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The terms ‘culture’ and particularly ‘safety culture’ are widely used yet misunderstood. A better understanding can make workplaces safer.

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About this seminar

An organisation’s ‘culture’ consists of the values and behaviours that workers share and demonstrate. It can include the shared attitudes and beliefs that form part of the organisation’s written and unwritten rules.

In this broadcast, Professor Andrew Hopkins argues that inconsistent and contradictory use of the terms ‘culture’ and ‘safety culture’ has created confusion.

Drawing on broader, social science definitions of culture, Professor Hopkins makes six propositions to improve our understanding of these terms:

  1. Culture is a characteristic of groups, not individuals.
  2. The influence of national cultures is overstated.
  3. Culture is best described as ‘the ways we do things around here’.
  4. In organisations, it is usually better to treat culture as a description of group behaviour, because that invites the deeper question - why are they behaving in this way?
  5. The sources of organisational culture are structure and leadership.
  6. Existing definitions of safety culture are inadequate, and should focus on organisational practices and getting them right.

This presentation featured as a keynote address at the 2018 SafetyConnect Conference.

Who is this seminar for?

This seminar is relevant for WHS academics, WHS safety research bodies, WHS regulators (including industry-specific regulators), employers, unions and employee representatives, and professional WHS training organisations.

About the presenter

Emeritus Professor Andrew Hopkins

Andrew Hopkins is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the Australian National University in Canberra.

He was an expert witness at the Royal Commission into the 1998 Exxon gas plant explosion near Melbourne. He was a consultant to the US Chemical Safety Board in its investigation of the BP Texas City Refinery disaster of 2005, and also for its investigation into the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill of 2010. He has written books about all these accidents. More than 90,000 copies of his books have been sold.

He has been involved in various government WHS reviews and has done consultancy work for major companies in the mining, petroleum, chemical and electrical industries, as well as for Defence. He speaks regularly to audiences around the world about the human and organisational causes of major accidents.

He has a BSc and an MA from the Australian National University, a PhD from the University of Connecticut and is a Fellow of the Safety Institute of Australia.

He was the winner of the 2008 European Process Safety Centre safety award, the first time it was awarded to someone outside Europe.

He is an honorary fellow of the Institution of Chemical Engineers in recognition of his “outstanding contributions to process safety and to the analysis of process safety related incidents”.

Additional resources

Virtual Seminar Series - Transcript

As someone said to me a little earlier today, I'm going to rattle the cage a bit. So, I guess that's what I’m going to do. I'm going to talk to you about the use and abuse of culture. And, I'm going to be fairly critical of the way these terms are used. The terms culture and particularly safety culture are very widely used by safety professionals and in business circles. And I'm very familiar with that term being a sociologist, because culture is our bread and butter in sociology and in anthropology. It's been the core concept in those disciplines for a hundred years or more.

But safety culture, is very much a johnny-come-lately. It's a new concept, it seems to have appeared on the scene late last century. It is very much a johnny-come-lately, and it's one of the most misused and abused of all these terms. Now, I'm not the first to make that point. I think in the year 2000, there was a safety journal editorial, that made the point that it was called Culture's Confusions, and the author made the point that there is no agreement confusion reigns about the meaning of these terms, in safety and business circles. And nothing has changed, there continues to be nearly 20 years later. I like to use the term fog. I think that safety culture is a bit like a fog that comes down, and eyes glaze over, and meaning disappears from the conversation, when we start to use these terms.

Okay, so, I'm going to advance five propositions. The first five will be about, sorry, six propositions. The first five will be about culture, only the last will be about safety culture, because most of the focus needs to be on the concept of culture itself.

So, the first question I want to raise is this.Is culture characteristic of individuals, or characteristic of groups? When management seeks to change culture, what are they trying to do? They're actually trying to change ... the terms you here are things like mindset, they're trying to change the mindsets of individuals. They're trying to change core personal values. This is the language that we hear.

So core values mindset, clearly in the minds of these managers who are advocating cultural change, they see culture as a matter of individual values, individual characteristics. So, here's the safety manager of one large company, he says, "Safety performance has been achieved through our unwavering commitment and dedication from all levels in the organisation, to create a safety culture, which is genuinely accepted by employees and contractors, as one of their primary core personal values." Okay, and he went on, "The aim is to create a mindset that no level of injury is acceptable." If that is the approach you have to culture, how do you achieve it? Via education. Clearly if you're trying people's values and attitudes, some kind of educational process is what is required.

And, the implicit assumption here, is that culture is a characteristic of individuals. Now, that stands in stark contrast with the views of social scientists, for whom culture is a characteristic of a group. And if it's a characteristic of a group, we must always specify which group we are talking about. When people talk about culture, you must ask, "But, what? A culture of whom? A culture of what group, are you talking about here?" Is it the work group? Is it the organisation? Is it the corporation? The point is that each of these has its own culture. They may overlap, but they're not necessarily the same. And, we need to understand that fact, because that helps us to understand a lot of the complexity we see, in subcultures, within organisations.

So, let me draw out the implication of this notion, or the implication of this distinction I'm making. Because there are some significant implications of the distinction. If culture is a characteristic of individuals, it means that individuals can take it from one group, to another. If it's a characteristic a bit like personality, a relatively invariant characteristic of an individual, then we can take it from one group to another.

So, here is another company spokesman, saying this, "Real commitment," he's trying to inculcate a safety culture in his people. "Real commitment to safety can't be turned on at the entrance gate, at the start of the day, and left behind at the gate on the way home. Safety and wellbeing of fellow employees is extended beyond the workplace in this company. A true commitment to safe behaviour is developed by promoting safety as a full-time, 24 hour attitude, both on and off the job." And, then that whole focus depends upon the assumption that the culture and safety culture is a characteristic of individuals.

But, if culture is a characteristic of a group, it's a group property, then the attitudes for safety may indeed change when we pass through the factory gate. One thing on one side, because we are in one group on one side of the gate, we may be in quite a different group on the other side of the gate. We may pass through the gate, the next thing we may do is go and join our friends in the motorcycle club, or the hang gliding club, in which the attitudes to risk will be totally different from the attitudes to risk which are encouraged within the workplace.

And in that external peer group, the culture there is quite different from the culture in the workplace. And the individual can be perfectly happy without even realising what they're doing from one set of attitudes toward safety, which are appropriate in the workplace, to another set of attitudes which are appropriate in the hang gliding club or the motorcycle club. Where the aim of many people is, to go as close to the edge as you can. Because that way you are demonstrating your skill. And the people who fall over the edge, the usual view is they were careless, or they were silly. That won’t happen to me, because I go as close to the edge as I can, and I'm skilful, so I stay on the right side of that edge. So, the attitude to risk in that kind of context, may well be absolutely different from the attitude in the workplace.

So, that's the first proposition, I want to recommend to you. That culture is a characteristic of a group, not an individual. And, talks of culture must always specify the relevant group. If it doesn't it's incomplete, you really haven't said very much, until you specify which group it is, you're talking about.

Second proposition concerns the influence of national cultures. The nation is the group here. The relevant group is the nation. So, we can talk about a national culture, there will be certain attitudes and values, and behaviours which are characteristics of nations. Companies often complain, I hear them complaining quite bitterly that they're fighting with a national culture which is overriding their own attempt to create a culture of safety within their organisation. That the national culture is more powerful, than the organisational culture that they are trying to promote.

So, I hear for example, big companies working in both Australia and PNG, talking about Australian workers have a certain attitude to rules and procedures, which is one of resistance and they're not willing to comply with things unless they see the point. Whereas, the workers in PNG, will do whatever they are told, and this they see as a demonstration of difference in national culture. Now I'm a bit sceptical of that analysis, because I suspect there's another issue here, and that is the extent to which those workers are vulnerable in their jobs. And I think that a worker in PNG, working for a big company, is probably a lot more vulnerable than a worker in Australia is. So, that may well account for those differences. But, nevertheless, let's assume there are these national differences.

Now, what I want to say to you, is there are some careful studies, good studies done by psychologists which demonstrate that organisational cultures can override national cultures if the organisation so wishes, if they put the energy into it. The conclusion of one of these studies was that perceived management commitment to safety exerts more of an impact on workforce behaviour and subsequent accident rates, than do fundamental national values. I reiterate, that was a careful study, over a lot of people, looking at variations between national cultures, and also variations between organisational cultures. And it came to that conclusion that the organisation culture perceived commitment to safety, is more important than national culture in determining the behaviours of individuals.

And, when you think about it, there are some examples which demonstrate the point fairly convincingly. I was talking to a big multinational oil company some years ago, they were about to build a very large vessel in a Korean shipyard, and they were concerned that the fatality rate in Korean shipyards was very high. And from their point of view, quite unacceptably high. And they tended to see this as a feature of Korean culture, national culture, as opposed to the European ... This was Shell actually, Shell's culture in the national context in which other European context in which Shell operates, would not have accepted that high rates, high fatality rates, which were apparently accepted in the Korean shipyards.

And, the question was, "How are we going to deal with this presumed national culture in Korea?" Well to their credit, they didn't accept that this was somehow or other something that was inevitable. They said, "We aren't going to accept that, we are going to demand that," and this was part of the contract, "that if anybody is killed in this shipyard that the senior manager in that area will be sacked immediately." And the first time this happened, that manager was sacked immediately, and the safety behaviour in that shipyard, just changed like that, just like that.

Because Shell has put in place a really powerful mechanism to ensure that it got the safe behaviour that it wanted. It was not intimidated by the notion of national culture. I don't believe in national ... I mean, I don't think it in fact this is an aspect of national culture, it is more the aspect of the level of economic development of countries. Because, that same behaviour was more prevalent in the U.K. in the 19th century. So, it's about where you are in terms of your economic development.

But, organisations, corporations can, if they wish, and if they put the energy into it, and make the commitment, they can create the cultures they want. So, this is the next proposition, in that organisations have it within their power to ensure that organisational cultures override national cultures. There's an interesting corollary here that I sometimes get asked, often the question is asked, "How long does it take to change a culture." And, I was at a conference a little while ago, where a very eminent speaker said, "Oh, it's hard to change the culture of a big organisation, it takes five to seven years." And I thought, that's just nonsense. The fact of the matter is, as soon as the behaviour of the top managers changes, and there are consequences, the culture begins to change. It's very quick. It's actually very quick if the people at the top mean it. They have to mean it. You don't change the whole culture of an organisation overnight, but there's a process that starts, which is a rapid process. It takes place quickly.

Okay, now the next one I want to talk about, is the definition of culture. And of course, there are numerous meanings of culture in anthropology. In anthropology the term refers to the meanings, which people attach to artefacts. That's a standard definition in anthropology, and often in sociology. Now, within organisational context, that's not as relevant, there are other kinds of meanings which we use, and they divide roughly into two main approaches. Those which emphasise values and norms of groups - we're always talking about groups -  the ideation of elements if you like. And on the other hand the practices, the things that people do, and the organisational practices. And most definitions will emphasise one or the other. These are not contradictory definitions, but there is a question about which of these definitions is useful to emphasise.

And my view, the most useful to emphasise is the way that we do things around here. And, I realise that's a simplistic, well some might think it's simplistic, definition. But, I actually think it's a very sophisticated definition. Which, does incorporate most of what we need to think about when we're talking about cultures. So, it's the practices. Now, why do I say it's sophisticated? Well first of all, around here, that's a reference to a group. Around here means ... It's vague, but it's saying we need to think about, well what does around here mean? Is it the work group, the peer group? Is it the organisation? What is it? It could even be the nation. So, there is a reference to the group involved or implied in that definition. That's the first point of sophistication about that definition.

The second thing is it's collective. It's what we do. This is not about individual practices, it's the practices of the group, there's a collectivity involved here. And the third interesting thing is that there is a value element to that expression. Now, I don't know what you think about this, but when someone says, "This is the way we do things around here." Can you hear a kind of normative statement, this is the way we ought to do things? That's implied in that, isn't it? If anyone says, "This is the way we do things." What you're hearing, is not only do we do it this way, but we ought to do it. So, that's the normative element coming in there, the value element, the psychological element, if you like.

So, that definition incorporates all that's important, in my view, in culture. And it's a very helpful definition to think about, partly because, it helps us get away from the waffle. It helps us say, "Alright, well what is culture? It's what we're doing around here." It's the practices, the collective practices. I've seen people put up models, and fancy models saying here is the organisational practices here, and that leads to a culture. And I say, "No, no, no, no. The organisational practices are the culture." The moment you say they lead to a culture, you're asking, "Well, what is this culture? What is this thing?" It becomes very nebulous. No, the culture is the organisational practice, it's what we collectively do around here.

So, the normative element, this is the right way, this is the accepted way that we do things around here. How do we know that there is that normative component? By the reaction. If there is, because it's the reaction that demonstrates that is a required behaviour. I remember being in the large headquarters of a large organisation a few years ago. And I was walking down a staircase, and I had a bag in each hand. And I certainly therefore, wasn't holding the hand rail. And one of the managers who I was with, said, "Oh look, would you like me to hold one of your bags as we go down here, so that you can hold the handrail?" So, I said, "Thanks." That was a reaction to my noncompliance of that company rule. As you know, most big companies stick rigidly to that rule, and other similar, sometimes trivial, rules, when they should be focused on more serious things. But, it was rigidly adhering to that rule. I knew this was a rule, because there had been a reaction to my noncompliance. It wasn't a punitive reaction, but it was a reaction that made me realise that I better do the right thing around here. This is the way they do things around here.

On the other hand, on my campus at the ANU, there are signs saying, in the pedestrianised areas, cyclists must dismount. Well, cyclists never dismount, and there are never any consequences. So, what we say then, is despite the University rules and the University's belief of what ought to be the case, that is not part of the culture, because it's not part of the way things are done around my campus.

Okay, I think there's another reason for preferring a definition which focuses on practices, rather than trying to talk about mindset or values, or those ideational components. And that is this, if you're really going to focus on practices, they can be seen, observed, and changed therefore. Management can seek to change those practices. Whereas values are much harder to change, harder to see, identify, harder to change.

Let me read to you the words of an organisational anthropologist. Who says this, "Changing collective values in adult people in an intended direction, is extremely difficult, if not impossible. Values do change, but not according to someone's master plan. Collective practices, however, depend on organisational characteristics like structures and systems, and can be influenced in more or less predictable ways, by changing those structures and systems." So, this is a reason, a practical reason for focusing on practices, rather than values.

And I need to make the point, that these two things are complementary. That it's not about focusing on practices and ignoring values. They go inextricably hand in hand, and let me tell you why. It is because there's a fundamental human characteristic that we don't like our behaviour to be out of alignment with our values. We'll tolerate it to varying degrees, but on the whole we like our behaviour to be in alignment with our beliefs and our values. Psychologists call that cognitive dissonance. We don't like things to be inconsistent, our values to be inconsistent with our behaviour. So, the interesting thing then, is that if you change the behaviour, and it's no longer consistent with the previous values of that person. Those values will shift, and over time and come into alignment with the new behaviour. So, I'll give you a specific example that always strikes me as a powerful one.  

Many years ago now, when seat belts were introduced, people simply didn't wear them. And, so it was not necessary, from their point of view, safety didn't really require them to wear a seatbelt. That was their mindset, their attitude, their values. However then, those seat belts were made compulsory, and people started to get fined for not wearing your seatbelt. So, of course, you buckle up, and after a while, that becomes a habit. And becomes the way we do things around here, is we buckle up. The ultimate reason we do this, is because if we don't we might get fined. But now, we're now faced with a situation where we're routinely buckling up, but we previously thought this was not necessary.

So, now our values start to change, our beliefs start to change, to it's probably a good idea, it's going to save lives if we buckle up in this way. So, that's an example of the way you change the behaviour, and then the values change. The thought processes will change. And it's interesting it becomes such routine behaviour, so accepted, that if you take off without your seat belt buckled up, not only will your car beep at you, but if you get over that fact, you're likely to feel a little unsafe. It's a strange feeling, oh there's something not quite right here. And you're likely ... Psychologists have done some interesting work on that. For a short period, you're going to drive more safely and more carefully, because you know you're not buckled up, and therefore you're at greater risk. That doesn't last for very long, but it's a demonstration of how this attitude now, that wearing the seat belt is appropriate safe behaviour. That idea is now ingrained in our thinking.

Let's move on to the next proposition. I want to talk about description versus explanation. Culture is description versus culture, as explanation. I think it's really important to think a bit conceptually about culture. If we consider an idea, the idea of a culture of casual compliance. I've often come across this phrase or something like it, when people are explaining an accident. They say, "Oh, this organisation had a culture of casual compliance." Now the best way to think of that is, as a descriptive statement, not an explanatory statement. It's a descriptive statement. And it's the statement that people feel no particular need to comply around here, they comply with rules when they find it convenient to do so, and not otherwise. So, that's I think, a useful way, in which we can talk about culture, think of culture as a description.

Now, we can also treat it as an explanation. An explanation for what? An explanation for individual level behaviour. If the culture around here is when we do work at heights, we don't actually wear the appropriate the safety harness. Then if I as a new worker, say, "Oh, I should really being wearing a harness." When, I got there. And I get poo-pooed by my fellows, then I will feel constrained not to wear that safety harness in the appropriate way, and I'm likely not to do so. So, in that case, the culture of that workplace, does become an explanation for why I, as a new worker adopt that behaviour. Because certain cultures have this coercive, this normative effect on individuals. It becomes an explanation then for my behaviour.

So, it's useful if you're trying to explain the behaviour of an individual. But, if we want to go back a step, and think about culture as a description of the collective behaviour with the group, it is a useful description. Because it collects together into one category, a set of behaviours, which then you can start to say, "Well, why is that people are not complying in this, that, and in the other circumstance?" So that, in itself invites a high level of understanding. It invites a quest to explain, why it is, that we have this culture of casual compliance? And, as soon as you ask that why question, you get into very useful kinds of explanatory factors, like lack of supervision, or incentive systems that are encouraging people to take shortcuts. Or, the fact that the procedures themselves are very difficult to comply with, they're poor procedures. And these are really useful explanations because you can do something about it. We can really do something about that.

On the other hand, if we treat it as an explanation of individual behaviour, and say this person didn't wear their seat belt because there's a culture in this group of not wearing their seat belt. That then works against explanation. Like, this becomes a strategy for blaming all the people involved, and as soon as you start to blame people, interestingly the quest to understand and explain goes out the window. I'm not sure why that is. It seems to be a fundamental psychological fact, that if we can pin blame on somebody, our quest to understand disappears. So, it's not very useful. It's not a very useful strategy to say, "Okay, we're going to use culture as an explanation for this individual behaviour. Because we identify a failure of the culture, at the level of culture, end of story." It must not be the end of the story, that's the point where we begin. Where, we begin our explanation.

I think the proposition I want to leave you with at this point, is this one. That in the organisational context, it's usually better to treat culture as a description of group behaviour, because that invites the “why" question. Why are they behaving in this way? Rather than, as an explanation for individual behaviour, because that stifles the why question. It terminates the five why process, which we should be adopting.

Now, the next thing I want to talk about, is the sources of organisational culture. If we accept that we want to understand why this culture exists as it does? What are some, of the sources? What are some, of the factors that give rise to the culture that we observe? And the first one is structure of the organisation. I'm going to give you an example of how organisational structure creates culture, in a different context, not safety, not immediately about safety, anyway.

And it's the culture of railways. One of the very powerful elements of the culture of railways, is a powerful commitment to on time running or punctuality. Trains are supposed to hit their targets within three minutes. So, this is a very powerful culture that operates in most railway environments. And what that often means is that trains are traveling faster than they should be. They're traveling dangerously fast, in order to comply with that culture of on time running. And the reason I'm interested in this, is because the Glenbrook train crash accident investigation, some years ago in New South Wales, identified this culture of punctuality, of on time running, as one of the causal factors leading to that accident, because their driver was speeding in order to catch up time.

So the question is how is that culture of on time running created? Now, it's not just a mindset. I've made this point, so it's a set of practices. It's a detailed monitoring of the driver's performance. There are sanctions against drivers who fail to meet schedules. One driver at the inquiry described how if he arrived late, he was subject to quite intimidating questioning. The questions he would get from his supervisor, were something like this, "You lost time, son? Where? Speak up, speak clearly." In other words, he had done the wrong thing, and he was being criticised for this, and possibly punished for it. And if his reason was not satisfactory, a more senior manager spoke to the driver. In extreme cases, there would be a fine, or suspension for the day.

All of that, involves a massive organisational apparatus. Large numbers of people, whose job it is to ensure that the trains run on time. The figures are assembled twice a day and presented to the top management of the train company twice a day, in relation to the morning peak hour, and the afternoon peak hour. That gives you a sense of how closely they are scrutinising the data, the systems that they have to ensure that their trains run on time, a massive organisational apparatus. So, that's a very clear example in the way a structure, an organisational structure will create a culture. The culture of on time running.

So that's the first point, the structure of an organisation will create the culture within an organisation. Culture and structure are somehow independent factors that have to be balanced in some way. What I'm putting to you, is a rather different proposition, that the culture is actually created by the structure. You get the structure right, you resource it right, and you'll get the culture you want. So, how you resolve that divergence of opinion, maybe is up to you. But there are different perspectives on these things.

The second interesting approach to how you create the culture, is leadership. Leadership is often suggested as the way we create the culture we want. Edgar Schein, an organisational psychologist makes this point, "Leaders create cultures, while managers and administrators live within them". This particular quote, is a provocative, sarcastic quote. If you are happy to be a manager, you're fine, you live within the culture. But, if you're a leader, you recognise you have the capacity to change it.

And how do leaders change cultures? They create and change cultures by what they systematically pay attention to. This means anything from what they notice and comment on, to what they measure, control, reward, and in other ways systematically deal with. Think about on time running, how did those managers create that structure, that culture of on time running? By measuring, controlling, and rewarding the behaviour they wanted. So, in other words, these two approaches that I'm talking about, structure and leadership are actually consistent with each other. What we have is the leaders, if they want to create a certain culture, have to create a structure of rewards, measurement and control and so on, which will generate the culture that they want.

And once we understand, if we see that as a causal connection, there's structure that creates the organisational culture. We can then go a step further, and ask but where does that organisational structure come from? Why are the leaders setting up that kind of structure? And we often find that we need to go outside the organisation to understand why it has a structure. And that is has, in the case of railways, why are they so concerned about punctuality? There's enormous pressure exerted on them from outside the organisation by various political and public channels, to run on time. And indeed, there are regulators who may even penalise them for failure to run on time.

The proposition I want to suggest to you, and I'm going to read it slowly so that we can really think about it. Organisational cultures depend on the structures that organisations put in place to achieve important outcomes. These structures reflect the priorities of top leaders. The priorities of leaders in turn, may depend on factors outside the organisation, such as regulatory pressure and public opinion. Or, shareholder pressure, market pressure, these are the best known examples of external pressure, which will dictate the kind of structures that many organisations put in place.

Now, finally a few words about safety culture. Let me start with the definition, which is widely quoted when anyone starts to think about safety culture. This is probably the most widely quoted definition, which then is immediately ignored. And let me explain what I mean. Here is a definition from the International Atomic Energy Agency. I think this was created after the Chernobyl accident, where safety culture became quite a significant concept and idea. And, the agency produced this definition. "Safety culture is that assembly of characteristics and attitudes which establishes that, as an overriding priority, nuclear plant safety issues receive the attention warranted by their significance." Now, obviously it's in the context of the nuclear accident.

But, it's where safety is an overriding priority, is given an overriding priority, then we can speak of a safety culture. It's only when the organisation gives that as an overriding priority that we can speak of a safety culture. Now, for most organisations, safety is not an overriding priority. Many people will make the point that it cannot be, otherwise the organisation would be out of business. It's possibly only the organisations which are not strictly in business, like aspects of the military and some other activities, where their primary goal is not business, that they can make a commitment to safety as an overriding priority, at least in peacetime.

So for most organisations, safety is not an overriding priority. It follows that most organisations do not have a safety culture. That follows as a matter of logic, I hope you understand that. As a matter of logic, most organisations do not have a safety culture. I remember hearing Judith Hackett making this very point at a previous conference that I went to. That very few organisations can really claim that they have a safety culture, in the sense that it's a culture where safety is the overriding priority. Yet, people will give you that definition and immediately ignore it, because they'll immediately start talking about all organisations having a safety culture. It may be a good safety culture, or a bad safety culture, or an indeterminate safety culture. But, when you listen to people talking, they are assuming that all organisations have a safety culture.

I don't know, as an academic, I just can't stand that kind of inconsistency. It just blows me away, I just get really irritated by it. But, that's my particular cross to bear, I guess. But, anyway that's just one of many problems associated with the concept of safety culture.

Here's how one review of the concept described the situation. "There is no agreed definition on the term safety culture, and no definitive model of safety culture. The literature is large, diverse, fragmented, confusing and ambiguous. There's little evidence supporting relationship between safety culture and safety performance. In a practical sense, it is fruitless to continue to attempt to define safety culture. Rather than trying to change something as nebulous as safety culture, the focus should shift to changing the organisational or management practices that have an immediate and direct impact on workplace safety."

Now, to which I say, wow, if I were a safety practitioner, I would breathe a sigh of relief. I can ditch this concept of safety culture, and get on with what's important, it's the practices in this organisation. I don't need to worry about whether I call this culture, or safety culture. I don't need any other language to deal with this, I can get straight on to the issue of getting, focusing on the organisational practices and getting them right.

Let me give you a practical example of what all this means. I was studying BP Texas City, a big accident that BP had in Texas, more than 10 years ago. I discovered that BP had had a culture change program, just a few months before the accident. They were trying to change their safety culture in a particular way. For those of you who know this language, they were trying to encourage BP to be a high reliability organisation. Don't worry about that if you don't know, what that's in reference to. But what they were trying to do, was to get people to be sensitive to warning signs, and weak signals of danger, that "danger might lie ahead." Those words are in quotation marks because this is what they were actually trying to do, the language they were using.

And their people, they went through workshops, and people got pretty good at identifying warning signs and weak signals of danger lying ahead. And when they started to report these things, as they were supposed to, but the problem was the organisation did nothing with the reports. Because it had not allocated any additional resources to respond to those reports, and so people became rapidly very disillusioned with that whole approach. The problem was there were no practices to match what they were trying to teach their workforce.

So, that's what we need to get right, we need to focus on those practices. In this case, what do we do? How do we respond to reports which our workforce provides to us?

I think one of the questions that interests me, is why is the term safety culture such a confusing term? And I think partly there's a linguistic issue here. Think about these terms, safety culture, organisational culture, workplace culture, peer group culture, aviation culture. Which is the odd one out? Any suggestions as to which is the odd one out? Aviation, any other suggestion? I can see why you say Aviation, but for me the one that's the odd one out, is safety culture. Why? Because all the others are a reference to the group. Aviation is a reference to the aviation industries, in that sense it's a group. But safety culture is the only one that doesn't give a reference to a group. Safety is an adjective, and so I immediately begin to see, there's something funny about this concept.

But, I've got the point where I've really abandoned the term altogether. When I wrote a book some years ago, called Safety Culture and Risk, it was with a comma after Safety, as you can see on the screen. Even then, that was more than 10 years ago, I was disturbed about the concept. But now, I think, if I had my way, I would ban it from the English language. I'll just say, that doesn't mean to say we need to ... I mean you can replace it, very often you can just replace it with safety. Why don't we just say safety? Or, the concept I like is operational excellence. We can advocate a culture of operational excellence, that's a much more powerful concept for me, than a culture of safety. So, I'm not abandoning, I think it's good that we have language that we can use, we need to get the right language. So, thank you very much.


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Last modified on Wednesday 7 November 2018 [10301|82781]