No theory forbids me to say "Ah!" or "Ugh!", but it forbids me the bogus theorization of my "Ah!" and "Ugh!" - the value judgments. - Theodor Julius Geiger (1960)

Organizational Culture and Safety

Studying organisational cultures and their effects on safety  - a research paper by Andrew Hopkins

One common method for studying organizational cultures and their safety impact is culture surveys, which involve questionnaires, data aggregation, and analysis at various organizational levels. While they capture individual attitudes and values as well as practices, they primarily reflect perceptions rather than real-world practices.

Surveys provide quantitative data but offer a relatively surface-level description of culture. Ethnography, a qualitative research method, immerses researchers in an organization's culture for an extended period as participant or non-participant observers, allowing for in-depth exploration. Although it offers rich insights into organizational cultures, including their safety implications, it raises questions about the validity of descriptions, which are often evaluated by insiders and outsiders for credibility. The investigation of major accidents presents a unique opportunity to study organizational cultures and their safety impact. These inquiries generate extensive data, including witness testimonies and transcripts, offering insights into an organization's culture. Researchers can conduct armchair ethnography by mining this data to identify specific cultural elements that contributed to accidents. Major accident inquiries serve as theoretical-driven inquiries into organizational cultures. By comparing organizational cultures against established theoretical models, such as High Reliability Theory, researchers can evaluate an organization's alignment with these models.

While different models may yield diverse descriptions, they should remain consistent in their analyses, as they rely on the same data. The culture of rail organizations in New South Wales was researched following the Glenbrook rail crash. The study identified four key cultural themes contributing to the accident: an obsessive focus on rules, organizational and occupational fragmentation leading to a culture of silos, a strong emphasis on punctuality, and a culture that was blind to or denied risks. These cultural elements were found to have played a significant role in the accident. Understanding organizational cultures and their safety effects transcends boundaries. Appreciating the nuances of culture and safety is essential for supporting a productive and safe environment. The debate 'culture versus climate' may persist, but the focus should be on exploring the methods available for studying organizational cultures and their safety impact. Both armchair ethnography and the immersion approach through major accident inquiries, offer valuable insights into complex dynamics.

Hopkins, A. (2006),  Studying organisational cultures and their effects on safety, in: Safety Science 44 (2006) 875–889.