You can’t just change culture over a Friday afternoon drink

Conducting audits for the Safety Culture Ladder (SCL) is quite different from carrying out other audits. Better soft skills are required than when auditing system standards. ‘Engaging with people, that’s what it’s all about. Engaging with people allows auditors to find out much more and get a good impression of an organization,’ says auditor Hans Aarns. 

As an auditor for Aboma Certification, Hans Aarns conducts all kinds of audits, including audits for the Safety Culture Ladder (SCL). ‘Although this standard hasn’t been around that long, it’s become quite a considerable scheme. It’s also a different kind of standard than the Dutch VCA or ISO 45001.’ An example of this is the fact that the approaches taken by the auditors to audit the different standards differ substantially. ‘Many standards are management system standards. The SCL is different in that it is a behavioural standard that assesses safety awareness and indirectly aims to improve it. It specifically focuses on people, their behaviour and the organization’s culture. Although it’s left up to the organization to set up and facilitate the SCL with an eye to health and safety, this doesn’t make it a management system. System standards address safety awareness, but not to anything like the same in-depth level. The SCL standard comprises a total of 233 questions (standard requirements) which are assessed depending on the step being audited.’

Interviewing and observing

When conducting SCL audits, Hans Aarns ‘engages with customers’, as he likes to call it. He does not do this on his own and instead always works with a fellow auditor. ‘When auditing system standards, you ask for specific documents, which you then examine and use as the basis of your interviews. When conducting SCL audits, it’s not uncommon for us to not open the documents at all. We talk about what’s in them, how an organization is pursuing its goals and whether this is actually effective in practice. It’s a completely different way of asking questions.’ In addition to conducting interviews, Hans Aarns and his colleague go into the workplace, which in Hans’ case is often a construction site. ‘After observing the work location and its dynamics, we talk to employees about their work. If what we’ve seen in the workplace gives cause for conducting further interviews, or if we suspect that the impression we gained from previous interviews doesn’t match what we see in the workplace, we conduct random interviews whilst continually verifying that our findings match the SCL step for which the organization is being audited. In respect of the relatively low SCL steps, safety is often arranged top-down . The higher up the ladder you go, the more things will have been arranged bottom-up , with both employees and contractors taking responsibility. We try to tune into this and match our interviews to the levels displayed by employees, their line managers and top management. This requires us being able to see everything from the organization’s perspective.’


If Hans Aarns and his colleague see anything they think is wrong or might be improved, they will talk about it to people in the organization. ‘How you actually do this is crucial. You have to gain the trust of both the employees you’re talking to and their superiors. You can’t just tick off questions on your checklist and bluntly tell people what to do. You need to stay calm, give people enough time to tell their stories, empathise and make them feel that you understand what they do. If you can instil that trust in people and ask the right questions, you can have them come up with their own possible solutions to situations in which there’s room for improvement. It’s important to have people actually think about things themselves, as this will lead to longer-lasting solutions. That’s why we always emphasize that we haven’t to come to assess individual employees, but instead the organization as a whole. We look for opportunities that will allow the organization to reach higher steps on the ladder. That’s a very different approach. Engaging with people is an essential part of this. The soft skills described above are essential when it comes to an audit team conducting a good SCL audit.’


The good thing about the SCL, according to Hans Aarns, is specifically that it is a standard that companies can largely structure as they see fit. ‘If you look at it from that perspective, it’s not a very strict standard. We identify whether the approach chosen is actually effective in practice and complies with the requirements of the standard. When doing so, we come across all kinds of things and that can be a positive experience. I love it when I come back a year later and see that previous areas for improvement have been acted on and that safety awareness, i.e. the culture within the organization, has improved. Because changing a culture can be quite difficult. It’s not something you just do over a Friday afternoon drink.’

Free interpretation

The SCL describes health and safety aspects that are subject to assessment, but it leaves ample room for interpretation, says Hans Aarns. ‘We look for any health and safety risks, in a broad sense, that might be relevant to an organization. This can easily lead to us assessing ‘soft safety’ issues such as work pressure, social safety or environmental safety, rather than just assessing ‘hard safety’. We focus on more than just health and safety and this is often reflected in the conversations we have. We adopt an open, interested attitude. Taking this approach creates trust and leads to many more matters being brought up than would be the case if a different interview technique were used. Some people even tell us about personal family matters. As these can also reflect on the organization and on dynamics within it, they can be instrumental in forming a good impression of an organization.’


Companies should prepare for an audit, but it is not immediately necessary for employees to prepare for interviews, according to Hans Aarns. ‘Just be yourself and share your personal view of the organization with us. That’s what I tell people in the lead-up to the interview.’ Of course, companies do want to know where they stand before the audit. ‘They can use the NEN web tool to fill in a self-assessment to find this out. This will give them an initial baseline measurement, which they can use to determine any actions they might want to initiate. Organizations benefit from formulating their safety awareness ambitions and it’s essential that they express these ambitions and put them into practice. Ensure that communication is clear and create buy-in and support. One way of doing this is to set up a working group that reflects the organization’s population. But the main thing to keep in mind is that everything should match the organization’s identity. Organizations often have more in-house expertise than they might think. It’s just a matter of striking the right chord.’

Setting an example

Finally, Aarns points out that management should set an example when implementing a good health and safety policy. ‘If board members or managers don’t make themselves sufficiently visible or think that rules don’t apply to them, the safety culture won’t change the slightest bit. Employees have a keen sense for this! Leading by example is important if you want to get the entire organization on board. Each standard, and that includes the SCL standard, is a means to achieve a goal and not a goal in itself. If you embrace the SCL and draft a plan that includes your own ambitions, underlying goals and actions, and then implement and monitor this, the SCL will definitely add value.’