Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Can Measuring Safety Culture Harm It?

That’s a question raised in a paper by Björn Wahlström and Carl Rollenhagen.* Among other issues, the authors question the reliability and validity of safety culture measurement tools, especially the questionnaires and interviews often used to assess safety culture. One problem is that such measurement tools, when applied by outsiders such as regulators, can result in the interviewees trying to game the outcome. “. . . the more or less explicit threat to shut down a badly performing plant will most likely at least in a hostile regulatory climate, bring deceit and delusion into a regulatory assessment of safety culture.” (§ 5.3)

Another potential problem is created by a string of good safety culture scores. We have often said success breeds complacency and an unjustified confidence that past results will lead to future success. The nuclear industry does not prepare for surprises yet, as the authors note, the current state of safety thinking was inspired by two major accidents, not incremental progress. (§ 5.2) Where is the next Black Swan lurking?

Surprise after success can occur on a much smaller scale. After the recent flap at Vermont Yankee, evaluators spent considerable time poring over the plant’s most recent safety culture survey to see what insight it offered into the behavior of the staff involved with the misleading report on leaking pipes. I don’t think they found much. Entergy’s law firm conducted interviews at the plant and concluded the safety culture was and is strong. See the opening paragraph for a possible interpretation.

The authors also note that if safety culture is an emergent property of an organization, then it may not be measurable at all because emergent properties develop without conscious control actions. (§ 4.2) See our earlier post for a discussion of safety culture as emergent property.

While safety culture may not be measurable, it is possible to assess it. The authors’ thoughts on how to perform useful assessments will be reviewed in a future post.

* Björn Wahlström, Carl Rollenhagen. Assessments of safety culture – to measure or not? Paper presented at the 14th European Congress of Work and Organizational Psychology, May 13-16, 2009, Santiago de Compostela, Spain. The authors are also connected with the LearnSafe project, which we have discussed in earlier posts (click the LearnSafe label to see them.)

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