Thursday, October 28, 2010

Safety Culture Surveys in Aviation

Like nuclear power, commercial aviation is a high-reliability industry whose regulator (the FAA) is interested in knowing the state of safety culture.  At an air carrier, the safety culture needs to support cooperation, coordination, consistency and integration across departments and at multiple physical locations.

And, like nuclear power, employee surveys are used to assess safety culture.  We recently read a report* on how one aviation survey process works.  The report is somewhat lengthy so we have excerpted and summarized points that we believe will be interesting to you.

The survey and analysis tool is called the Safety Culture Indicator Scale Measurement System (SCISMS), “an organizational self-assessment instrument designed to aid operators in measuring indicators of their organization’s safety culture, targeting areas that work particularly well and areas in need of improvement.” (p. 2)  SCISMS provides “an integrative framework that includes both organizational level formal safety management systems, and individual level safety-related behavior.” (p. 8)

The framework addresses safety culture in four main factors:  Organizational Commitment to Safety, Operations Interactions, Formal Safety Indicators, and Informal Safety Indicators.  Each factor is further divided into three sub-factors.  A typical survey contains 100+ questions and the questions usually vary for different departments.

In addition to assessing the main factors, “The SCISMS contains two outcome scales: Perceived Personal Risk/Safety Behavior and Perceived Organizational Risk . . . . It is important to note that these measures reflect employees’ perceptions of the state of safety within the airline, and as such reflect the safety climate. They should not be interpreted as absolute or objective measures of safety behavior or risk.” (p. 15)  In other words, the survey factors and sub-factors are not related to external measurements of safety performance, but the survey-takers’ perceptions of risk in their work environment.

Summary results are communicated back to participating companies in the form of a two-dimensional Safety Culture Grid.  The two dimensions are employees’ perceptions of safety vs management’s perceptions of safety.  The grid displays summary measures from the surveys; the measures can be examined for consistency (one factor or department vs others), direction (relative strength of the safety culture) and concurrence of employee and management survey responses.

Our Take on SCISMS

We have found summary level graphics to be very important in communicating key information to clients and the Safety Culture Grid appears like it could be effective.  One look at the grid shows the degree to which the various factors have similar or different scores, the relative strength of the safety culture, and the perceptual alignment of managers and employees with respect to the organization’s safety culture.   Grids can be constructed to show findings across factors or departments within one company or across multiple companies for an industry comparison. 

Our big problem is with the outcome variables.  Given that the survey contains perceptions of both what’s going on and what it means in terms of creating safety risks, it is no surprise that the correlations between factor and outcome data are moderate to strong.  “Correlations with Safety Behavior range from r = .32 - .60 . . . . [and] Correlations between the subscales and Perceived Risk are generally even stronger, ranging from r = -.38 to -.71” (p. 25)  Given the structure of the instrument, one might ask why the correlations are not even larger.  We’d like to see some intelligent linkage between safety culture results and measures of safety performance, either objective measures or expert evaluations.

The Socio-Anthropological and Organizational Psychological Perspectives

We have commented on the importance of mental models (here, here and here) when viewing or assessing safety culture.  While not essential to understanding SCISMS, this report fairly clearly describes two different perspectives of safety culture: the socio-anthropological and organizational psychological.  The former “highlights the underlying structure of symbols, myths, heroes, social drama, and rituals manifested in the shared values, norms, and meanings of groups within an organization . . . . the deeper cultural structure is often not immediately interpretable by outsiders. This perspective also generally considers that the culture is an emergent property of the organization . . . and therefore cannot be completely understood through traditional analytical methods that attempt to break down a phenomenon in order to study its individual components . . . .”

In contrast, “The organizational psychological perspective . . . . assumes that organizational culture can be broken down into smaller components that are empirically more tractable and more easily manipulated . . . and in turn, can be used to build organizational commitment, convey a philosophy of management, legitimize activity and motivate personnel.” (pp.7-8) 

The authors characterize the difference between the two viewpoints as qualitative vs quantitative and we think that is a fair description.


*  T.L. von Thaden and A.M. Gibbons, “The Safety Culture Indicator Scale Measurement System (SCISMS)” (Jul 2008) Technical Report HFD-08-03/FAA-08-02. Savoy, IL: University of Illinois, Human Factors Division.

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