Friday, October 22, 2010

NRC Safety Culture Workshop

The information from the Sept 28, 2010 NRC safety culture meeting is available on the NRC website.  This was a meeting to review the draft safety culture policy statement, definition and traits.

As you probably know, the NRC definition now focuses on organizational “traits.”   According to the NRC, “A trait . . . is a pattern of thinking, feeling, and behaving that emphasizes safety, particularly in goal conflict situations, e.g., production vs. safety, schedule vs. safety, and cost of the effort vs. safety.”*  We applaud this recognition of goal conflicts as potential threats to effective safety management and a strong safety culture.

Several stakeholders made presentations at the meeting but the most interesting one was by INPO’s Dr. Ken Koves.**  He reported on a study that addressed two questions:
  • “How well do the factors from a safety culture survey align with the safety culture traits that were identified during the Feb 2010 workshop?
  • Do the factors relate to other measures of safety performance?” (p. 4)
The rest of this post summarizes and critiques the INPO study.


For starters, INPO constructed and administered a safety culture survey.  The survey itself is interesting because it covered 63 sites and had 2876 respondents, not just a single facility or company.  They then performed a principal component analysis to reduce the survey data to nine factors.  Next, they mapped the nine survey factors against the safety culture traits from the NRC's Feb 2010 workshop, INPO principles, and Reactor Oversight Program components and found them generally consistent.  We have no issue with that conclusion. 

Finally, they ran correlations between the nine survey factors and INPO/NRC safety-related performance measures.  I assume the correlations included in his presentation are statistically significant.  Dr. Koves concludes that “Survey factors are related to other measures of organizational effectiveness and equipment performance . . . .” (p. 19)

The NRC reviewed the INPO study and found the “methods, data analyses and interpretations [were] appropriate.” ***

The Good News

Kudos to INPO for performing this study.  This analysis is the first (only?) large-scale attempt of which I am aware to relate safety culture survey data to anything else.  While we want to avoid over-inferring from the analysis, primarily because we have neither the raw data nor the complete analysis, we can find support in the correlation tables for things we’ve been saying for the last year on this blog.

For example, the factor with the highest average correlation to the performance measures is Management Decision Making, i.e., what management actually does in terms of allocating resources, setting priorities and walking the talk.  Prioritizing Safety, i.e., telling everyone how important it is and promulgating safety policies, is 7th (out of 9) on the list.  This reinforces what we have been saying all along: Management actions speak louder than words.

Second, the performance measures with the highest average correlation to the safety culture survey factors are the Human Error Rate and Unplanned Auto Scrams.  I take this to indicate that surveys at plants with obvious performance problems are more likely to recognize those problems.  We have been saying the value of safety culture surveys is limited, but can be more useful when perception (survey responses) agrees with reality (actual conditions).  Highly visible problems may drive perception and reality toward congruence.  For more information on perception vs. reality, see Bob Cudlin’s recent posts here and here.

Notwithstanding the foregoing, our concerns with this study far outweigh our comfort at seeing some putative findings that support our theses.

Issues and Questions

The industry has invested a lot in safety culture surveys and they, NRC and INPO have a definite interest (for different reasons) in promoting the validity and usefulness of safety culture survey data.  However, the published correlations are moderate, at best.  Should the public feel more secure over a positive safety culture survey because there's a "significant" correlation between survey results and some performance measures, some of which are judgment calls themselves?  Is this an effort to create a perception of management, measurement and control in a situation where the public has few other avenues for obtaining information about how well these organizations are actually protecting the public?

More important, what are the linkages (causal, logical or other) between safety culture survey results and safety-related performance data (evaluations and objective performance metrics) such as those listed in the INPO presentation?  Most folks know that correlation is not causation, i.e., just because two variables move together with some consistency doesn’t mean that one causes the other but what evidence exists that there is any relationship between the survey factors and the metrics?  Our skepticism might be assuaged if the analysts took some of the correlations, say, decision making and unplanned reactor scrams, and drilled into the scrams data for at least anecdotal evidence of how non-conservative decision making contributed to x number of scrams. We would be surprised to learn that anyone has followed the string on any scram events all the way back to safety culture.

Wrapping Up

The INPO analysis is a worthy first effort to tie safety culture survey results to other measures of safety-related performance but the analysis is far too incomplete to earn our endorsement.  We look forward to seeing any follow-on research that addresses our concerns.

*  “Presentation for Safety Club Public Meeting - Traits Comparison Charts,” NRC Public Meeting, Las Vegas, NV (Sept 28, 2010) ADAMS Accession Number ML102670381, p. 4.

**  G.K. Koves, “Safety Culture Traits Validation in Power Reactors,” NRC Public Meeting, Las Vegas, NV (Sept 28, 2010).

***  V. Barnes, “NRC Independent Evaluation of INPO’s Safety Culture Traits Validation Study,” NRC Public Meeting, Las Vegas, NV (Sept 28, 2010) ADAMS Accession Number ML102660125, p. 8.

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