Monday, August 2, 2010

Mission Impossible

We are back to the topic of safety culture surveys with a new post regarding an important piece of research by Dr. Stian Antonsen of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.  He presents an empirical analysis of the following question:

    “..whether it is possible to ‘predict’ if an organization is prone to having major accidents on the basis of safety culture assessments.”*

We have previously posted a number of times on the use and efficacy of safety culture assessments.  As we observed in an August 17, 2009 post, “Both the NRC and the nuclear industry appear aligned on the use of assessments as a response to performance issues and even as an ongoing prophylactic tool.  But, are these assessments useful?  Or accurate?  Do they provide insights into the origins of cultural deficiencies?”

Safety culture surveys have become ubiquitous across the U.S. nuclear industry.  This reliance on surveys may be justified, Antonsen observes, to the extent they provide a “snapshot” of “attitudes, values and perceptions about organizational practices…”  But Antonsen cautions that the ability of surveys to predict organizational accidents has not been established empirically and cites some researchers who suspect surveys “‘invite respondents to espouse rationalisations, aspirations, cognitions or attitudes at best’ and that ‘we simply don’t know how to interpret the scales and factors resulting from this research’”.  Furthermore, surveys present questions where the favorable or desired answers may be obvious.  “The risk is, therefore, that the respondents’ answers reflect the way they feel they should feel, think and act regarding safety, rather than the way they actually do feel, think and act…”  As we have stated in a white paper** on nuclear safety management, “it is hard to avoid the trap that beliefs may be definitive but decisions and actions often are much more nuanced.”

To investigate the utility of safety culture surveys Antonsen compared results of a safety survey conducted of the employees of an offshore oil platform (Snorre Alpha) prior to a major operational incident, with the results of detailed investigations and analyses following the incident.  The survey questionnaire included twenty questions similar to those found in nuclear plant surveys.  Answers were structured on a six-point Likert scale, also similar to nuclear plant surveys.  The overall result of the survey was that employees had a highly positive view of safety culture on the rig.

The after incident analysis was performed by the Norwegian Petroleum Safety Authority  and a causal analysis was subsequently performed by Statoil (the rig owner) and a team of researchers.  The findings from the original survey and the later incident investigations were “dramatically different” as to the Snorre Alpha safety culture.  Perhaps one of the telling differences was that the post hoc analyses identified that the rig culture included meeting production targets as a dominant cultural value.  The bottom line finding was that the survey failed to identify significant organizational problems that later emerged in the incident investigations.

Antonsen evaluates possible reasons for the disconnect between surveys and performance outcomes.  He also comments on the useful role surveys can play; for example inter-organizational comparisons and inferring cultural traits.  In the end the research sounds a cautionary note on the link between survey-based measures and the “real” conditions that determine safety outcomes.

Post Script: Antonsen’s “Mission Impossible” paper was published in December 2009.  We now have seen another oil rig accident with the recent explosion and oil spill from BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig.  As we noted in our July 22, 2010 post, a safety culture survey had been performed of that rig’s staff several weeks prior to the explosion with overall positive results.  The investigations of this latest event could well provide additional empirical support for the "Mission Impossible" study results. 

* The study is “Safety Culture Assessment: A Mission Impossible?”  The link connects to the abstract; the paper is available for purchase at the same site.

**  Robert L. Cudlin, "Practicing Nuclear Safety Management" (March 2008), p. 3.

1 comment:

  1. The issue of assessment is indeed one of the recurring themes within safety culture research. Quantitative surveys still seem to be the favored method for such assessment. However, as I have argued in my article, there are some characteristics of culture which make it inherently difficult to assess culture by means of questionnaires. In particular, culture is to a large extent something which is taken for granted by the members of a group. Thus, the members of a culture may not actually be able to explicate aspects of their own culture. Consequently, assessing culture by means of questionnaires may be a case of "telling more than we can know".

    This means that assessments of culture will have to rely on more qualitative methods, such as interviews and field work.

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