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

[tweetmeme]There is ample research and real life examples of the financial benefits of creating and sustaining and culture of safety.  So why doesn’t everyone do it?

Patrick Hudson of the Centre for Safety Science in the Netherlands opined the following conclusion in his paper, “Safety Culture – Theory and Practice”:

“The answer seems to be contained in the type of culture the organization is at the time. Pathological organizations just don’t care.  Reactive organizations think that there is nothing better and anyone who claims better performance is probably lying.  They do what they feel is as good as can be done.  Calculative/Bureaucratic organizations are hard to move because they are comfortable, even if they know that improvement is possible.

The more advanced cultures, either Proactive or Generative, are probably easier to attain with small organizations.  Large ones will inevitably be heavily bureaucratic unless active steps are taken to counter that tendency.”

It would seem that if you are to evolve into a state of generative safety culture, you’d better do it early on in your organization’s growth and it should be sustainable; as an organization’s safety culture is the most significant influencing factor on safety performance.  An organization’s ability to build a culture of safety and therefore develop trust with its workers will more often than not is the key component in the level of an organization’s safety performance, and the associated benefits or negatives.  Safety cultures can only be created and sustained when a high level commitment is present.  An organization’s safety performance is either the product of the safety culture, or the product of the organization’s luck.

Because few safety systems have a culture focus they tend to fail to answer the question “why” deficiencies exist and therefore fail to show how well the system is actually functioning.  If you consider a typical audit score of 85% for emergency response in an audit finding, the tendency for management may be to consider that a passing score.  However the question of the remaining 15% failure remains unanswered. 

If you apply this score to an employee population of 500 of which 15% is unable to respond to a specific emergency, this leaves 75 employees at risk.  Or does it?  If the audit sample size is 10%, can we really say how effective the system is where 90% of the population have not been evaluated?  Statistics can be misleading, even with the most rigorous controls in place.  That is why organizations with calculative cultures that rely solely on safety management systems either evolve into a better proactive or generative state, or regress into a reactive or worse still a pathological state.  The time and expense of this type of command and control system doesn’t lend itself to a sustainable enterprise, due to the lack of perceived progress.  Even worse, a poorly designed or ill managed system can actually act as a cancer to an organization, destroying it from within.

The key element in overcoming these types of limitations is the presence of a generative safety culture throughout the organization.  It is however important to acknowledge that safety culture does have implications for the behavior of individuals, but that the concept should truly be used to describe the organizational phenomena of culture, and not simply the aggregated behaviors of individuals.  The aggregated behaviors of individuals can be better defined as the safety climate, and it is in this realm that BBS is focused.  This should be considered a lagging indicator, but all too often it is considered a leading indicator of safety.  After all, the mere absence of incidents or failures does not imply the presence of safety.

Generative organizations continuously strive to achieve a perfect alignment between management and employees in terms of their shared beliefs, values, norms, attitudes, trust, credibility, commitment, leadership, rewards, etc.  All of these factors shape employee perceptions of management, supervisors and peers, and have a significant influence their behavior, not only with respect to safety, but also with respect to productivity and quality.  It is the organization’s culture that dictates how employees will conduct their work.

Do you think your organization has a culture of safety?  How do you know?  Remember you are a part of the very culture you want to define.

Works Cited

Edwards, C. (2005, October). Developing Safety Management Systems – Shell Aircraft International’s Experience . Retrieved May 19, 2010, from Transport Canada:

Energy, U. D. (2003). Good Practices for the Behavior-Based Safety Process. Washington, D.C., USA.

Herbert William Heinrich. (2010, March 28). Retrieved May 12, 2010, from Wikipedia:

Hopkins, A. (2005, May 19). What are we to make of safe behaviour programs? Retrieved May 12, 2010, from

Reason, J. 1997 op cit, p 220. The definition was formulated for nuclear power plants but it is obviously generalisable.

Safety culture. (2010, May 9). Retrieved May 12, 2010, from Wikipedia:

Space Shuttle Challenger disaster . (2010). Retrieved May 12, 2010, from Wikipedia:

Westrum, R. & Adamski, A.J. (1999) Organizational Factors Associated with Safety and Mission Success in Aviation Environments. In D.J..Garland, J.A. Wise & V.D. Hopkin (Eds.) Handbook of Aviation Human Factors. Lawrence Erlbaum, Mahwah, NJ.

Zohar, D. (1980). Safety Climate in industrial organizations: theoretical and applied Implications. Journal of Applied Psychology , 65, 96-102.



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