Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Down Under Perspective on Surveys

Now from Australia we have come across more research results related to some of the key findings we discussed in our August 2, 2010 post “Mission Impossible”. Recall from that post that research comparing the results of safety surveys prior to a significant event at an offshore oil platform with post-event investigations, revealed significant differences in cultural attributes.

This 2006 paper* draws on a variety of other published works and the author’s own experience in analyzing major safety events. Note that the author refers to safety culture surveys as “perception surveys”, since they focus on people’s perceptions of attitudes, values and behaviors.

“The survey method is well suited to studying individual attitudes and values and it might be thought that the method is thereby biased in favour of a definition of culture in these terms. However, the survey method is equally suited to studying practices, or ‘the way we do things around here’. The only qualification is that survey research of “the way we do things around” here necessarily measures people’s perceptions rather than what actually happens, which may not necessarily coincide.” (p.5) As we have argued, and this paper agrees, it is actual behaviors and outcomes that are most important. The question is, can actual behaviors be discerned or predicted on the basis of surveys? The answer is not clear.

“The question of whether or how the cultures so identified [e.g., by culture surveys] impact on safety is a separate question. Mearns and co-workers argue that there is some, though rather limited, evidence that organisations which do well in safety climate surveys actually have fewer accidents” (p. 14 citing Mearns et al)**

I kind of liked a distinction made early on in the paper, that it is better to ascertain an organization’s “culture” and then assess the impact of that culture on safety, then to directly assess “safety culture”. This approach emphasizes the internal dynamics and the interaction of values and safety priorities with other competing business and environmental pressures. As this paper notes, “. . .the survey method tells us very little about dynamic processes - how the organisation goes about solving its problems. This is an important limitation. . . .Schein makes a similar point when he notes that members of a culture are most likely to reveal themselves when they have problems to solve. . . .(p. 6)

*  Andrew Hopkins, "Studying Organisational Cultures and their Effects on Safety," paper prepared for presentation to the International Conference on Occupational Risk Prevention, Seville, May 2006 (National Research Centre for OHS Regulation, Australian National University).

**  Mearns K, Whitaker S & Flin R, “Safety climate, safety management practices and safety performance in offshore environments”. Safety Science 41(8) 2003 (Oct) pp 641-680.

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