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)

Culture and Safety

Culture plays a central role in shaping human societies and institutions, influencing behavior, decision-making, and even safety practices. It’s often talked about on the surface level. In this piece, I dig deeper, and explore sociologist Armin Nassehi's three perspectives on culture (Nassehi, 2011) in the context of safety, drawing on real-world examples from disasters and safety culture certification.


Culture Emerges When Making Comparisons

Nassehi's first perspective on culture posits that it becomes apparent when making comparisons with other cultures. Cultural attributions impact perceptions, often influencing how organizations and individuals are perceived.

Consider this quote from the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Investigation Commission:
“What must be admitted – very painfully – is that this was a disaster “Made in Japan.” Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the program’; our groupism; and our insularity. Had other Japanese been in the shoes of those who bear responsibility for this accident, the result may well have been the same.”
– Kuyoshi Kurokawa (2012)
Focusing on specific attributes of Japanese culture, the perception of the Commission was that the Fukushima accident was caused by Japanese culture.

Culture as an Invisible Guiding Force
The experience of modernity involves the culturalization of observations, emphasizing the cultural nature of all social behaviors. Culture shapes a symbolic interpretative framework for understanding the world, influencing actions and behaviors. Culture has a performative nature: it plays a role in creating authentic statements and cultural identities. Additionally, media make an impact in the culturalization process, so that the traditional notion of society has shifted to a more culture-centric perspective.

Consider Diane Vaughan’s research into the Challenger disaster:
“Each time tests or flight experience produced anomalies that were signals of potential danger, the risk of the SRBs was negotiated between working engineers at NASA and Thiokol. Each time, the outcome was to accept the risk of the SRBs. This pattern indicated the existence of a work group culture in which the managers and engineers working most closely on the SRB problems constructed beliefs and procedural responses that became routinized. The dominant belief, grounded in a three-factor technical rationale, was that the SRB joints were an acceptable risk: therefore it was safe to fly. From the early development period until the eve of the Challenger launch, the work group's cultural construction of the risk of the O-ring problem became institutionalized. Despite dissensus about what should be done about the problem, consensus existed that it was safe to fly.”
– Diane Vaughan (1996, p. 61)
Thus, the culture within the Solid Rocket Booster (SRB) work group of the Space Shuttle program normalized deviant performance in the joints of the Solid Rocket Booster. Shaped by the culture of production and structural secrecy, the work group's collective beliefs and decision-making patterns contributed to the acceptance of risks. In 1986, the Challenger Launch ended in a disaster. Diane Vaughan showed that, instead of individual misconduct, an interplay of decision-making patterns and production pressures shaped outcomes.

Culture as a Concept for Distinction, Struggle, and Emancipation
The third perspective explores culture as a concept for distinction, struggle, and emancipation. While cultural schemas provide a sense of security, they can also pose challenges when dealing with diversity. Affirmative action programs and diversity quotas illustrate the complexities of navigating cultural attributions in society.

In safety, companies are awarded contracts only when they are on a certain safety culture maturity level:
“We (…) need it to be certified to acquire a project. (…) The original intention of the SCL was to encourage and support the safety culture, but it is not what it does in practice. I think they have a great lack of understanding (…). I would say they are trying to audit it in the authentic old way of auditing. But if you want to audit behaviour that is not working. (…) I have also seen small companies, which have nothing in place, but still received level 4 certificate. Because if you are really smart in doing some preparations on paper and in your systems, and so you can still tick it.”
- An interviewee, interviewed by Olga Kvalheim (2022, p. 75)

1. Cultural attributions influence perceptions of organizational events: The Fukushima Nuclear Accident was attributed to cultural factors inherent in Japanese society, emphasizing reflexive obedience, reluctance to question authority, adherence to established norms, groupism, and insularity as key contributors to the disaster.
2. Culture shapes both social behaviors and interpretative frameworks: Diane Vaughan’s account of the Challenger disaster of 1986 reveals that the normalization of deviant performance within the Solid Rocket Booster work group stemmed from a culture of production and structural secrecy, in which collective beliefs and decision-making patterns led to the acceptance of risks.
3. Culture is a concept for distinction, struggle, and emancipation: Safety culture certification is often pursued for certification only; the gap between the intended encouragement of safety culture and the practical audit processes emphasize the challenges and complexities of assessing and promoting cultural attributes in safety management within organizations. It’s the creating and maintaining of a favorable public image in order to get a steady stream of contracts that drives companies to certify their “safety cultures”.

Kurokawa, K. (2012), Message from the Chairman, in: The Official Report of The Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Commission, The National Diet of Japan.
Kvalheim, O. (2022), Safety Culture Development in Dredging and Marine Contractor Companies – Three-Case Study on Safety Programs, Masters Thesis Societal Safety, University of Stavanger.
Nassehi, A. (2011), Soziologie - Zehn einführende Vorlesungen, 2. Auflage, Wiesbaden: VS Verlag.
Vaughan, D. (1996), The Challenger Launch Decision – Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA, Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press.