Monday, August 23, 2010

Safety Climate Surveys (Part 1)

In our August 11, 2010 post we quoted from a paper* addressing safety culture on off-shore oil facilities.  While the paper is a bit off-topic for SafetyMatters (the focus is more on industrial safety and individual, as opposed to group, perceptions), it provides a very good example of how safety climate survey data should be collected and rigorously analyzed, and hypotheses tested.  In addition, one of the findings is quite interesting.

The researchers knew from survey data which respondents had experienced an accident at a facility (not just those facilities where they were currently working), and which respondents had not.  They also knew which of the surveyed facilities had a historically higher proportion of accidents and which had a lower proportion.  “In this case, . . . respondents who had not experienced an accident provided significantly less favorable scores on installations with low accident proportions. Additionally, respondents who had experienced an accident provided significantly less favorable scores on installations with high accident proportions.” (p. 656)  In other words, workers who had been through an accident recognized a relatively safer (riskier) environment better than workers who had not.  While this is certainly more evidence that experience is the best teacher, we think it might have an implication for the commercial nuclear industry.

Unlike offshore oil workers, the overwhelming majority of nuclear power plant employees have never experienced a significant incident (we’re excluding ordinary personnel mishaps).  Thus, their work experience is of limited use in helping them assess just how strong their safety culture actually is.  Does this make these employees more vulnerable to complacency or slowing running off the rails a la NASA?  

*  Mearns K, Whitaker S & Flin R, “Safety climate, safety management practices and safety performance in offshore environments.”  Safety Science 41(8) 2003 (Oct) pp 641-680.

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