Safety leadership - creating a positive safety culture at Corrections

Louise Giles
Senior Organisational Development Advisor, Department of Corrections

Colin du Plessis
National Manager, Safety, Strategy and Planning, Department of Corrections

Author biographies:

Louise started at Corrections in January 2017. She works in the Organisational Development team. She has eight years experience in the field of leadership development, having designed and delivered leadership development programmes for leaders in the public sector.

Colin joined Corrections in November 2016. Colin is a former biological scientist, who developed an interest in health and safety and occupational health in particular. He has worked for two health and safety regulators, Maritime New Zealand and the Department of Labour, as well as having been the health and safety manager for two large tertiary education providers.


Corrections is committed to the safety and wellbeing of its staff. Since 2013 we have completed a number of initiatives to strengthen our processes and make improvements to keep our people safe. Our approach is to focus on the themes of leadership, engagement, resources and risk. Under the leadership theme, our senior leadership team has participated in a good practice safety leadership training programme. This training forms the basis for a programme of ongoing improvement and development in relation to health and safety governance. The engagement theme speaks to a commitment to involve all of our people in health and safety decision-making and planning. We will also provide the correct resources so that our people can keep themselves and others safe. We’ve made some great progress, and our Health and Safety 2016-20 Strategy: Everyone Safe Every Day outlines our plan for making further improvements in this area. We are now extending the good practice safety programme to all our frontline leaders in our quest for continuous improvement. This article outlines the rollout of this national training programme.

New Zealand context

New Zealand’s acute harm and workplace safety statistics are amongst the worst in the western world. New Zealand workers are twice as likely to be killed or suffer serious harm as workers in Australia, and nearly six times more likely than those in the United Kingdom. Each year around 190,000 people claim medical costs from ACC as a result of being harmed at work and of these around 23,000 people are injured seriously enough to be off work for more than a week, and over 100 people die from workplace accidents. The economic and social cost of work-related injuries to our nation is estimated at $3.5 billion dollars per year (Independent Taskforce on Workplace Health and Safety, 2013). The costs to our workers cannot be counted merely in dollars. Work-related injuries may not just affect an individual physically, but psychologically. Whānau and friends also need to provide physical and psychological support and these costs are not easily quantifiable.

Change in legislation

As a result of the Pike River tragedy in which 29 men lost their lives, a Royal Commission report made 16 recommendations (Royal Commission on the Pike River Coal Mine Tragedy). As a result, a new regulator, Worksafe, was established in December 2013 with a sole focus on health and safety. New legislation was also introduced with the new Health and Safety at Work Act 2015. This new legislation and new Health and Safety Regulations came into effect on 4 April 2016.

Under the new legislation, Crown organisations (like the Department of Corrections) are liable for prosecution resulting from health and safety incidents, and are classified as an “undertaking” (the legislation covers “a Person Conducting a Business or Undertaking”). The Chief Executive is deemed to be an officer and all employees are workers under the Act. Officers have additional responsibilities to carry out due diligence regarding health and safety in their organisation (Health and Safety at Work Act, 2015).

Everybody has a duty of care to ensure that the risk of harm to anybody (visitors, contractors, offenders/prisoners) entering our workplace is as low as reasonably practicable. The focus of previous legislation was on managing hazards and incidents. The focus of the new legislation is on minimising the risk of harm. Organisations are responsible for the management of their risks, and to ensure adequate and appropriate risk mitigation.

The Department of Correction’s risks

Corrections has a very unique risk profile:

  • Offender management – We have the day-to-day operational risks of managing offenders, which incorporates operating safe and secure prisons and managing offenders in the community.
  • Our staff, contractors and other people – We have a responsibility to provide a safe environment for all our staff, our thousands of volunteers, contractors, and staff from other agencies.
  • Prison industries – We have multiple industries within our organisation including industrial kitchens, nurseries, light engineering and building sites, as well as many other hazards including vans, trailers, forklifts, cranes, farm and forestry machinery, hazardous chemicals and animals including dogs, pigs, cows, and bees.

Our strategy: Everyone Safe Every Day

In the Everyone Safe Every Day strategy for 2016-2020, our Chief Executive, Ray Smith, gave a clear message to staff that safety requires our collective commitment and leadership. It means thinking and doing some things differently so that safety is foremost in all our decision-making and all our actions. Ray has made a personal commitment to health and safety and he asks the same of all of us. We all deserve to come to work each day and go home safe and we can only do this together.

Improvements to processes

As a department, we have made a lot of advances in improving our processes to increase safety. We are very proud to have won the award for best board level engagement in health and safety at the New Zealand Workplace Health & Safety Awards. This recognises the commitment at a senior level to addressing health and safety across all of our sites. Our Health and Safety Risk Governance Committee (HSRGC) is made up of the Department of Corrections Executive Leadership Team and an independent health and safety expert. The committee has been meeting every six weeks since October 2013, and over the past four years has undertaken a systematic review of every aspect of the organisation to see where we can improve processes and manage risks. Some of the initiatives overseen by the HSRGC include:

  • Upgrading our vehicle fleet
  • Upgrading security at our sites
  • Introducing new de-escalation techniques, on-body cameras, pepper spray, Site Emergency Response Teams, slash proof gloves, body armour and Physical Readiness Assessments for staff
  • Introducing new processes for managing fatigue – since introduced at the end of 2016, the number of staff at risk of serious fatigue has more than halved
  • Working with contractors or third parties to ensure the safety of all those we work with
  • Everyone Safe Every Day strategy.

Whilst we have made a lot of improvements to our processes, the next step is to make improvements to our safety culture through positive safety leadership.

The next step – leadership to enhance a positive safety culture

What is culture?

Culture is "the way things are done around here". It's a combination of all the attitudes, beliefs, values, taboos, peer pressure and perceptions that influence how something is actually done, rather than how it should be done. Leaders’ actions speak louder than words. “The standard you walk by is the standard you accept” (Morrison, 2013). Leaders show staff how much risk is acceptable every day by their actions. The leaders set the culture of a team, and ultimately of an organisation.

Where does the concept of a safety culture come from?

The concept of a positive safety culture is one approach to improving health and safety. It was first used to describe the issues at Chernobyl at the time of their major incident (International Nuclear Safety Advisory Group, 1992). Poor safety culture has contributed to multiple aeroplane crashes (Shappell et al, 2004) and has contributed to deaths in hospitals (Bromiley, 2011). The Pike River tragedy was a result of poor safety culture in action. The way things were done, risks ignored or accepted as standard practice, all defined the safety culture at Pike River, with disastrous impact (Royal Commission on the Pike River Coal Mine Tragedy, 2012). When staff do not feel they can speak up, or when they are not listened to, this results in a poor and risky safety culture.

Safety culture, or the way safety is perceived, valued and prioritised in an organisation, not only has an obvious and direct effect on incident rates, it also impacts on productivity, reliability, competitiveness and employee morale (Work Safety Hub, 2015). Organisations with an effective and positive safety culture bring positive, demonstrable results. Developing a positive safety culture means looking at behaviours and visual leadership and it involves everyone’s participation. It involves shared beliefs about how managers are supposed to manage, how people are supposed to interact, how safety is measured and what is safe.

What are the stages of safety culture?

According to the Health and Safety Executive (UK), there are a number of stages in safety culture that organisations progress through on their journey to a positive safety culture.

Stages of the Safety Culture Ladder

Source: Adapted from Health and Safety Executive (UK)

The lowest stage is Pathological, which is basically, “Who cares about safety as long as we are not caught?”. One would expect there would be very few organisations that still operate today in this stage as it is basically criminal i.e. they don’t know or care that legislation exists.

The next stage is Reactive, which is when safety is important, but the organisation launches into action only when there is an accident.

The third is the Management stage, which is when there are systems in place to manage all hazards. Safety is important to the organisation and they do training and have a safety management system. Worksafe would probably say they comply with the law and are doing all things reasonably practicable.

The fourth is the Proactive stage, when the organisation aims to anticipate safety problems before they arise. They don’t just comply, they try to find issues and work to improve them. The final stage, that organisations should aspire to, is Positive Safety Culture, where safety is “how we do business”. This is where the organisation has built safety into everything they do and everybody is part of the process.

So what might a positive safety culture at Corrections look like?

Here are some ideas of what a positive safety culture as Corrections might involve:

  • Leaders pro-actively demonstrating their commitment to safety and wellbeing by role modelling and “walking the talk” – engaging with staff regularly in matters affecting safety and wellbeing
  • Day-to-day actions of leaders promote positive safety perceptions
  • Staff speak up about issues affecting safety and wellbeing and are listened to
  • Unsafe practices or behaviour are not accepted
  • Staff and leaders are empowered to take an active role in continuously minimising and eliminating risks
  • Participation in safety and wellbeing decisions by staff at all levels
  • Genuine attempts made to systematically improve safety in a timely fashion
  • Culture of trust or a “just culture” – people are encouraged/rewarded for raising safety issues, not discouraged or “shot” for reporting an issue
  • Safety and wellbeing are part of every day conversation and consideration and everyone knows and shows they are priority.

Commitment to enhancing a positive safety culture at Corrections

As part of their commitment to developing a positive safety culture at Corrections, all of our Executive Leadership Team have attended or will shortly attend a two-day Business Leaders Forum facilitated by Zeroharm. Most of our senior leaders across the country have also attended a one-day Safety Leadership course facilitated by Leading Safety.

The next step is to spread the word and put the learnings into action to embed a positive safety culture across Corrections. As 99% of our workplace accidents happen in frontline roles, a Positive Safety Culture leadership training programme has been developed for all frontline leaders across the country.

Rollout to frontline leaders around the country

The full Positive Safety Leadership programme is a three module programme; two three to four-hour workshops several weeks apart, followed by two cohorts combining several weeks later to present to their Regional Leadership Teams. These presentations are a chance for the leaders to show what changes they have made with their teams. It is also an important opportunity to share the learnings both across roles and across different sites. This is a fundamental principle of the programme – making improvements across the organisation and learning from others, both on things that we are doing well and things we need to improve on.

The programme was piloted in September/October 2017 in the Central region. Presentations to the Regional Leadership Team took place in mid-October and the results will be reported in a future issue of Practice: The New Zealand Corrections Journal.

National office

In Corrections’ national office, the Service Development team has also rolled out an adapted version of the Positive Safety Leadership programme to the entire team. It was important that the whole team understood the key concepts so these could influence the work they do for the frontline, as well as improving the safety culture in national office. Tier 3 and 4 leaders also attended a three-hour workshop exploring the concepts of a positive safety culture and how to improve the safety culture at Corrections. The workshop prompted challenging discussions and active participation from the attendees and feedback was very positive.

What does the programme cover?

The programme is based on the following model which shows how to move from management to the proactive and positive safety culture stages in four steps.

The programme covers all four steps and aims to equip our leaders with tools and methods to help them create a positive safety culture in their teams and ultimately across our organisation. Some of the core aspects of the programme are:

  • Identifying key risks for the team and working with your team to improve these
  • Using the Safety Learning Hub micro-learnings to have safety and wellbeing discussions with your team
  • The concept of Work As Imagined versus Work As Done – getting out there on the floor, seeing what is actually going on, not what you imagine or are told is going on
  • Safety Walkabouts – talking and engaging with your staff, how to prepare for a walkabout and what questions to ask
  • The SWEETAS model for safety walkabouts – Socialise and relate, Watch, Engage with positive questions, Effective listening, Thank them, Act – make changes and update team, Show them, don’t tell them (Department of Corrections, 2017)
  • Rewarding positive safety behaviour and discouraging poor safety behaviour
  • The importance of leadership in creating a positive safety culture – following through on commitments and holding others to theirs, being a positive influence through visible and authentic leadership
  • Thinking broader than just your team and sharing learnings across the organisation so others can improve
  • Watching videoed scenarios from both custodial and community probation settings and discussing issues raised.

It will be exciting to see the results once the programme has been rolled out around the country. The aim is to ensure safety and wellbeing are part of everyday conversation and consideration and everyone knows and shows they are priority. Hopefully, a positive safety culture and Everyone Safe Every Day will be that much closer.


Cardinus Risk Management and HSL (2013) Measuring the Safety Climate in Organisations: Reduce injuries and costs through cultural change. Retrieved on 19 Sept 2017 from

Department of Corrections (2016) Health and Safety Strategy 2016-2020

Department of Corrections (2017) Positive Safety Leadership: SWEETAS model for safety walkabouts.

Health and Safety at Work Act (2015) Retrieved on 18 Sept 2017 from

Health and Safety Executive (2000) Safety Culture Maturity Model. OTO 2000/049. ISBN 0 7176 1919 2

Independent Taskforce on Workplace Health and Safety (2013) Safer Workplaces Consultation Document. Retrieved on 18 Sept 2017 from

International Nuclear Safety Advisory Group (1992) INSAG-7. The Chernobyl accident: updating of INSAG-1 (No. 75-INSAG-7, Safety Series). Vienna: IAEA.

Morrison, D. (2013) Speech by the Chief of Army Lieutenant General David Morrison. Retrieved on 19 Sept 2017 from

Royal Commission on the Pike River Coal Mine Tragedy (2012). Commission’s Report (Volume 1 and 2) Retrieved on 18 Sept 2017 from

Shappell, S., von Thaden, T. and Wiegmann, D. (2004) Measuring Organizational Factors in Airline Safety Technical Report AHFD-03-11/FAA-03-3. Federal Aviation Authority

Bromiley, M. (2011) Just a Routine Operation (2011) Retrieved on 19 Sept 2017 from

Work Safety Hub (2015) How to Measure Safety Culture in Your Organisation. Retrieved on 19 Sept 2017 from