Safety and Health in the Workplace – Introducing the Safety Culture Ladder

Author: Joachim Geiger

Apr 24, 2024 Audit / Safety at work

Ideally, all employees in a company pull together when it comes to matters of safety. But how can companies arrive at a common understanding of and commitment to safety in the workplace? The Safety Culture Ladder offers a tool that allows companies to work their way towards a safety culture.

“The Safety Culture Ladder (SCL) is a standard established by the Royal Netherlands Standardization Institute (NEN) to measure the attitudes and behaviors of people in a company in regard to safety and health protection," Lena Wollbeck, Sustainability Project Manager at DEKRA Assurance Services, explains. But how can observing and evaluating practices, values, and visions contribute to increasing safety at work? After all, management system standards for occupational safety and health are already set by norms like the ISO 45001, accompanied by the respective instructions for their implementation.

Practice Relevance is in the SCL’s DNA

As a matter of fact, the SCL is not competing with established standards but consciously takes a different approach to build a safety culture within the company. A strong practical relevance is embedded in the system’s DNA. The SCL was originally developed by ProRail, the Dutch Rail Infrastructure Management Organization, in 2012 to improve safety awareness within its own ranks and among service providers and suppliers. It’s success story, however, didn’t commence until 4 years later - in 2016, Pro Rail assigned the standard to the NEN, making it accessible to other sectors as well. Ever since 2019, the safety ladder has been operating under the trademark "Safety Culture Ladder". One of the pioneer bodies to certify the SCL is DEKRA Certification BV in Arnhem, the Netherlands.

Step three on the safety ladder marks the rise to the next level

The SCL ladder model offers a better understanding. It is based on five scenarios, each of which describes a certain level of sophistication of the safety culture within a company. Each step of the ladder indicates the stage of a company's development. Accordingly, a company's safety culture is not in particularly good shape when situated at the two lower levels. Those who primarily strive for turnover and profit and are willing to tolerate accidents will find themselves at level one. At step two, a merely reactive pattern prevails - i.e. if an incident occurs, a change for the better occurs spontaneously and at short notice. At level three, the safety culture begins to rise to ta more elevated level - starting here, a company's management defines safety as added value and has drawn up guidelines for its employees. Companies now have to really make an effort to meet the requirements posed by this third level. In the fourth stage, all employees are fully aware of the importance of safety. Where mistakes are made, everyone is working consistently to prevent recurrences. Ultimately, at level five, safety is fully integrated into all company processes.

DEKRA Assurance Services supports the introduction of the SCL in Germany

Version 2.0 of the SCL has been on the market since the beginning of 2024. "The SCL 2.0 is designed in response to the demands of a large number of different industries. It emphasizes culture, attitude, and behavior even more strongly than the predecessor version. In particular, working with the culture scheme has now become easier," says DEKRA expert Lena Wollbeck, describing the latest improvements. Electricity grid operator Tennet, based in Arnhem, plays an important role in the growing adoption of the Safety Culture Ladder. Tennet, which is also active in Germany and other European countries, expects its business partners to demonstrate a consistent commitment to safety in their companies - preferably on the back of an SCL certificate. "We were one of the first points of contact for the SCL in Germany. In the meantime, we have not only trained SCL auditors in collaboration with the DEKRA Academy but have also been able to assist several companies in being certified," Lena Wollbeck reports. Among those interested in the SCL are companies from the construction, energy, and geotechnical engineering industries. Landscape architects, archaeologists and pest controllers are also on the client list.

Auditors are breaking new ground in assessing safety standards

What makes the Safety Culture Ladder so interesting for companies? Essentially, it outlines the framework for health and safety. Nevertheless, companies are free to make their own decisions at all stages of the certification process - the SCL solely defines what needs to be regulated, not how. Unlike traditional standards, it also does not assess minimum standards, rather the level of safety to which employees carry out their work processes. However, this approach requires a special method to measure and evaluate safety culture. In any case, auditors do not need any relevant documents or other records to document the respective safety standard. Instead, the auditors gather the relevant data by observing and talking to employees - at all hierarchy levels and in all working environments.

The SCL audit entails up to one year of preparation

The stocktaking as part of the audit ends with an audit report which contains the auditors' conclusions on the achieved level. The certification authority then uses this report to decide whether or not certification can be granted. Depending on the size of the company, anyone opting for the SCL audit may have to schedule up to a year of preparation to identify the strengths and improvements at all levels and to ensure that all employees are on board. A further audit is due annually in the two years after certification to check that the standards achieved have been maintained. The following year, a new cycle is initiated with recertification. So what are the chances of successful completion? "Thorough preparation, in-depth consultation with a DEKRA expert and an experience audit are the key to a successful audit," says Lena Wollbeck.