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Dominic Cooper PhD is an independent researcher who has authored many books, articles and scientific research papers on safety culture, behavioural-safety and leadership.
July 27, 2023

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Normative patterns in a culture of safety

Dom Cooper on different ‘norms’ and how they exist in an occupational safety culture.

Imagine a world where there are no constraints, and people are free to do what they want when they want. Would we be living in apocalyptic circumstances similar to those depicted in the ‘Mad Max’ movies or enjoying an idyllic life of ‘Singing in the Rain’? Edmund Burke, in his commentary on the French Revolution[i], asserted liberty without wisdom or virtue, is folly, vice and madness without tuition or restraint. He was speaking to the idea that freedom cannot be about a lack of constraint; rather, it must be a matter of finding the right restraints. Durkheim[ii] described these restraints as a ‘collective consciousness’ or a shared understanding of norms that govern our behaviour (the who, what, where, when, how and why).

Cultural norms

Facing numerous and varied threats (e.g., natural disasters, war, poverty, hunger, terrorism, etc.), humans introduced various ‘norms’ to help overcome these threats and govern what people do, so that societies can function (more or less) effectively; unwritten social norms reflect prevailing values and beliefs (e.g., doing safety with people, not at them), injunctive norms or guidelines influence how and when things should be done (e.g., approved codes of practice), and descriptive behavioural norms describe what is done (e.g., maintaining three-points of contact when climbing a ladder). These social, injunctive and descriptive norms reciprocally interact with each other to determine day-to-day life in society at large and in the workplace[iii]; in other words, collectively, they help determine the culture of a country, organisation, department or workgroup.

Figure 1: Reciprocal nature of cultural norms

Norm strength

In principle, the more these norms are in alignment, the greater their strength and influence, particularly when reinforced by a consistent severity of sanctions for non-adherence[iv]. Michele Gelfand, a professor of cross-cultural psychology, asserts some nations have ‘tight’ or strong norms and a low tolerance of deviant behaviour (e.g., India, Malaysia, Pakistan) while others have ‘loose’ or weak norms and a high tolerance of deviant behaviour (e.g., Ukraine, Estonia, Hungary). For example, drinking alcohol in public in the Arabic Gulf States could result in imprisonment (tight norms), whereas European cultures tend to ignore it (loose norms). Clearly, different cultures vary in the degree to which they emphasise certain norms and adhere to them.

Tighter norms are associated with greater consistency and predictability, but much less tolerance of deviant behaviour, whereas loose norms are associated with greater permissiveness, with a wider range of diverse behaviours exhibited. Indicative of the impact of tight and loose norms on occupational safety and health (OSH) performance, a comparison of nations showed tighter cultures[v] had approximately five times fewer COVID-19 cases and nine times fewer deaths than looser cultures. The continual ebb and flow of tight or loose cultural norms in a society is highly related to the ebb and flow of perceived internal and external threats; the greater the perceived threat, the tighter the rules and norms become and vice versa. The US-led reaction to 9/11 in 2001 when everything related to air travel considerably tightened is a classic example of a post-incident response to prevent further adverse events. When people think their culture is ‘on the brink of disaster’, their immediate response is to embrace tight rules and tough leaders[v].

Cultural intelligence

Excessively tight or loose norms could potentially lead to lawlessness, chaos and disorder (anomie). San Francisco provides a good example of looseness, where these days, nobody is stopped for stealing under a thousand dollars’ worth of goods from stores, with many retailers now abandoning the city. Conversely, the recent tightening of abortion laws across many US states has led to ongoing legal challenges, protests and riots. The ideal is postulated to be a negotiated trade-off regarding the level of norm strength to address a perceived threat which refers to either a ‘flexible tightness’ (deploying more relaxed norms depending on the perceived threat) or a ‘structured looseness’ (less freewheeling due to recognition of a potential threat).

Figure 2: Norm strength continuum

Gelfand[vi]argues an understanding of “the behaviour(s) governing desired social norms X by the degree of enforcement” to neutralise a threat leads to “cultural intelligence”, which helps entities become “culturally ambidextrous”; i.e., they can determine where tight or loose norms are appropriate. In OSH, consistency and predictability are important, indicating that tight and strong norms are necessary to protect people. Extreme tightness is likely required in high-risk workplaces (e.g., a sour gas area on an LNG Train), while structured looseness is likely suited to low-risk workplaces (e.g., office settings). Gelfand states the sweet spot is achieved by applying the “Goldilocks principle” (meaning ‘just the right amount’). This requires some form of “normative radar” that can detect and judge what the “right amount” might be.

Risk assessment is a familiar form of normative radar, in that it is used to determine the severity of a risk (threat) and the likelihood of harm (consequence) for specific tasks or work areas. Many entities have these recorded. It seems to make sense to discuss these with the very people who are directly affected by the associated risk controls to determine what the associated norms and their tightness or looseness should be. This ultimately will help improve current risk assessments, but should also help people develop their own individual normative radar to find the right balance to keep people safe while engaging workgroups in the development of their entities’ safety culture. In principle, workforce-engagement interventions [vii] can assist greatly in attuning people to what is appropriate or not in a given circumstance to help ensure behavioural consistency and predictability.

Lessons learned

National and organisational cultures are subject to change, depending on how the ebb and flow of external and internal threats are perceived. This also holds true for a culture of safety, particularly after a catastrophe (e.g., BP has been trying to change its culture of safety since the Deepwater Horizon). A culture of safety comprises a dynamic and reciprocal mix of social, behavioural and situational norms. The strength of these norms is dictated by how important they are perceived to be by an entity or group in overcoming perceived threats, and the degree to which the entity or group enforces the norms. Determining which norms should be tight or loose requires some form of ‘normative radar’. In terms of improving a culture of safety, this radar exists already in the form of risk assessment, which is also used to identify and address threats to people’s physical safety & health. Having employees review existing assessments and ascertaining how tight or loose the existing norms are, or should be, for the areas or tasks involved could help an entity take its safety culture to the next level.


[i] Burke, E. (1790). Reflections on the Revolution in France, And on the Proceedings in Certain Societies in London Relative to that Event. In a Letter Intended to Have Been Sent to a Gentleman in Paris (1 ed.). London: J.Dodsley in Pall Mall.
[ii] Durkheim, E. The Division of Labour in Society. Trans. W. D. Halls, intro. Lewis A. Coser. New York: Free Press, 1997, pp. 39, 60, 108.
[iii] Cooper, M. D. (2000). Towards a model of safety culture. Safety Science36(111), 136.
[iv] Gelfand, M. J., Raver, J. L., Nishii, L., Leslie, L. M., Lun, J., Lim, B. C., Duan, L., Almaliach, A., Ang, S., Arnadottir, J. and Aycan, Z. (2011). Differences between tight and loose cultures: A 33-nation study. Science332(6033), 1100-1104.
[v] Gelfand, M. J., Jackson, J. C., Pan, X., Nau, D., Pieper, D., Denison, E., Dagher, M., Van Lange, P. A., Chiu, C. Y. and Wang, M. (2021). The relationship between cultural tightness–looseness and COVID-19 cases and deaths: a global analysis. The Lancet Planetary Health5(3), e135-e144.
[vi] Gelfand, M. (2019). Rule makers, rule breakers: Tight and loose cultures and the secret signals that direct our lives. Scribner.
[vii] Cooper, M. D. (2014). Fully engaging employees to create a safety partnership. SPE14HSE-IP-831-SPE Long Beach, CA, USA, 17-19 March.


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  • Click here to read Dominic’s previous blog on wellbeing statistics.


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10 months ago

For an illustrative case study Dom … Sinead OConnor growing up in Ireland 40 years ago … and Ireland now … ?