Safety Culture: How Organizations Create Their Own Safety Failures (Part 2 of 3)

[tweetmeme]The culture of an organization definitely has an impact on the behavior of employees, but there are other localized factors (i.e. supervisors, interpretation of safety policies, and production demands) that can have an impact on behaviors.  This is known as the “local safety climate,” and is more susceptible to risk due to constant management transition and employee turnover.

If safety culture can be described as safety attitudes, values, and practices that exist at a deeper level than safety climate, or to put it plainly – “the way we do things around here,” then safety climate is best described as “the manifestation of safety culture in the behavior and expressed attitude of the employees.” (Safety culture, 2010)  An organization’s safety climate therefore refers specifically to the workers’ perceptions and their reactions to how safety is managed in the workplace, and the likelihood those perceptions and reactions will contribute to a workplace incident.

The application of the concept, local safety climate is relatively new and, to some, may sound like an evolution of; or a new skin on BBS; but key differences do exist.  Safety climate measurements will include, for example, management commitment, supervisor competence and leadership skills, and supervisor’s understanding of the “why” not just the “how” of safety policies and procedures, priority of safety within production, and other time pressures (overtime, turnover, etc).

The concept of safety climate emphasizes the importance of how organizations manage health and safety in the workplace.  It is important that organizations consider that any changes made to the operations of a business, will have an impact on workers perceptions of the organization.

As the workers’ environment changes around them, they adapt their perceptions and ultimately their behaviors. (Zohar, 1980)  Consequently safety-related behaviors of workers (i.e.

Source: Edwards, Developing Safety Management Systems, October 2005

wearing PPE, following safety procedures) are influenced by their perceptions and attitudes towards an organization’s view of safety. (Safety culture, 2010)  The impact that safety culture has on processes such as communication, decision-making, problem solving, conflict resolution, attitudes, motivation, must be a critical element of any organizational decision to avoid creating future safety failures.

Organizations that use predictions for the future that are viewed through the tinting of the rosiness of the past when it comes to workplace safety are operating under the ‘illusion of safety.”  An illusion of safety can best be described by following beliefs: (Edwards, 2005)

  • Organizations with a good safety record will continue to be safe
  • Instructions and procedures for safe operations are in place, well read, understood, remembered and systematically used.
  • Responsibility for safety can be devolved to the line managers
  • Trained, experienced employees are immune to errors
  • It is sufficient that from time to time leaders talk about safety and its importance.

A culture of safety cannot coexist with the illusion of safety.  Safety cultures can be distinguished along an evolutionary line from pathological, caring less about safety than about not being caught; through calculative, blindly following all the logically necessary steps; to generative, in which safe behavior is fully integrated into everything the organization does. (Westrum & Adamski, 1999).

The most recent illusion of safety can be found within the oil giant BP.   Goldman Sachs has since 2004, rated publically traded oil companies on their environmental, social and governance (ESG) performance, and has found that firms scoring highly on issues like employee safety tend to also produce higher returns on investment (Wallstreet Journal, May 26, 2010).  This should come as no surprise, afterall a smoother running organization with fewer accidents, fewer workers’ compensations claims, and lower turnover will have a smoother operation and thus increased profits.  BP’s long-term valuation is threatened because it’s illusion of safety is now being recognized by long-term buy and hold type investors. (BP Is in Danger of Being Tarred With a Safety Discount, Wallstreet Journal, May 26, 2010).

The Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010, wasn’t an anomaly, as BP would like for the public to think.  Just as NASA’s organizational failures throughout the 1970’s weren’t highlighted until 1986,  BP’s organizational failures regarding environmental management, social responsibility, and occupational safety should be looked upon as window into the past and present culture within BP.  (Part 2 of 3).


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