Safety culture

What is it?

Safety Culture is about people and how they work together. There is no standard definition of safety culture but there are two main things that are common to all definitions.

1.   It is about people’s values, attitudes, beliefs and behaviours. In an organisation with a good safety culture, these are geared towards safety which is considered a priority.

2.    It is about the spread of these values, attitudes, beliefs and behaviours. Organisations with a good safety culture have these spread throughout—from top management to the shop floor and in everything everyone does in the organisation.

the core values, beliefs and behaviours resulting from a collective commitment by leaders and individuals throughout an organisation that appropriately prioritise safety against other organisational goals to allow business objectives to be undertaken without undue risk

Put simply, safety culture is ‘what people expect around here.

Why is it important?

A good safety culture helps an organisation maintain safe operations. By having everyone, from operators to managers, take safety seriously, remaining watchful and avoiding compromises, means that operations are conducted in as safe a manner as reasonable, given the risk of the licence holders operation. This can significantly reduce the risks of accidents occurring.

By contrast, a poor safety culture means not everyone takes safety seriously, are not watchful and compromise too readily. This may mean that there are workers or operations that are at risk of having a higher number of incidents and accidents. In organisations with a poor safety culture, incidents, especially near misses, are not reported or acted upon adequately and instructions are not properly followed.

This is neither efficient nor effective in the long run. For example, if incidents are not reported and lessons learnt, they will continue to occur. This may result in an undue risk to workers and the public. Safety culture is therefore an important aspect to ensure safety is integrated into an organisation’s operations.

Where did it come from?

The concept of safety culture emerged in the early 1980s. However, the Chernobyl nuclear accident helped focus mainstream safety management on safety culture. The International Atomic Energy Agency summary report of Chernobyl stated that ‘formal procedures must be properly reviewed and approved and must be supplemented by the creation and maintenance of a nuclear safety culture’. Since then the concept of safety culture has been embraced by many industries, not just nuclear power, including: healthcare, aviation, oil and gas, energy and mining. Over the years, this has resulted in new methods being developed to help assess safety culture such as safety culture surveys and questionnaires.

How can I use it in my operations?

An important first step to improve safety culture is to learn more about it. The Holistic safety guidelines and Sample questions discuss key principles that are part of having a well-functioning safety culture—see Characteristic 6. You can also consult useful references.

There are several important lessons that should be noted when trying to improve an organisation’s safety culture. Firstly, many organisations try initially to assess their current safety culture (also referred to as safety climate). This is done through: surveys and questionnaires; selective interviews of staff; and watching staff generally. These methods give decision-makers a good overview of the organisation’s safety culture. Another important lesson is that it can take time to improve an organisation’s safety culture because people’s attitudes and behaviours take time to change.

Lastly, making changes to safety culture usually starts with smaller changes at the local level. For example, having a good reporting system for incidents and events and ensuring these are acted upon in a just and fair manner goes a long way to improve the overall culture of the organisation. From these local changes larger wholesale changes to cultures emerge later on. Therefore, it is important to ensure that these building blocks of a safe culture are addressed first e.g. a bottom-up approach rather than a top-down approach.