Understanding Safety / SMS More

Safety Culture

Culture is a characteristic of a group, such as a company or organisation. Many definitions can be given for culture but if we were to analyse the term we would conclude that culture is the sum of the set of beliefs, norms, attitudes and practices within a group. Thus, safety culture refers to all the beliefs, attitudes towards and general practices for achieving safety, i.e. reducing the exposure of people and other organisational resources to risk and harm. These shared vales and beliefs can be reflected in the organisation statements, the policies and the procedures, but most importantly on the every day practices.

Culture in general is influenced by many factors such as language, knowledge, skills, values, assumptions, social do’s and don’ts, which can form behavioural patterns. We should bear in mind that within an organisation a variety of cultures co-exists. Depending on the size, the complexity and the hierarchical structure of the organisation, these cultures interact on a daily basis and in decision=making. So the national, the professional the social and other forms of cultures co-exist. Cultures can be very tough to change and a strong will and long-term effort is required.

Used for first time officially in the report of the Chernobyl accident, safety culture also includes the perception of risk and hazard of individuals, as well as the willingness to preserve and improve safety, the desire to adapt, the practice of communicating safety issues, the need to consistently evaluate safety related behaviours and the willingness to learn and improve. One could summarise the safety culture as the way we do things around when no one is looking.

Safety culture sets the framework for decision-making and process creation. Safety culture can exist on a strong or a weak state but cannot be absent. Characterised by 5 main indicators, which can be the norm and invisible to the group, safety culture is immediately obvious to a person outside of the organisation or from a different culture background. The 5 indicators are:

  • Leadership of top and middle management
  • Two-way communication between management and front-line employees
  • Involvement and participation of the employees in safety related decision-making
  • Learning desire by everyone
  • Attitude towards blame

The maturity of the safety culture will go through 5 levels of increasing trust and information.
5 levels of increasing trust

Each level is the sum of the commitment towards safety, behaviour towards safety, awareness of risks and hazards, adaptability, information distribution and justness. A mature culture will comprise of a flexible culture (adaptation capability), informed culture (knowledge distribution), just culture (trust and clear line of accountability – unacceptable behaviour), learning culture (implementing lessons learnt) and reporting culture (openly and freely reporting of errors), in a clear and documented non-punitive environment reflected in decision-making and daily routine.

Culture is an emerging feature. It cannot be given and it cannot be decided. Desire to change is only but the first step. Culture transformation is a long process, requiring small steps and great commitment. Acceptably one of the challenging elements of the SMS, safety culture is the backbone of a mature, operational and efficient SMS, as it is the culture towards safety that can kill the system of elevate it, through continuous improvements, monitoring and analysis. Positive safety culture is the one way to truly embrace safety, as all the good intentions and specialised systems and procedures will only work if SMS is underpinned by an effective safety culture.

Culture is promoted top-down, i.e. from management to employees. For this reason, management commitment is the founding stone for a mature and healthy safety culture. Safety culture must be embedded in the organisational culture and should not be considered a different entity. The organisational commitment to safety is required at all levels. Management commitment is visible by the trust among the people, confidence in reporting and accepting one’s mistakes. If the questions is posed, how strong or weak is the safety culture in your organisation, one only needs to ask the lowest level employees. Safety is as strong as its weakest link and as such safety culture is measured at its weakest form of expression irrespective it is coming from top management of a low level employee.