We propose that safety culture be considered “the willingness and ability of an organization to resist undue pressure on safety from competing business priorities”. Clearly this is a 30,000 foot view of safety culture and does not try to address the myriad ways in which it materializes within the organization. This is intentional since there are so many possible moving parts at the individual level making it too easy to lose sight of the macro forces.
The following diagram conceptualizes the boundary between safety priorities (i.e., safety culture) and other organizational priorities (business pressure). The plotted line is essentially a threshold where the pressure for maintaining safety priorities (created by culture) may start to yield to increasing amounts of pressure to address other business priorities. In the region to the left of the plot line, safety and business priorities exist in an equilibrium. To the right of the line business pressure exceeds that of the safety culture and can lead to compromises. Note that this construct supports the view that strong safety performance is consistent with strong overall performance. Strong overall performance, in areas such as production, cost and schedule, ensure that business pressures are relatively low and in equilibrium with reasonably strong safety culture. (A larger figure with additional explanatory notes is available here.)
The arc of the plot line suggests that the safety/business threshold increases (requires greater business pressure) as safety culture becomes stronger. It also illustrates that safety priorities may be maintained even at lower safety culture strengths when there is little competing business pressure. This aspect seems particularly consistent with determinations at certain plants that safety culture is “adequate” but still requires strengthening. It also provides an appealing explanation for how complacency can over time erode a relatively strong safety culture . If overall performance is good, resulting in minimal business pressures, the culture might not be “challenged” or noticed even as culture becomes degraded.
Another perspective on safety culture as pressure boundary is what happens when business pressure elevates to a point where the threshold is crossed. One reason that organizations with strong culture may be able to resist more pressure is a greater ability to manage business challenges that arise and/or a willingness to adjust business goals before they become overwhelming. And even at the threshold such organizations may be better able to identify compensatory actions that have only minimal and short term safety impacts. For organizations with weaker safety culture, the threshold may lead to more immediate and direct tradeoffs of safety priorities. In addition, the feedback effects of safety compromises (e.g., larger backlogs of unresolved problems) can compound business performance deficiencies and further increase business pressure. One possible insight from the pressure model is that in some cases, perceived safety culture issues may be more a situation of reasonably strong safety culture being over matched by excessive business pressures. The solution may be more about relieving business pressures than exclusively trying to reinforce culture.
In Part 3 we hope to further develop this approach through some simple simulations that illustrate the interaction of managing resources and balancing pressures. In the meantime we would like to hear reactions from readers to this concept.