How safety culture can make us think
Le Coze, J.C. (2019), How safety culture can make us think, in: Safety Science, Volume 118, October 2019, Pages 221-229.
Safety culture as a concept has gained importance in high-risk systems over the years to address safety issues from an organizational perspective. Le Coze identifies two waves of safety culture studies:
From the late 1980s to the mid-2000s, distinguishing between a managerial ambition to shape and control safety culture and a more neutral ambition to understand it as a social construct.
From the mid-2000s to the present, a more nuanced and diverse range of appreciations, ranging from highly critical to highly favorable perspectives on safety culture:
- the association of safety and culture should be rejected; it’s more appropriate to focus on organizational culture rather than safety culture, which would introduce too many biases; safety culture’s dominant rationale as expressed in companies can be seen as an expression of responsabilization, which reproduces individualist and reductionist explanations that are unable to reliably explain social or system performance.
- safety culture is an object of scientific inquiry that can be studied in various ways, such as ethnography, psychometrics, or engineering;
- culture is an important aspect of safety, but one that needs to be studied, approached, and promoted while making it compatible with social sciences’ insights, debates (e.g. power, subcultures), and practices, using in-depth anthropological practices;
- safety culture is pragmatically engineered, using models, tools and programs.
To understand these different critical, neutral and enthusiastic views on safety culture, one needs to appreciate the broader context in which they are produced. In the 1980s, there was an explosion of management ideas, and with that, the development of a market served by a consulting industry, business schools, and business publishers. Management researchers have studied fashions in management, the rise of management gurus, and the relationships between publishers, consulting and academics driving these trends. The field of safety in recent decades has developed in a similar fashion to the field of management consulting; promoting practices through books, articles, conferences and online videos. Regulators actively promote safety methods and ideas, prescribing safety culture in the petroleum industry or resilience or just culture in aviation.
The safety field is socially structured, with competing interests about the definition of safety culture, and safety objects or topics more generally, which can become safety products as part of a market. The critical or radical views of safety culture reflect what they consider to be a safety culture market dominated by a thriving consulting industry, which primarily sells products for business purposes without always promoting an organizational perspective. This consulting perspective is highly problematic as it downplays the power, conflicts, coalitions, disagreements, and heterogeneities across practices, views, and mindsets of actors that could be cherished instead as the basis for the ability to cope with complexity.
Safety culture is a contentious notion that has seen divergent views, and this can be attributed to the interactions between academics, consultants, publishers, industries, and regulators that shape knowledge production and influence practices. Safety culture can help us think about the networked high-risk systems of today's world, where companies import and translate ideas, methods, and practices introduced by outsiders, including consultants. The lack of empirical data about how these methods, ideas, and practices are concretely translated in companies remains a blind spot in safety science.
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