Cross-cultural difference in OSH
Annick Starren, Linda Drupsteen, TNO, the Netherlands
- 1 Introduction
- 2 Framework of national culture
- 3 Cultural values and workplace outcomes
- 4 Cultural values and OSH
- 5 Examples of the relation between national culture and OSH
- 6 Conclusions
- 7 References
- 8 Links for further reading
In this article we describe cross-cultural aspects in the context of safety management. When working abroad, cross-cultural differences ask for other competencies to enhance safe behaviour than at home due to cultural and language differences. In this wiki some guidance is given on aspects of cultural differences and safe behaviour, related to values, leadership and risk perception.
We focus on Cross-cultural groups, such as multinational enterprises and their global-expatriate managers, or local companies that specifically work with migrants sharing the same nationality/cultural background.
The effect of multicultural groups - in which multiple nationalities are represented – on OSH is described in Wiki on migrant workers.
Framework of national culture
In analysing and studying national culture different frameworks have been developed. We discuss two of those frameworks .
Hofstede’s culture dimensions
One of the most renowned researchers in the field of national and organisational culture is the Dutchman Geert Hofstede. Based on a cultural study between 1968 and 1972 at IBM Corporation, and several subsequent studies worldwide, Hofstede identified five dimensions by which societies or nations can be distinguished and ordered  .
These five culture dimensions are:
- Power Distance (PDI): the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organisations accept that power is distributed unequally.
- Individualism-Collectivism (IDV): the degree to which people prefer to act as individuals rather than (collectively) as group members.
- Masculinity-Femininity (MAS): the degree to which such ‘masculine’ values as assertiveness, competition, and success are emphasised as opposed to such values as quality of life, warm personal relationships (caring for others), and service.
- Uncertainty Avoidance (UAI): the degree to which people in a country prefer structured over unstructured situations.
- Long-term Orientation (LTO): the degree to which people’s actions are driven by long-term goals and results, rather than short-term results and the need for immediate gratification.
Based on Hofstede’s studies, substantial differences appear to exist between regions, ethnic groups and individuals in a given country, however these scores are not applicable to each and everyone. Taking the 'passport approach', i.e. using one's nationality to make statements about one's culture values and, as such, trying to predict one's attitudes and behaviour, will lead to false conclusions and should therefore be avoided or, at the very least be done with great caution .
GLOBE cultural clusters
The GLOBE (Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness) research project  examined the interrelationship between organisational and societal culture and leadership behaviour in 62 countries with a questionnaire amongst 17,000 middle-level managers.
GLOBE was able to divide the participating nations into ten main cultural 'clusters'. The following five clusters – based on similarities in cultural values and beliefs- are distinguished within Europe:
- Nordic Europe (Denmark, Finland and Sweden)
- Germanic Europe (Austria, Germany, German-speaking Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium)
- Latin Europe (France, Italy, Portugal and Spain, French and Italian-speaking Switzerland)
- Eastern Europe (Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Serbia, Greece, Slovenia, Albania, Russia)
- Anglo cultures (including the UK and Ireland).
Cultural values and workplace outcomes
National culture is one of the best predictors of attitudes, behaviours and performance in the workplace. In comparison to features such as age, work experience, gender, race or educational level, cultural values seem to have a much stronger impact on workplace outcomes such as job and co-worker satisfaction, organisational commitment, interpersonal relationships and group dynamics, communication style, conflict handling and leadership preferences .
As already mentioned above, cultural preferences are primarily true and valuable for explaining group-level outcomes, rather than those of individuals.
Cultural preferences for leadership
Organisational leadership is an important aspect when looking at national cultures. Organisational leadership impinges on workers in two ways :
- Indirectly through organisational policies and systems, and
- Directly through personal interaction and communication with workers (i.e. direct personal leadership).
The importance of leadership for employee satisfaction was borne out in the Fifth European Working Conditions Survey (EWCS): European employees, who evaluate their manager positively, appear to be almost twice as likely to report being satisfied with their working conditions as those who evaluate their boss negatively .
In the GLOBE project leadership characteristics and actions were universally endorsed and how these were linked to cultural characteristics. The results of the GLOBE project have shown that different countries have divergent views on many aspects of leadership effectiveness, for instance:
- Participation and team orientation are rather specific for the Germanic Europe, Anglo and Nordic Europe clusters ;
- Humane orientation, autonomous leadership and self-protective leadership were slightly higher rated in the eastern European cluster than in the Germanic Europe cluster
In addition, convergent views on leadership do exist. Examples of leadership attributes which are universally desirable are: being honest, decisive, motivational and dynamic. Whereas asocial, irritable, egocentric and ruthless appeared across the world to be undesirable attributes for leader .
Effects of cultural preferences for leadership on OSH
In strong hierarchical structures – in companies of the Eastern Europe cluster – employees would follow more easily the objectives of their leaders and would thus be motivated for OSH by classical leadership styles involving clear objectives and extrinsic incentives, rather than by means of participation. Participative leadership style seems more promising in the Germanic European cluster, as hierarchies are flatter and employees act more self-dependently   . Therefore OSH programs in which for instance speaking up on safety plays an important role, will probably work better in (cross-cultural) teams from the Germanic European cluster, and less well in (cross-cultural) teams from the Eastern European cluster.
Effect of cultural values on risk perception
The way people perceive and judge risk, and how they manage and live with it, is influenced by many factors. Risk perception can be regarded as the subjective judgment that people make about the probability of experiencing a negative event .This can, for instance, be in relation to traffic, catastrophes (e.g. earthquakes, our health (e.g. smoking, nanomaterials), and also with regard to economic and financial risk-taking.
Cross-cultural differences in relation to risk perception has been shown . Although variations in risk perception between certain countries have been demonstrated, it can be questioned to what extent this is actually influenced by cultural factors. Factors which are probably more important on risk perception are:
- The size of a country: in countries with a larger population more accidents are reported, which makes inhabitants of those countries become more sensitive to certain risks) ;
- The media: by emphasizing certain topics of discussion in everyday life ;
- Individual risk attitude, risk sensitivity and specific fear .
Cultural values and OSH
There is only little research on the influence of cultural values on safety climate and safety-related behaviour in the workplace . In this chapter we focus on the culture dimensions as possible explanation for differences in OSH, but also situational grounds for differences as recently was published is discussed.
Hofstede’s culture dimensions and OSH
Some scholars have tried to use cross-cultural theories for explaining possible differences in the way people behave and organisations perform when it comes to OSH. Several assumptions can be made in this regard, although research evidence on this matter is very weak:
- PDI: workers from higher power distance cultures accept instructions from their superiors more readily. Conversely, safety could be more at stake if subordinates do not challenge superiors' decisions in certain circumstances.
- IDV: workers from collectivist cultures tend to communicate better and are more team oriented;
- MAS: workers from masculine cultures tend to show macho, risk-taking behaviour, whereas femininity is more about valuing people and relationships which could extend to concerns about OSH and well-being.
- UAI: workers from cultures with higher uncertainty avoidance are more likely to comply with (safety) rules and procedures but could, on the other hand, be less flexible, creative and resilient in unexpected situations or emergencies.
In particular, 'uncertainty avoidance' (UAI) and 'power distance' (PDI) are relevant in the context of occupational safety . Workers from national cultures with a higher UAI would, for instance, be more focused on compliance with rules and procedures, as they are less likely to react flexibly to real/unexpected situations . Likewise, employees from a national culture with a high PDI would tend to accept (safety) instructions from their supervisors more easily.
Cross-cultural teams: situational grounds for OSH differences
The above mentioned culturally rooted differences have, in some cases, been able to explain certain variations in safety behaviour and performance across work teams, within and/or between (multinational) organisations. In a comprehensive review, Taras and colleagues (2011) summarised the main lessons that can be drawn from 30 years of research on national culture in the workplace. They emphasise that national culture is one of the best predictors of attitudes, behaviours and performance in the workplace. A study by Horck (2006) found that miscommunication arising from cultural differences played a role in 70–80 % of all maritime accidents. However, some researchers argue that the link between cultural background and workplace safety is, on the whole, mostly based on anecdotal accounts, and that situational/organisational grounds are far more important than national cultural grounds when it comes to managing OSH (see  . Migrants might, for example, encounter difficulties to receive and/or fully understand safety instructions due to language and/or literacy problems. Moreover, they often settle for bad and unsafe working conditions as their primary concern is to make money, in order not to go home empty-handed (this is especially the case in seasonal agricultural work and temporary construction projects).
Globalisation: importance of cross-cultural awareness
Cultural might be of increasing relevance in this age of economic globalisation. This holds especially true for organisations that expand into other countries and assign managers of a different nationality (particularly when it concerns western people in non-western environments). In these cases, managers should try to adapt their leadership behaviour to that which is preferred/required in the host country in order to avoid misunderstandings and conflicts in the subordinate-superior relationship due to cultural differences and, as such, improve leadership effectiveness. Much depends here upon the manager’s cross-cultural adaptability skills.
Examples of the relation between national culture and OSH
Because of the lack of research we have included some examples on national culture studies and its effect on OSH in different industries.
Traffic and transport
For road transport safety it was shown that a higher score on Individualism (IDV), a low score on Uncertainty Avoidance (UAI), and more Femininity (MAS) generally leads to more transport safety . In other words it is important to give people own responsibility, diminish the amount of externally forced rules, and create a collaborative climate.
In aviation we see that Hofstede's Power distance (PDI), Individualism (IDV) and Uncertainty Avoidance (UAI) dimensions had an impact, apparently, on team interaction in the cockpit (see   :
- In cultures with high PDI values (such as Morocco, the Philippines and Taiwan), safety may, for instance, be compromised if subordinates are unwilling to make inputs regarding leaders' actions or decisions;
- Collectivist societies (i.e. having low IDV scores), like in Asia or Latin America, may facilitate communication and teamwork in comparison to more individualist cultures;
- In societies with high UAI values, people may be less likely to violate procedures but may, on the other hand, be also less creative in coping with new/emergency situations.
This all leads to the conclusion that, apart from the professional culture among pilots, national culture does influence cockpit behaviour. Training should, therefore, take into account the cultural characteristics of a certain country.
In the construction of the Øresund Link (a combined twin-track railway and dual carriageway bridge-tunnel across the Øresund strait between Sweden and Denmark) Danish and Swedish workers were involved in the same tasks on the same project and over the same time period, and used the same injury reporting procedures (see also . A safety study  carried out described that the Danish workers had four times the lost-time injury rate of Swedish workers. This was quite remarkable as both countries have similar cultural profiles (belonging to the same Nordic European cultural cluster).
The researchers ascribed this significant difference in accident rate to differing levels of planning, training, education and apprenticeships, as well as differences in the work compensation systems. It is not clear from the study whether this only involves national Danish or Swedish workers or also migrant workers in these countries. In a latter study  it is therefore concluded from this case that "the Hofstede approach may be too simplistic to discriminate the subtle influences of specific practices on safety performance".
A research project  on the safety perception, attitude and behaviour of local construction workers' in Pakistan showed that workers working in a more collectivist (IDV) and feminine (MAS), and higher uncertainty avoidance environment (UAI), are more likely to have safety awareness and beliefs and show safer worker behaviour.
In different studies on safety in the oil and gas industry it has been shown that – however cultural differences arise – these do not have a significant effect on OSH. Mostly other factors are of more importance, such as leadership style:
- In a culture comparison study [ between British and Norwegian offshore workers revealed differences in the workers' perceptions and attitudes to safety, both between sector (and between installations within these sectors). However, cultural, legislative and political differences between the UK and Norway appeared to have less impact on workers' perceptions than local installation-specific practices. By demonstrating that there were no significant differences in the accident rate between the UK and Norwegian sector, the researchers were able to disprove a strong myth circulating at the time, namely that Norwegians performed better on safety than their colleagues in the UK.
- In another study of UK and Norwegian offshore workers  workers in Norway the dimensions Power distance and Assertiveness lower than in the UK sample. The study pointed out that, among Norwegian workers, low Power Distance (PDI) and a less assertive (MAS) organisational climate go together with high trust in colleagues' as well as supervisors' commitment to safety, and high safety compliance and participation. This pattern appeared, however, to be different among UK workers, where an assertive organisational climate (MAS) may still be safety compliant (i.e. sticking to the safety rules) and be combined with low social distance between superior and subordinates. These tendencies are to a certain extent culturally rooted, reflecting a more rule-based trust among UK workers, while being more based on equality and democratic values among the Norwegians.
- A study on six national work teams (UK, U.S., U.S.-Hispanic, Malaysia, Philippines and Australia; n=845) from a multinational oil service company revealed that only scores for Masculity (MAS) and Power Distance (PDI) emerged as significant predictors of risk-taking behaviour. This is, to a certain extent, in line with other studies (see above) and not very surprising as the authors state that the oil industry has been built around a 'macho culture' in which macho’ type behaviour has been culturally selected and endorsed over time. The researchers conclude that the relationships between cultural values, management commitment to safety (safety climate) and risk-taking behaviour appear not to be uniform across cultures. More importantly, the study highlights that commitment of corporate (senior) managers is a more important determinant of workplace behaviour than national culture. As perceptions about the commitment of senior managers deteriorate, workers appear to be more inclined to take risks and break rules, and vice versa.
A number of cross-cultural theories/frameworks exist, each of which tries to order and differentiate nations on the basis of specific values and related dimensions. The most popular framework in this regard is the one by Hofstede, although comparable approaches, such as from the GLOBE project, are applied as well.
Hofstede's theory distinguishes four main cultural dimensions, i.e. PDI, IDV, MAS and UAI. Country scores on each of these dimensions have been generated through multiple studies worldwide, which enable cultural comparisons between societies. Based on these dimensions and scores, nations have been grouped in cultural clusters. According to GLOBE, for example, European countries are ordered into a Nordic, Germanic, Latin, eastern European and Anglo cluster. Within each cluster, however, countries can still be compared on the basis of their respective dimension scores.
It is very important to keep in mind that these cultural dimensions and related country scores only reflect the averages; considerable differences still exist in a society – between regions, ethnic groups and individuals. Moreover, this cross-cultural approach can only be applied at a group level (i.e. for comparing groups of people). It is thus out of the question to use only one's nationality for making statements about one's cultural values and, as such, trying to predict one's attitudes and behaviour.
In the end, organisational culture and national culture have to be considered in international OSH management. In organisations that expanding into other countries and assigning western managers in non-western environments), these managers should try to adapt their leadership behaviour to that which is preferred/required in the host country. Much leadership effectiveness depends here upon the manager’s cross-cultural adaptability skills.
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Links for further reading
Hofstede, G., Culture’s Consequences, Second edition, Sage Publications, London, 2001.
Douglas, M. & Wildavsky, A., Risk and culture, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1982.
EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (2007). Work diversity and risk assessment. Retrieved 15 January 2013, from: https://osha.europa.eu/en/publications/reports/TE7809894ENC