Operatives within safety critical industries can be faced with situations in which they need to say “no”. Time-pressure, deadlines, and productivity goals are all factors that can lead to such dilemmas. SCT’s Mario Pierobon reports on how organisations can address this challenge, and in part one of two, looks at safety culture.

In order for operatives to learn to say ‘no’ there are two main preconditions which training can help satisfy. One precondition has to do with what the organisation where the operatives work, and this is the development of a safety culture. The other precondition has to do with what the operatives themselves can do and this is the development of the soft skills of assertiveness. In this first part of a story on training to say ‘no’ we shall look at safety culture as an organisational effort.

What Safety Culture Is

Safety critical industries, perhaps tautologically, are those industries where safety plays an important role to the point that that the development of a safety culture becomes a core objective.

“Furthermore, catastrophic breakdowns of these high-risk systems pose serious threats, not only for those within the organization but also for the surrounding public,” say Douglas Wiegmann, Hui Zhang, Terry L. von Thaden, Gunjan Sharma & Alyssa Mitchell Gibbons in a 2004 academic paper entitled ‘Safety Culture: An Integrative Review’ published in the International Journal of Aviation Psychology[i]. “Recent years have witnessed a growing concern over the issue of safety culture within aviation and other complex, high-risk industries.”

It should be observed that safety culture concepts and precepts have developed primarily from the more general notion of organisational culture. “A culture is comprised of norms or patterns of perceptions, speech, and even building design features that make the culture what it is. It is difficult to understand a culture in total, but it is possible to study and understand individual norms,” say Ostrom et al. in a 1993 article entitled ‘Assessing Safety Culture’ published in Nuclear Safety[ii].

Safety culture has gained international prevalence to describe an organisational culture in which safety is considered a top priority, if not the top priority. “Unless safety is the dominant characteristic of corporate culture - which arguably it should be in high-risk industries - safety culture is a subcomponent of corporate culture, which alludes to individual, job, and organisational features that affect and influence safety and health,” says Dominic Cooper in a 2002 academic article entitled ‘Safety Culture, A model for understanding & quantifying a difficult concept’ published in Professional Safety[iii].

How Safety Culture Can Be Developed

Developing a safety culture should start from its initial assessment. Wiegmann et al. point out that there are multiple tools that can be used to assess safety culture and safety climate. Tools for assessing safety culture can be classified as either qualitative or quantitative. Quantitative tools include historical information reviews, employee observations, focus group discussions, and case studies, while qualitative tools include structured interviews, surveys and questionnaires, and Q-sorts methods.

“There appears to be agreement among researchers that both qualitative and quantitative methods have unique potential for assessment and theory testing and that there is a benefit to combining methods to gain a comprehensive understanding of safety culture,” say Wiegmann et al.[iv].

By assessing its safety culture, an organisation can determine where efforts need to be focussed. Ideally, every employee should be involved in determining and addressing safety concerns. However, this is not always possible. A properly structured survey can be a very effective tool for assessing safety culture in organisations, according to Ostrom et al. “Safety professionals should play a lead role in administration and analysis of the survey data. To achieve results, however, an organization needs to find ways to get the people who were surveyed to engage in reflection on what the data mean and what actions they can take to address the problems identified,” say Ostrom et al.[v].

In practice, developing a safety culture depends on the deliberate manipulation of various organisational characteristics thought to affect safety, such as conducting a risk assessment. The purposes of safety culture are to reduce accidents and injuries, ensure that safety issues receive appropriate attention, ensure that organisational members share the same ideas and beliefs about risks, accidents, and ill health, increase people’s commitment to safety, and determine the style and proficiency of a safety programme, affirms Cooper[vi].

In the development of safety culture, it is important to consider the role of the superordinate goals, i.e. dividing the goals in subgoals to allow people to direct the attention and the actions toward the management of safety, according to Cooper[vii].

Safety culture is promoted mainly by the organisation’s upper levels of management, who play a critical role.

“Within the context of safety culture, management involvement refers to the extent to which both upper level and middle-level managers get personally involved in critical safety activities within the organization,” say Wiegmann et al. “Management involvement in safety, therefore, is reflected by managers’ presence and contribution to safety seminars and training, their active oversight of safety critical operations, their ability to ‘stay in touch’ with the risks involved in everyday operations, and the extent to which there is good communication about safety issues both up and down the organizational hierarchy.”[viii]

Summing Up

An organisational safety culture is a fundamental pre-requisite in order to enable line operatives to say ‘no’ when operations are too risky. The other pre-condition is that line operatives develop assertiveness. We shall look at assertiveness in the second part of this story on training to say ‘no’.

[i] Douglas A. Wiegmann , Hui Zhang , Terry L. von Thaden , Gunjan Sharma & Alyssa Mitchell Gibbons (2004) Safety Culture: An Integrative Review, The International Journal of Aviation Psychology, 14:2, 117-134, DOI: 10.1207/s15327108ijap1402_1
[ii] L. Ostrom, C. Wilhelmsen, and B. Kaplan, Assessing Safety Culture, General Safety Edited by G. T. Mays. Silver, E G. Nuclear Safety. Technical Progress Journal, April--June 1993: Volume 34, No. 2. United States: N. p., 1993. Web. doi:10.2172/10129203. https://www.osti.gov/servlets/purl/10129203#page=6
[iii] Dominic Cooper, Safety Culture, A model for understanding & quantifying a difficult concept, http://behavioral-safety.com/articles/safety_culture_understanding_a_difficult_concept.pdf
[iv] Wiegmann et al.
[v] Ostrom et al.
[vi] Cooper
[vii] Ibid
[viii] Wiegmann et al.