Friday, March 11, 2011

Safety Culture Performance Indicators

In our recent post on safety culture management in the DOE complex, we concentrated on documents created by the DOE team.  But there was also some good material in the references assembled by the team.  For example, we saw some interesting thoughts on performance indicators in a paper by Andrew Hopkins, a sociology professor at The Australian National University.*  Although the paper was prepared for an oil and gas industry conference, the focus on overall process safety has parallels with nuclear power production.

Contrary to the view of many safety culture pundits, including ourselves, Professor Hopkins is not particularly interested in separating lagging from leading indicators; he says that trying to separate them may not be a useful exercise.  Instead, he is interested in a company’s efforts to develop a set of useful indicators that in total measure or reflect the state of the organization’s risk control system.  In his words, “. . . the important thing is to identify measures of how well the process safety controls are functioning.  Whether we call them lead or lag indicators is a secondary matter.  Companies I have studied that are actively seeking to identify indicators of process safety do not make use of the lead/lag distinction in any systematic way. They use indicators of failure in use, when these are available, as well as indicators arising out their own safety management activities, where appropriate, without thought as to whether they be lead or lag. . . . Improving performance in relation to these indicators must enhance process safety. [emphasis added]” (p. 11)

Are his observations useful for people trying to evaluate the overall health of a nuclear organization’s safety culture?  Possibly.  Organizations use a multitude of safety culture assessment techniques including (but not limited to) interviews; observations; surveys; assessments of the CAP and other administrative processes, and management metrics such as maintenance performance, all believed to be correlated to safety culture.  Maybe it would be OK to dial back our concern with identifying which of them are leading (if any) and which are lagging.  More importantly, perhaps we should be asking how confident we are that an improvement in any one of them implies that the overall safety culture is in better shape. 

*  A. Hopkins, "Thinking About Process Safety Indicators," Working Paper 53, National Research Centre for OHS Regulation, Australian National University (May 2007).  We have referred to Professor Hopkins’ work before (here and here).

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