Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Safety Culture – What it is. What it isn’t.

Safety culture is the latest craze in occupational safety and health. It seems like everyone is talking about how to foster a safety culture in their organizations. There are books, blogs (including one we wrote), seminars, discussion boards, and even whole companies designed around the development of safety culture. The underlying implication is that safety culture is the Holy Grail of safety management – with an effective safety culture in place we’ll be on safety easy street. Our accidents will be few and far between, we’ll have everyone doing what they need to be doing to ensure success. Safety utopia at its finest.

A problem with safety culture though is that although everyone’s heard the term, and pretty much everyone has a similar idea of what we all mean when we say it, the specific definition of what safety culture is and why safety culture matters varies significantly from person-to-person (for example, read this article that explains some of the variations). For most the definition of safety culture has grown to pretty much encompass every aspect of the organization, including how the organization structures itself, organizational decision-making, and individual behavior.

A recent article we read points out an interesting problem – as the safety profession has taken the concept of culture from social sciences such as anthropology and sociology and made it our own, we have moved past the original definition of the term used in those fields (e.g. the system of beliefs, meanings, norms, and values) and have little or no understanding for how the concept is currently understood in those fields. In doing so we may have overstepped our bounds a little bit and we may be asking a bit more of culture than the concept can provide.

Take behavior for example. Certainly the system of beliefs, meanings, norms, and values within a given group will affect a person’s behavior, but is it the only influence? Consider research on individual personality and cognitive traits that have been found to be relatively stable over time and influence a person’s propensity to engage if pro-social safety behaviors. These are not directly affected by cultural values, but they do directly affect behavior.

Or consider other research in social psychology that showed that something as simple and subliminal as holding a warm cup of coffee or a cold cup of coffee can influence subjective judgments of how warm one perceives another person to be, which can influence such trivial decisions as whether to hire someone for a job. Again, this is not directly affected by culture, but these influencers do directly affect behavior.


Certainly we aren’t suggesting that you attempt to change people’s personalities or have all employees hold warm cups of coffee all day. But the idea is that if we really want to help create safety in our organizations culture is certainly a powerful influencer. If we can identify the beliefs, meanings, norms, and values and then influence those we may be able to make positive changes in the organization. But if we stop there we may not get the results we’re looking for. We need to actively identify how work is getting done in our organizations and help our workers achieve success on a daily basis. We need to tap into the amazing creative potential of our workers to create safety. We need to build resilience into our management systems. We need more a more systems-based understanding of how our organizations work. We need to build in safety-considerations at all phases of the lifecycle of equipment and projects including design, implementation, maintenance and operation, and disposal. We need to build Just Cultures where mistakes and violations are investigated not to find blame but to improve the systems we work in. And who knows, if we do these things we may just accidentally build a strong safety culture in the process.

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