The Roots of “Safety Culture”
Social concerns and critical incidents within high-risk industries - like the nuclear incidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl - have led to bridging safety and culture. Safety came to be understood within the broader context of organizational culture. The International Nuclear Safety Advisory Group's definition of safety culture was essentially a container for attributing responsibility for accidents to systemic deficiencies rather than to individual failures. But, applying the safety culture concept in organizations, often results in complex issues being oversimplified and in generic recommendations being made.
Safety Culture programs often advocate for a uniform safety culture, ideally as a number on a five-point scale. In practice, judging cultures as 'better' or 'worse' turns out to be not that simple. The complexity of culture defies such labels, and “cultural maturity” lacks a universal measure, which makes comparisons difficult. On one hand, pooling responses in safety culture surveys often simplifies a complex phenomenon by masking important variations. On the other hand, zooming in on individual perceptions and behaviors has another pitfall, as it overshadows broader systemic factors that shape collective culture.
Predicting outcomes by measuring culture
Regulations can attempt to influence safety culture, but directly regulating the culture remains a challenge. Measuring safety culture can provide insight into an organization's 'safety climate', but doesn't predict safety outcomes due to systemic factors.
The Sociological School
While safety culture is often viewed as a set of practices and beliefs (on posters and slogans) that shape an organization's safety performance, the sociological school studies the *meanings* attached to safety. It also looks for *conflicts and power dynamics* that deeply shape cultures; perceptions, behaviors and power structures within organizations ultimately influence safety practices. The disadvantage of this: It does not lead to a nice and easy normative value such as “step 3 on the safety culture ladder”!
Thanks to Frank Guldenmund and Stian Antonsen for great papers on this subject.
Illustration: A ladder on quicksand by Dall-E - thanks to Carsten Busch for his metaphor.