Friday, June 18, 2010

Assessing Safety Culture

In our June 15th post, we reported on Wahlström and Rollenhagen’s* concern that trying to measure safety culture could do more harm than good. However, the authors go on to assert that safety culture can and should be assessed. They identify different methods that can be used to perform such assessments, including peer reviews and self assessments. They conclude “Ideally safety culture assessments should be carried out as an interaction between an assessment team and a host organization and it should be aimed at the creation of an awareness of potential safety threats . . . .” (§ 7) We certainly agree with that observation.

We are particularly interested in their comments on safety (performance) indicators, another tool for assessing safety culture. We agree that “. . . most indicators are lagging in the sense that they summarize past safety performance” (§ 6.2) and thus may not be indicative of future performance. In an effort to improve performance indicators, the authors suggest “One approach towards leading safety indicators may be to start with a set of necessary conditions from which one can obtain a reasonable model of how safety is constructed. The necessary conditions would then suggest a set of variables that may be assessed as precursors for safety. An assessment could then be obtained using an ordinal scale and several variables could be combined to set an alarm level.” (ibid.)

We believe the performance indicator problem should be approached somewhat differently. Safety culture, safety management and safety performance do not exist in a vacuum. We advocate using the principles of system dynamics to construct an organizational performance model that shows safety as both input to and output from other, sometimes competing organizational goals, resource constraints and management actions. This is a more robust approach because it can not only show that safety culture is getting stronger or slipping, but why, i.e., what other organizational factors are causing safety culture change to occur. If the culture is slipping, then analysis of system information can suggest where the most cost-effective interventions can be made. For more information on using system dynamics to model safety culture, please visit our companion website,

* Björn Wahlström, Carl Rollenhagen. Assessments of safety culture – to measure or not? Paper presented at the 14th European Congress of Work and Organizational Psychology, May 13-16, 2009, Santiago de Compostela, Spain. The authors are also connected with the LearnSafe project, which we have discussed in earlier posts (click the LearnSafe label to see them.)

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