Country HSE Manager, ABB UK and HSE Manager for ABB Motion, ABB

February 8, 2019

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Organisational safety culture

Can organisational safety culture maturity start to regress?

In an email exchange with Patrick Hudson, involving one of the authors, he commented that a generative organisational safety culture can, in time, overlap with a pathological one. This got us thinking: is there a point that organisational safety culture maturity regresses? We think that in case of attributing causation of accidents this possible. Vic Derbyshire, Quality Apprentice, Nuvia and David Day, Head of SHE, Nuvia explain their thinking…

If we start at fundamental principles and clearly define safety culture. Let’s use a clear conceptualisation from Reason (1998) and Cooper (2000), who define an organisational safety culture: as something an organisation has in terms of the structures, policies, systems, and controls to manage safety; and something an organisation is in terms of beliefs, attitudes, and values of its employees regarding the pursuit of safety.

Next, imagine an organisation with a mature safety culture: a generative organisation, or may be a high reliability organisation, or an organisation with a highly developed just culture. In these kinds of companies, safety is ingrained into the organisation’s personality; there are high levels of engagement, employee and management commitment, investment resources, and a greater accountability for safety. The research tells us that at stage of maturity accidents are viewed as learning opportunities – but is there a shift in thinking? At this level of culture, with all the systems, attitudes and behaviours one would expect, do people start to think they’ve cracked it and there is nothing more they can do to prevent accidents? Do people think that the organisation can do no more to create safe behaviour and revert back to thinking that people must be causing accidents?

Hierarchical position and perceived causes of workplace accidents

dnaExperience informs us that this shift may occur. For example, we conducted a research project investigating the link between hierarchical position and perceived causes of workplace accidents, which uncovered an interesting finding. Contrary to all predictions, frontline employees used more internal causal attributions to explain workplace accidents. For example, Salminen (1992) and Kouabenan et al (2001) reported that employees identify situational / external factors to explain accident causation. Moreover, Prussia et al, (2002) report that in post-accident reflection employee is more likely to identify poor equipment function or another factor external to him or herself as the cause. So, in our experience, frontline employees were more likely to think that accidents are caused by the person and not the organisational factors. An analysis of the organisation and associated research suggested that cultural influences may have influenced employee perception. One study found employees who work in a positive safety culture are more likely to use internal causal attributions to explain accidents (Silva et al (2004). That is, employees in a more forward-thinking safety culture think an accident is caused by the victim’s behaviour not the situation. Interestingly, the host organisation had a proactive safety culture: high levels of investment in training, clear and demonstrable management and employee commitment and open channels of safety communication.

Moreover, we have worked with organisations where this shift may also be happening. In industries such as petrochemical, oil and gas and nuclear organisations are expected to be at the forefront of safety culture – stakeholders rightly view these cultures to be the vanguard of risk management. But, again, our experience is showing us a shift. Organisations from within these industries are investing heavily in the tangible and intangible aspects of safety culture. However, despite this investment, some organisations seem to believe that they have done as much as they can; they often perceive there is nothing more for them to do. Then, lo and behold, what happens when there’s an accident? They blame the employee without attempting to look further into their own organisational cultures.

Some organisations have safety in their DNA; it is part of everything they do and they may perceive that they have no more room for improvement. They may think: “surely, it’s impossible for us to be accountable for an incident?” Their safety culture is so mature; it must be the individual’s fault? Consequently, the organisation doesn’t investigate further into its own systems and culture.

We’d like you to have a think. What are the risks associated with this? Could an organisation potentially do so much that they end up subconsciously neglecting their own safety culture and regressing? Are there any other areas of safety culture where this could happen?

Cooper, D. (2000). Towards a model of safety culture. Safety Science, 36, 111-136.
Kouabenan, D.R., Gilibert, D., Medina, M & Bouzon, F. (2001). Hierarchical position, gender, accident severity and causal attribution. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 31:3, 553-575.
Prussia, G.E., Brown, K.A. & Willis, P.G. (2003). Mental models of safety: do managers and employees see eye to eye? Journal of Safety Research, 34, 143-156.
Reason, J.T. (1998). ‘Achieving a safe culture: theory and practice. Work & Stress, 12:3, 293 306.
Salminen, S. (1992). Defensive attribution hypothesis and serious occupational accidents. Psychological Reports, 70, 1195-1199.
Silva, S.A., Baptista, C & Lima, L. (2004). OSCI: an organizational and safety climate inventory. Safety Science. 42:3. 205-220.

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