Safety Culture the Achilles heel of Safety Management Systems? Introduction –
The influences of cultures formal or informal, in organizations have extensive effects on all of its mechanisms, strategies and performances. In essence safety culture is at the heart of the company’s safety management efforts1. Fundamentally safety culture is ‘the way safety is perceived, valued and prioritized in an organization’ (Eurocontrol/FAA, 2008, p7), the health of these three pillars of safety culture have great consequences on an organizations Safety Management System (SMS) both in positive and negative terms.
A ‘poor’ safety culture; consequences, performance indicators and solutions – Looking at the consequences a poor or broken2 safety culture has on the effectiveness of the organization’s SMS can be done from two angles; a macro ‘birds eye’ and a micro ‘insiders’ point of view. ‘The one universally accepted feature of culture is that its influence extends to all parts of an organization’ (Reason, 1998, p297), when looking at the macro effect of a poor safety culture, it has to be identified that any poor culture will have an adverse effect on the organization’s management systems as a whole. When describing an effective SMS three core elements create its structure; its tools, processes and culture3. If the culture is flawed, or ineffective the two remaining elements can be deemed insignificant and even useless4. Subsequently the ROI (return on investment) on the company’s SMS investment may drop down to zero. From this general ‘birds eye’ perspective we conclude, that an SMS without a healthy safety culture is ‘an SMS that at best is marginalized and at worst, completely ineffective’ (Smith, 2010, p2).
‘It is the pervasive nature of culture that makes it uniquely suitable for creating and sustaining the colinear gaps in defenses-in-depth through which an accident trajectory has to pass’ (Reason, 1998, p293).
‘A Broken Safety Culture is one in which safety standards are habitually relaxed to meet financial or time constraint, often characterized as reactive, complacent and dominated by unwarranted optimism’ (Van Dyke, 2006, app A p22)
As in any system these elements are interdependent.
As a general example a safety culture that has a poor reporting subculture can have excellent etools in place to facilitate reporting, it will simply only be used to its legal necessity thus rendering some of the risk mitigating processes baseless and ineffective.
From a more focused vista a safety culture can be flawed in many ways. Each flaw having a different consequential effect on the SMS. One of the five cultural areas of a safety culture is an informed culture. A lack of knowledge could create a system in which it is not clear what to report, how to identify safety hazards or what responsibilities each member has in the SMS. Another component is reporting culture. Safety Management Systems are highly data driven; “Quality safety data are the lifeblood of safety management” (ICAO, 2009, 4-APP 2-1). Deficiencies in reporting culture results in a lack of data from the lower end of the Heinrich Pyramid, thus potentially having a system that misses 90% of safety data worthy events consequentially creating a foundationless system. The most essential component is just culture. At the heart of safety culture, a poor just culture can undermine the workforce’s trust in the system. Damaging the reporting culture due to fear of prosecution which in turn could lead to active covering up of hazardous events. Alternatively ‘A culture in which all acts are immune from punishment would lack credibility in the eyes of the workforce’ (Reason, 1998, p303). Finally the last two components are relatively interrelated when it comes to adverse effects on the SMS. Deficiencies in flexible and learning culture’s result in a SMS that resists evolution. Generally this can be identified in calculative safety cultures where there is a lack of...
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