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Is the concept of safety culture dead?

Is 'Safety Culture' Dead?

In 1988, after the incident at Chernobyl, a new term arrived to arm safety professionals the world over. The report of the International Nuclear Safety Advisory Group (INSAG) coined the term “safety culture.” This concept quickly was embraced and refined over the next few years but the definition from the INSAG report stuck around:

“The safety culture of an organisation is the product of individual and group values, attitudes, perceptions, competencies and patterns of behaviour that determine the commitment to, and the style and proficiency of, an organisation’s health and safety management.

Organisations with a positive safety culture are characterised by communications founded on mutual trust, by shared perceptions of the importance of safety and by confidence in the efficacy of preventive measures.”

When I first heard about safety culture, I thought it made a lot of sense and admittedly, I embraced the concept. Since then I have worked in various places and I successfully have driven cultural change. Over that time, I have become less and less convinced of the existence of “safety culture” as my understanding of organizational dynamics has evolved.

A Working Safety Culture

If we go back to the start and look at some of the things that were in the INSAG report, we can see that what they were talking about in terms of a positive safety culture is a dedicated workforce working beyond simply compliance and being actively engaged in ensure workplace safety. INSAG goes on to be critical of the entire Russian nuclear industry as not having a working safety culture. They comment that safety culture has two basic pieces:

  • A framework within an organization that is the responsibility of management; and
  • The attitude of staff at all levels responding to and benefiting from the framework.

They did identify some elements:

  • Individual awareness;
  • Knowledge and competence;
  • Commitment (individuals and management);
  • Supervision; and
  • Responsibility.

So this is good stuff and hot on the heels of all this, Dr. E. Scott Gellar gave us the term “total safety culture.” It seemed revolutionary, and that is probably why I really jumped aboard in the 1990s.

Since then a couple of things have happened. The first is not hard to see; safety culture has become a lot more about awareness and commitment than anything else. That commitment usually is framed as top management commitment. That alone is not true everywhere and that alone is not going to kill safety culture. So let’s look at the nuts and bolts of that.

Culture is not something you can see or measure.

 

In several cases, I have had a personal experience where I arrived at a company where they had a commitment to safety for various reasons but there was not what I would term a functioning safety system in place. In one case, there truly was nothing at all. So it was up to me to build the safety culture.

Now safety culture is really about how an organization behaves in things related to safety and everyone knows that any organization has its culture and subcultures, particularly if it is geographically diverse. So we hear things like “championing a total safety culture” and the organization’s “commitment to safety.” The visible manifestations of this are usually posters, trinkets and meetings.

Can’t See Culture

Culture is not something you can see or measure. Perception surveys measure how people perceive safety and the company’s approach to it. However, these are subject to some interesting variations, depending on what is happening or has recently happened in the company. If the company just had a barbeque to celebrate zero injuries chances are respondent will rate the safety culture as high, but after a string of incidents will rate it low.

So why would I imply safety culture is dead? Well, aside from the drift away from what originally were the principles, the phrase has become overused, like “world class.” Just like almost everyone in a room believes they are at above-average intelligence, many companies toss around the term world class without any actual idea what it is.

The same can be said of safety culture. Does a strong safety culture mean that the company disciplines everyone for safety infractions, or is it a learning organization that seeks the lessons in failures? Does the organization aspire to be a high-reliability organization or does it embrace the natural accident theory?

Aside from the necessary framework (read “management system” and not “program”), culture is about behavioural norms. So safety culture is the way in which we expect people to approach safety and things related to safety. That is great and so you build the safety culture with the stakeholders in your organization. Maintaining this culture can be a lot of work and sometimes when a key person leaves from the operation, it can deal a serious setback to the culture. We have all seen it and it is fairly common.

Integration versus Culture

That setback can happen to any organization in some way when any key people leave. So does that mean that the safety culture is an artificial construct that needs constant care so it does not collapse? Well that brings me to my central point. Organizations that have great safety performance also tend to have great operational performance. These organizations have something that can be summarized in one word – integration.

Every organization has a culture or organization norms of behaviour. There are subcultures but all exist within the bubble of the organizational culture. Like most organizations, foreign concepts and behaviours eventually are pushed out or excised. If safety is something you add on or something that is seen as different from what is normally done, then you in fact have a safety culture that probably is not a good thing.

No matter how good or well established the safety culture is, it can never override the organizational culture. No matter how professional and effective a group of safety people are, they cannot change the culture of an organization single-handedly.

Lots of safety people talk about how they can build a culture and that much is true. That culture relies on constant reinforcements and the effectiveness of the people promoting it. If safety people reverted to a backseat role, what would emerge is the organizational culture. This likely is a telling factor.

Tolerance for Risk Is Unique

As much as organizations are unique, so is their tolerance for risk. Expecting an organization with a high risk tolerance to change how it acts towards safety is not something that would be sustainable. Expecting an organization to act differently than it normally would or does when it comes to “safety stuff” is not sustainable.

Let’s look at it from an executive viewpoint. All departments and missions in a company must be aligned with the company’s strategic vision. That strategic vision (how we continue to generate revenue and profit) is dictated by the senior executives and everyone works towards the goal. If the safety culture is not strongly aligned with those objectives and supporting them, then how can it possibly survive?

Organizations looking to develop or improve safety culture are ones that probably expect some safety person to do something to hype awareness. Awareness is great, but not really culture. If safety is integrated into the business and the elements are present that demonstrate effective supervision and a strong system to guide workers in making the right decision then the organizational culture is a safe one. Having a safety culture really speaks to something separate and different from the way an organization normally approaches things.

Safety Culture Is Exercise in the Temporary

In the end, things always tend to find their own level and normalize. Big flashy initiatives and campaigns artificially create more focus and awareness. These take advantage of something called the “Hawthorne effect.” If the organization really is committed to safety, would such campaigns be necessary? Shaping a safety culture is not the road to improved sustainable performance. It is an exercise in the temporary.

So if safety culture is dead, shouldn’t we be paying more attention to organizational culture? It is the senior managers that tend to drive it. The culture of the organization is how they approach everything. Creating an artificial construct supposes you can change and improve just one part of an organization without affecting the others. That is really not possible since organizations consist of a complex web of interconnectivity.

Big flashy initiatives and campaigns artificially create more focus and awareness... If the organization really is committed to safety, would such campaigns be necessary?

 

Understanding and working within the existing culture is sustainable and may work towards sustainable change. The truth is such things take years. The alternative is a short-term artificial construct that eventually will fail.

Without good and effective management, there can be no good safety performance. Suggesting that safety people can create a safety culture or drive safety performance over the long-term is highly questionable.

So the next time someone asks you to improve, build or implement a safety culture, you may want to think twice about taking the job. If your risk tolerance is not aligned with that of the organization, it could be a bumpy ride.

Dave Rebbitt is a long-practicing safety professional with over 25 years of experience. Since leaving a senior post at the Canadian Department of National Defence after 22 years of military service, he has held senior positions in various companies. Dave is an experienced speaker and has spoken at conferences and to industry groups on various topics. He holds CRSP and CHSC designations as well as a CET technical designation. Dave also holds an MBA from Athabasca University and has instructed in the University of Alberta OHS Diploma Program. Dave currently is president and owner of Rarebit Consulting, a safety and management consulting firm.

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