

Q. Fascinating…Ok, what about Africa?

Well, that’s another story. It will be quite a while before they catch up to North America. It’s still developing. You look at the workers up there on the scaffolds and no-one is wearing fall-arrest harnesses. Then, when you look closer, you realize that there are no floorboards on the scaffolding. They are just climbing around on the bamboo poles! Olawale–our consultant in Nigeria–said to me, “don’t worry Larry, they’re all really good.” No kidding! If they weren’t, they’d be dead. It’s only one mistake per customer when you’re a hundred feet or 30 meters in the air. Then, I see the guy whose job it is to water the ropes that hold the bamboo poles together to keep them taught. Now, I can’t imagine he’s aware of the relative humidity and the evaporation rate, when in the shade or in the sun. So my guess is that this is more of an “analog” measurement, in terms of how much water needs to be applied. It’s not a digital calibration! And many of the countries are really poor, and the people make very little money. So there is t a labour shortage. There’s also the issue of corruption. So, there’s some foundational development that needs to take place first before local companies are likely to adopt a behavior-based safety process or look at something like SafeStart aimed at human factors.

Q. Ok, let’s talk about India and Asia. Would you say it’s better or worse than Africa?

It’s about the same. It’s not better, but it’s not worse either. The population in many Asian countries is much larger than the number of jobs. They’re not experiencing the same labour shortage we are in North America right now. So, if a worker dies on the job, there’s generally someone who can take their place. Moreover, because there is so much surplus labour, the people get paid less. So it’s often the multinationals that do a better job of managing safety. There certainly are local companies that are interested in behaviour based safety or human factors, but that doesn’t mean they will always spend the time or the money on it. Even if you dramatically reduce the price, it’s not always enough. Which is unfortunate, because when you have nothing–no PPE, no engineering controls, no guards, etc. then all you have are your eyes and your mind and your reflexes. So arguably, they need Safestart more than anybody. So for me it’s sad, to say the least. I know we could help them. I know it would prevent thousands of fatalities and serious injuries. But from a business perspective, it’s difficult. We are trying though. It’s not like me to give up too easily or too soon. On the other hand, how much you can invest without a return is something that obviously needs to be considered. So we will need new approaches, new pricing, and we will have to use new technology. Everyone has a smartphone. Maybe they don’t have respirators or workboots, but they all have a phone. So I remade the course so people can learn the Critical Error Reduction Techniques on a mobile device, in 14 ten-minute modules that get completed once a week. So we are doing something and I’m very hopeful that it will work really well in these places.

Q. Ok, so Africa, India and South-East Asia are going to be more of a challenge, at least in our lifetime. What about China?

Well, the last time I was in China was about 7 or 8 years ago. So things may have changed a bit. Back then, I was told that the only industries that actually get inspected are chemical and petrochemical and very large construction projects where, if there is an explosion or a crane falls over it will likely get media attention. It’s not that they want to look good cosmetically, like the Middle East 10 years ago. It’s more like they don’t want to look bad, at least in front of the world. There’s also a requirement that you partner 50/50 with a Chinese national in order to work there. So unless I can meet someone or work with a company we can trust, China isn’t going to be part of the plan. However, I might be able to do this through a contact I’ve got with a Japanese investment fund company. They own a lot of many big businesses. 6% of Vale mining for instance. So they might be able to help me find a partner in China that we can work with.

Q. Ok, so what about Japan then?

Like I said before, I’m going there for the first time in June. This came from a presentation I did for Komatsu in Brazil. They have a few locations that have done very well with SafeStart. One has gone 3 years and over 2 million hours without a recordable. They organized a joint presentation with Vale, which is where I met the guy from the investment firm. So I’m going to meet the CEO, the CFO and the COO from Komatsu as well as make a presentation for all their top safety folks from around the world. We also have a Covestro site in Japan that won a very prestigious award from the chemical safety association in Japan last fall. They gave a lot of the credit to SafeStart. So there is a fair bit of interest from that industry already. I’m hoping I can also find out what it takes to open up an office or business entity while I’m there. The operations manager from the Covestro plant had about a year until his retirement and he has already gotten the green light from his VP to start working with us as a consultant. So hopefully by the end of the year we will be up and running in Japan. And they have great operational discipline there, so I think things will go very well

Q. That sounds great! So last but not least, as we finish our tour of the world, what about Australia?

Well, we have been selling Safestart in Australia for 15 years. It’s easier or more easily received there than it is in Europe or the UK. But there is also a lot of competition from neuroscientists who think that if we teach people how our brains work, then they will make fewer mistakes. They charge a lot of money: $1000 or $2000 per employee that they train. So they were able–at least initially–to convince a few big mining companies in Western Australia to give them a lot of money. But it didn’t take long for the companies to realize that they weren’t getting the results in terms of injury reductions, they expected or hoped for. Because, knowing how your brain works doesn’t actually improve your skills and habits. They talk about the need for repetition to groove new neural pathways, but then they didn’t build the repetition into their training program. It’s like telling the music students that they have to practice the scales or telling basketball players that you have to practice your foul shots but then not getting them to actually do it. So Australia is a good market. The people are receptive and hopefully it will continue to grow.

Q. Ok, so there are a lot of differences in culture as we go around the world, but are there any commonalities or things that are consistent?

Yes. The four states and the four errors causing or contributing to over 95% of the injuries, on or off the job–that is consistent everywhere. I remember the first time I went to Asia 20 years ago. As I was flying over the Pacific it occurred to me: what if it’s different in Asia? What if it isn’t the same four states and errors. I remember looking down at the ocean–it was a clear day–and thinking “well…it’s a little late for that now.” It’s not like you can tell the pilot to turn around. But thankfully, it was the same four states and errors, and just like us, 95% were in the self area. So it turned out to be a great workshop. We had people from Korea, Japan, Thailand, the Philippines, China and India at this workshop. So, all good from that point of view. And as you can imagine, that meant that the four Critical Error Reduction Techniques worked for them as well as they work for us. People are people. We all have the same neuroscience working for us or against us. We are all humans. And human factors like rushing, frustration, fatigue and complacency have been causing problems for all of us… for a very long time. Yes, the challenges are different as you go from place to place and country to country. The cultures are different. That’s for sure. But the solution isn’t. The challenge is getting the four techniques to everyone, everywhere. That-isn’t going to be easy, at least not in our lifetime, but it’s worth the effort.

Well, that is good news. At least you don’t need a different solution for all the different cultures. But as you said, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. Good luck Larry. And thanks very much for taking the time to discuss all this with us…


Larry Wilson is a pioneer in the area of Human Factors in safety. He has been a safety consultant for over 25 years and has worked on-site with hundreds of companies worldwide. He is the author of SafeStart, an advanced safety and performance awareness program, successfully implemented in more than 3,500 companies, in over 60 countries, with more than 4 million people trained. He co-authored the book “Inside Out: Rethinking Traditional Safety Management Paradigms” and authored the book “Defenseless Moments: a Different Perspective on Serious Injuries”. Larry is the moderator of the SafeConnection expert panels and an active keynote speaker at health and safety conferences around the globe.

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