Wednesday, December 21, 2011

From SCWE to Safety Culture—Time for the Soapbox

Is a satisfactory Safety Conscious Work Environment (SCWE) the same as an effective safety culture (SC)?  Absolutely not.  However, some of the reports and commentary we’ve seen on troubled facilities appear to mash the terms together.  I can’t prove it, but I suspect facilities that rely heavily on lawyers to rationalize their operations are encouraged to try to pass off SCWE as SC.  In any case, following is a review of the basic components of SC:

Safety Conscious Work Environment

An acceptable SCWE* is one where employees are encouraged and feel free to raise safety-related issues without fear of retaliation by their employer.  Note that it does not necessarily address individual employees’ knowledge of or interest in such issues.

Problem Identification and Resolution (PI&R)

PI&R is usually manifested in a facility’s corrective action program (CAP).  An acceptable CAP has a robust, transparent process for evaluating, prioritizing and resolving specific issues.  The prioritization step includes an appropriate weight for an issue’s safety-related elements.  CAP backlogs are managed to levels that employees and regulators associate with timely resolution of issues.

However, the CAP often only deals with identified issues.  Effective organizations must also anticipate problems and develop plans for addressing them.  Again, safety must have an appropriate priority.

Organizational Decision Making

The best way to evaluate an organization’s culture, including safety culture, is through an in-depth analysis of a representative sample of key decisions.  How did the decision-making process handle competing goals, set priorities, treat devil’s advocates who raised concerns about possible unfavorable outcomes, and assign resources?  Were the most qualified people involved in the decisions, regardless of their position or rank?  Note that this evaluation should not be limited to situations where the decisions led to unfavorable consequences; after all, most decisions lead to acceptable outcomes.  The question here is “How were safety concerns handled in the decision making process, independent of the outcome?”

Management Behavior

What is management’s role in all this?  Facility and corporate managers must “walk the talk” as role models demonstrating the importance of safety in all aspects of organizational life.  They must provide personal leadership that reinforces safety.  They must establish a recognition and reward system that reinforces safety.  Most importantly, they must establish and maintain the explicit and implicit weighting factors that go into all decisions.  All of these actions reinforce the desired underlying assumptions with respect to safety throughout the organization. 


Establishing a sound safety culture is not rocket science but it does require focus and understanding (a “mental model”) of how things work.  SCWE, PI&R, Decision Making and Management Behavior are all necessary components of safety culture.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but safety culture is a lot more than quoting a survey result that says “workers feel free to ask safety-related questions.”

*  SCWE questions have also been raised on the LinkedIn Nuclear Safety and Nuclear Safety Culture discussion forums.  Some of the commentary is simple bloviating but there are enough nuggets of fact or insight to make these forums worth following.

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