Safety Culture

A safety culture is an underlying set of social conventions within an organization that encourage and highlight the importance of risk management and safety. Safety culture is a significant factor in the implementation of safety related procedures and systems. If safety efforts are met with resistance, ignored, disparaged, or viewed as a waste of time or resources, then it is far more likely that employees and workers will disregard safety measures in order to maintain the status quo.

An oft-used example for the necessity of safety culture is the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, where an explosion occurred in the 4th reactor causing one of the worst nuclear disasters to ever occur. In fact, the investigation into the incident by the Atomic Energy Agency[1] noted that while there were shortcomings in the design of the reactor, the actions and decisions of the plant workers and management were a large factor in disaster and 'indicative of an absence of safety culture'. While the reactor had designated safety procedures, the procedures themselves allowed for disabling of many of the safety mechanisms designed into the system. For example, the reactor failure was brought on by an improperly performed routine safety test, conducted outside of the prescribed procedures at the choice of the plant operators. The operators were unable to achieve the prescribed power level for the test, due to previous running of the plant at lower power. Rather than stop the test immediately, the test was altered based on the operators' assumptions. This included disabling the emergency core cooling system, which although technically against procedure, was allowable at the discretion of the chief engineer[1]. Ultimately, many of these decisions were due to pressure at the governmental level to meet production goals and lack of regulatory enforcement. As a result of this disaster, larger emphases were placed on safety culture worldwide in an effort to prevent similar tragedies.

Some of the main tenets of a healthy safety culture include:

  • Clear and open communication about safety concerns without fear of criticism or personal judgement
  • Contributions to safety are always valued
  • Perception of safety as an important need rather than a costly inconvenience
  • Prioritizing safety at the same level as performance goals and profit
  • Active efforts to encourage safety monitoring, reporting and education
  • Support for all of the above by both the workers and management of the organization

References and Resources

  1. International Atomic Energy Agency. (1992). The Chernobyl accident: Updating of INSAG-1 : INSAG-7 : a report. Vienna: International Atomic Energy Agency.
  2. Gilbert, C., Laroche, H., Bieder, C., & Journe, B. (2018). Safety cultures, safety models: Taking stock and moving forward (SpringerBriefs in applied sciences and technology, Safety management). Springer Open.