Silbey, S. (2009), Taming Prometheus, in: Annu. Rev. Sociol. 2009. 35:341–69.
Safety culture has become a popular concept since the 1990s as a way to manage risks associated with complex technological systems. However, it is often seen as a surface-level issue that can be managed through technical solutions, rather than as a complex and dynamic system of meaning and social practices.
The concept of safety culture may deflect attention away from the underlying causes of accidents and reinforce a narrow, technical understanding of safety. It may also be used as a way for organizations to deflect responsibility for accidents and disasters onto cultural factors rather than acknowledging structural issues or design flaws. It is important to recognize the cultural, social, and structural factors that contribute to safety and to approach safety culture in a more nuanced and dynamic way.
This is a modern classic by American sociologist Susan Silbey.
Susan Silbey discusses the concept of safety culture in relation to the development of large technological systems. She notes that since the 1990s, there has been a proliferation of interest in safety culture as a way to manage the risks associated with complex technological systems. However, the way that the concept of safety culture is often used in these contexts is different from how sociologists and anthropologists typically understand culture. Instead of being understood as a complex and dynamic system of meaning and social practices, safety culture is often seen as a surface-level issue that can be managed through technical solutions. This instrumental and reductionist approach to safety culture may be due to the influence of engineering and military professionals, who are more accustomed to dealing with issues of efficiency and effectiveness than with the cultural dimensions of technological systems.
The concept of safety culture has gained prominence, particularly in relation to technological disasters over the past 40 years. These disasters have contributed to a general mistrust of science and technology, and the promotion of safety culture may be seen as a response to this renewed skepticism. However, the attention to safety culture cannot be solely attributed to technological accidents, as safety has been a concern for centuries and various institutions and systems have been put in place to address it. The concept of risk and the development of insurance and regulation have played a significant role in shaping modern approaches to safety. The focus on safety culture may be seen as a continuation of this shift towards collectivized responsibility for risks, rather than individual liability. However, safety culture may be problematic as it can deflect attention away from the underlying causes of accidents and reinforce a narrow, technical understanding of safety.
The shift in approaches to regulation and risk management in recent decades has been characterized by a focus on market competition and individual liability. This shift has been accompanied by a decline in the solidaristic regimes of the 19th and early 20th centuries, which were characterized by collectivized responsibility for risks and a focus on prevention as well as compensation. Insurance companies have traditionally played a significant role in promoting prevention and mitigating financial losses, but in recent years many of these firms have become more financially focused, earning profits more from investments than from selling insurance. This financialization has led to a fragmentation of risks and a shifting of responsibility away from individual organizations and towards global financial markets. This shift may be related to the emergence of the concept of safety culture, as it provides a way for organizations to deflect responsibility for accidents and disasters onto cultural factors rather than acknowledging structural issues or design flaws.
Talk about safety culture
There has been a sudden emergence of the concept of safety culture in the media and academic literature in the 2000s, and its usage escalated rapidly. Prior to 1980, there were few references to safety culture in popular or academic literature. The early references to safety culture tended to focus on the nuclear power, energy generation, and weapons production industries, and were used to describe an organization's philosophy that safety should be prioritized. In the 1990s, the concept of safety culture was used more frequently in the media and academic literature, particularly in relation to major accidents such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the Columbia and Challenger space shuttle disasters. These references tended to present safety culture as something that could be managed and improved upon, rather than as a result of structural or design flaws. The concept of safety culture has also been used to suggest that certain countries have a stronger safety culture than others. The concept of safety culture has been embraced by organizations and governments as a way of deflecting responsibility for accidents and disasters onto cultural factors.
Culture as causal attitude
The concept of safety culture has become increasingly popular in academic literature and popular media in recent years, particularly in discussions of nuclear power, energy generation, and weapons production, where it is often used to describe an "ingrained philosophy that safety comes first." Some view safety culture as a measurable, instrumental source composed of individual attitudes and organizational behavior, while others see it as a measurable product of values. There has been debate over how to operationalize and measure both the mechanism and the outcome of safety culture, with different conceptualizations and measurement tools being proposed. Safety culture is often seen as a subset of organizational culture, and both have developed alongside concepts of organizational climate and safety climate. There is disagreement over whether safety culture can be changed or managed to improve organizational performance. Some view safety culture as a broad, abstract concept that encompasses various factors that can affect safety outcomes, while others see it as a specific, measurable construct that can be improved through specific interventions.
Culture as engineered organization
The concept of a "learning culture" in organizations is an important focus point, particularly in high-reliability organizations (HROs). The focus is on how culture can lead to outcomes such as efficiency and reliability, and the emphasis is on the organizational practices and configurations that can create a safe and reliable environment. The concept of "collective mindfulness" refers to a set of cognitive processes that are activated in these organizations and lead to a state of attentiveness and awareness. In contrast, "mindlessness" is described as a state characterized by a lack of awareness and reliance on past categories and ways of doing things. HRO analyses adopt a less reductionist or deterministic view of culture, but the concept of culture is still being used instrumentally to achieve particular outcomes.
Culture as emergent and indeterminate
Silbey introduces the concept of culture as emergent and indeterminate, meaning that it cannot be engineered or predicted with certainty and is the result of the interaction between system and practice. This perspective sees safety as an elusive and constantly evolving concept that is shaped by the ongoing practices and interactions within an organization. It is characterized by both explicit and tacit dimensions, is mediated by artifacts, and has both material and mental/representational aspects. This view of culture challenges reductionist and instrumental conceptions and instead sees safety as one of many competing organizational objectives.
Charles Perrow coined the term "normal accidents", which refers to the inevitable malfunctions and failures that occur in complex and tightly coupled systems. These systems have limited options for recovery and response, so the high-reliability model of intense discipline, socialization, and isolation may not be the most effective way to achieve safety. Instead, the normal accidents model emphasizes the role of bounded rationality and interest competition in shaping safety outcomes.
Diane Vaughan has studied how the routine features of bureaucratic organizations that are necessary for effective coordination can also lead to mistakes, misconduct, and disaster. These errors are often the result of "cognitive dissonance," or the inability to reconcile conflicting information and expectations.
Silbey identifies several conceptual challenges in the way that safety culture is often discussed and understood.
The first challenge is that safety is defined and measured by its absence, and the pursuit of absolute safety can obstruct the achievement of more realistic safety goals.
The second challenge is that measures designed to enhance safety can also lead to destruction, and the routine success of organizations is often due to the fact that workers interpret and adapt protocols and procedures in order to suit local conditions. This is sometimes called resilience. Some approaches to understanding resilience, however, offer overly complex models of feedback loops and fail to consider the ways in which human judgment and interpretation shape system performance.
The third and final challenge is the tension between promoting individual responsibility and accountability for safety, while also recognizing the structural and organizational factors that shape safety outcomes.
Power Differentials and Structured Inequality
The concept of safety culture often ignores issues of power and inequality within organizations. The idea of safety culture often assumes that all members of the organization have the same interests and can be expected to follow the goals of increased safety enthusiastically. The interests of upper-level management and lower-level workers, however, are often not the same, and lower-level workers may lack the institutional support and resources to advocate for their own safety concerns. Safety culture can be used as an ideological project to obscure issues of power and inequality, and how outsourcing and globalization can increase safety violations and accidents due to a lack of oversight and integration across functions.
Silbey concludes by calling for a more critical and reflexive approach to safety culture that takes into account issues of power, inequality, and the broader social and political context in which it operates.