Reaching cultural heights

David Day takes a refreshed view of the health, safety and environmental culture ladder 

The work of safety psychology thinker, Patrick Hudson, has always been fascinating to many in our profession. His work on health, safety and environmental (HSE) culture has been ground-breaking; in particular The HSE Culture Ladder. Its simplicity, user-friendliness and delineation of cultural progression are well known. However, recently, in a discussion with a group of fellow SHE professionals, it was mused as to whether the ladder may need a refresh to reflect our ever-changing world. But first an introduction.


The HSE Culture Ladder

The HSE Culture Ladder (see figure 1) has been used worldwide, across a multitude of industries and contexts. Described by Hudson (1) as an evolutionary ladder, which plots the development of an organisation’s safety culture, each level has distinct characteristics (see figure 2) and is a progression from the previous level. The range runs from the pathological, through to the reactive, to the calculative, on to the proactive and then the final stage of generative. (2).

Professionally, the concept has been used widely, from the development of culture assessment tools to frontline training. Moreover, while the idea of HSE being central to an organisation’s culture has always had intellectual and practical appeal, it would appear that the gap between proactive and generative cultures may be too wide. 

Figure 1: The HSE Cultural ladder


Figure 2: Descriptions of each level of culture on the Hudson Ladder (3)


Introduction to integrative…

We have all seen the megatrend toward the equalisation of safety, health and wellbeing. Many organisations are taking their ‘safety cultures’ and transforming them into true ‘safety, health and wellbeing cultures’ (4; 5). They are building on their existing safety frameworks and integrating health and wellbeing into their already established attitudes, behaviours, policies and practices. Consequently, they are treating health and wellbeing as an equal to safety, whereas for so long it has been seen as the poor relation, failing to get the attention it deserves (6; 7; 8). But this crucial stage of cultural development is missing from the HSE Culture Ladder. So, perhaps a new level should be introduced – the integrative level.

At this level of cultural maturity, safety, health and wellbeing are together as one; treated as equals, personally and culturally. An organisation is ready to ask what people think about health and wellbeing. Senior management want to understand people’s views. They will invest in cultural surveys designed to garner employees’ perceptions of the organisation’s approach to health and wellbeing risks. They are prepared to extend their business planning process to include objectives to improve psychosocial health. They have included the promotion of mental wellbeing in their communication mechanisms. And, they have encouraged ownership of positive health-related behaviours. 

In an integrative organisation, health and wellbeing is not just about placing bowls of fruit in reception, it’s a true cultural phenomenon woven into the fabric of the organisation. 

Becoming sustainable

As organisations journey through the integrative level, they become more socially and environmentally aware. There is a greater sense of the need to do the right thing. The organisation starts to be more cognisant of the world around them and how their business operations have both a social and environmental impact. This could be the first stage of an organisation becoming more sustainable

While sustainability often means different things to different people – and it’s not possible to dwell too much on it here – but to laypeople, sustainability is all about operating a business in a socially, economically and environmentally responsible way. At this level the organisation will think beyond its own walls. The organisation starts to consider about how to operate differently.

User-friendly frameworks can be used to assess an organisation’s culture and commitment to sustainability. A great example is Bioregional’s One Planet Living Framework (9), comprised of 10 principles of sustainability, which provide a holistic approach for organisations to understand how to live within the limits of our planet. 

At the sustainable level, it is not just about the pursuit of profit; it’s about working with stakeholders to improve culture and growing business in a responsible manner.  

Reframing ’generative’ 

Hudson elucidated that the key to organisational functioning at the generative level of maturity, is that HSE is ingrained into the organisational culture, which he pithily described as: ‘HSE is how we do business around here’. But there is more to achieving this zenith; an organisation may have to evolve and transition through the integrative and sustainable levels before going onto becoming generative.

After transitioning through the two additional levels, an organisation genuinely cares about people and the planet, and it grasps the importance of this symbiotic relationship. Because of this, being generative exceeds the concept of ‘HSE is how we do business around here’, which means our current understanding needs to be reframed. 

Central to a generative culture is a climate of caring – emotionally, procedurally and, ultimately, culturally. At this level, the organisation truly cares about its impact upon the world, people and its stakeholders. Then, and only, then can it be argued that an organisation is truly generative.

The refreshed HSE Culture Ladder

Here is what a refreshed HSE Culture Ladder could look like…

Figure 3: The refreshed HSE Culture Ladder



Reference 1 – Hudson, P.T.W. (2007). Implementing a safety culture in a major multi-national. Safety Science, 45, 697–722.

Reference 2 – Shell International BV (2007). Safety Culture Ladder video:

Reference 3 – Hudson P.T.W., Parker, D., Lawton, R.  Verschuur, W.L.G., van der Graaf, G.C. and Kalff, J. (2000). The Hearts and Minds Project: Creating Intrinsic Motivation for HSE 

Reference 4 – Derbyshire, V. and Day, D (2019). Are we going through the Age of Integration? Safety and Health Practitioner Online:

Reference 5 – Loeppke et al. (2015). Integrating health and safety in the workplace: How closely aligning health and safety strategies can yield measurable benefits. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. 57 (5): 

Reference 6 – Day, D (2018). Is there too much safety and not enough health? Safety and Health Practitioner Online:

Reference 7 – Hawkins (1992). The Regulation of occupational health and safety: A socio-legal perspective". Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, Oxford University.

Reference 8 – Webber, A (2019). Cost and poor understanding discourage investment in occupational health. Personnel Today 

Reference 9 – Bioregional (2017). One Planet Goals and Guidance for Companies and Organisations 

Image credit | iStock
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