Monday, March 29, 2010

Well Done by NRC Staffer

To support the discussion items on this blog we spend time ferreting out interesting pieces of information that bear on the issue of nuclear safety culture and promote further thought within the nuclear community. This week brought us to the NRC website and its Key Topics area.

As probably most of you are aware, the NRC hosted a workshop in February of this year for further discussions of safety culture definitions. In general we believe that the amount of time and attention being given to definitional issues currently seems to be at the point of diminishing returns. When we examine safety culture performance issues that arise around the industry, it is not apparent that confusion over the definition of safety culture is a serious causal issue, i.e., that someone was thinking of the INPO definition of safety culture instead of the INSAG one or the Schein perspective. Perhaps it must be a step in the process but to us what is interesting, and of paramount importance, is what causes disconnects between safety beliefs and actions taken and what can be done about them?

Thus, it was heartening and refreshing to see a presentation that addressed the key issue of culture and actions head-on. Most definitions of safety culture are heavy on descriptions of commitment, values, beliefs and attributes and light on the actual behaviors and decisions people make everyday. However, the definition that caught our attention was:

“The values, attitudes, motivations and knowledge that affect the extent to which safety is emphasized over competing goals in decisions and behavior.”

(Dr. Valerie Barnes, USNRC, “What is Safety Culture”, Powerpoint presentation, NRC workshop on safety culture, February 2010, p. 13)

This definition acknowledges the existence of competing goals and the need to address the bottom line manifestation of culture: decisions and actual behavior. We would prefer “actions” to “behavior” as it appears that behavior is often used or meant in the context of process or state of mind. Actions, as with decisions, signify to us the conscious and intentional acts of individuals. The definition also focuses on result in another way - “the extent to which safety is emphasized . . . in decisions. . . .” [emphasis added] What counts is not just the act of emphasizing, i.e. stressing or highlighting, safety but the extent to which safety impacts decisions made, or actions taken.

For similar reasons we think Dr. Barnes' definition is superior to the definition that was the outcome of the workshop:

“Nuclear safety culture is the core values and behaviors resulting from a collective commitment by leaders and individuals to emphasize safety over competing goals to ensure protection of people and the environment.”

(Workshop Summary, March 12, 2010, ADAMS ACCESSION NUMBER ML100700065, p.2)

As we previously argued in a 2008 white paper:

“. . . it is hard to avoid the trap that beliefs may be definitive but decisions and actions often are much more nuanced. . . .

"First, safety management requires balancing safety and other legitimate business goals, in an environment where there are few bright lines defining what is adequately safe, and where there are significant incentives and penalties associated with both types of goals. As a practical matter, ‘Safety culture is fragile.....a balance of people, problems and pressures.’

"Second, safety culture in practice is “situational”, and is continually being re-interpreted based on people’s actual behaviors and decisions in the safety management process. Safety culture beliefs can be reinforced or challenged through the perception of each action (or inaction), yielding an impact on culture that can be immediate or incubate gradually over time.”

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

We hope the Barnes definition gets further attention and helps inform this aspect of safety culture policy.

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