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Richard Warren

Jul 29, 2022

What Sports Can Teach Us About Safety Culture


People in New Zealand tend to be biased when it comes to the best sports team in the world. There is no question in the Land of the Long White Cloud: it's the All Blacks. Although a corn farmer from Illinois might never have heard of them, they certainly dominate a sport in ways that few teams ever have or can aspire to. But are they superior to the 1986 Boston Celtics? While we are only talking one season, in the intense competition of the NBA, the 1985–86 Boston Celtics stand out:

  • Won 67 games, 40–1 at home and those 40 home wins were one win shy of tying their franchise record of 68 wins set in 1972–73.

So while this record only tied the team for seventh all-time for total wins in a single season many enthusiasts argue with passion that, due to the competitive nature of the NBA, this team was the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) in any sport.

And there will be a different sporting GOAT mentioned by almost everyone you ask, based on a myriad of measures and detailed stats. They’ll mention MVPs, Players of the Year, Laureus World Sportsman of the Year and coaches.

And it's clear that there is a common feature across every team that makes this sort of list - commitment. Every one of these teams had an unyielding commitment to winning, to doing their absolute best.

But the success factor that’s often overlooked is much less concrete than championships won, average winning scores, or wins on the trot—it’s chemistry. Team culture. The relationship between the players, coaches, and supporters themselves.

And we can learn from those winning ways when we look at building a robust, unyielding Safety culture in any organisation, large or small, inherently dangerous or generally benign from a safety perspective.

Let's look at a few lessons the great teams mention when they talk about success and see how these can be employed in building a safety culture in your organisation.

1. You must have an opponent

Essentially, this is the thing that allows an organisation to zero in on a common goal. Just as teams focus on their opponents in the weeks and days before a big game, so can an organisation focus on their health and safety goals in the same terms: having an opponent. Who that opponent is comes straight from the organisation's playbook. They could be something like the following:

  • Zero 'lost time injuries' (LTIs),
  • Every member completing training in manual handling,
  • Five identified hazards removed by the end of the fiscal period.

Your opponent will change over time and 'winning' against each one will be a huge driver of your Safety Culture.

Of course you need to track your 'wins' over each opponent and online tools like Intuto (training) and Engage (PPE management) offer simple, low cost solutions that will help build your organisation's winning record.

2. Learn to love adversity

There are many terrible things that have occurred in organisations around the world related to health and safety. From Pike River in New Zealand to Bopal in India, the impact on individuals, families and communities was shocking. Without re-litigating these types of incidents, the general consensus about a root cause in most cases seemed to be that the organisations involved ignored issues that led up to the disastrous occurrences on the day.

Why were these issues ignored? In most cases because to do anything about them was too hard, too complex, someone else's job or required someone to step up. As we know, major incidents occur because multiple small issues align and a process barrier that might have prevented disaster disappears. The 'Swiss cheese' effect in play.



So rather than flee from adversity in a health and safety sense, learn to embrace it and, more importantly, get your team to embrace it. The more you, as a manager, encourage open communication about issues and errors, the more your team will be encouraged to communicate back to you. The 'cheese' will increasingly go out of alignment.

3. Tool Time

Clearly, every great sports team has a great culture and this culture extends throughout the entire organisational community. Great teams are proud of their uniforms, they know that they will have access to the right training and playing gear, and their fans embrace the same elements, proudly displaying their team's icons at every opportunity. Everyone in the team community embraces the team icons and tools.




Does your team embrace the organisation icons? Are they proud of your health and safety culture? When they go into the field, do they know that they have the best possible PPE that is absolutely right for the job? And when they meet members of other teams, do they proudly display your organisation's colours?

An organisation that is passionate about health and safety is a winning team!

4. Recognise and reward

This is an easy one that every great team does and every organisation should do.

When your team members get it right, when they challenge a poor process or bad set up, when they go over and above what is expected, when individuals or groups within the organisation make a difference, your job is simple. Recognise the effort and reward the result. This can be as simple as making sure all successful training is supported by some form of recognition like a certificate or putting on a team lunch .

When your team has beaten the 'opposition', acknowledge that effort and crucially make sure your team knows why that effort made a difference to the safety culture of the organisation.


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This weekend, take time out to watch some sports. Look at the best teams and then look at the worst teams. Question what the differences are between the performances and why that difference exists. You'll be amazed at how much you can learn about building a successful safety culture within an organisation.

And maybe you can reward some of your own team's success by taking them to the next game. There are worse ways to spend an afternoon!


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