Monday, April 16, 2012

The Many Causes of Safety Culture Performance

The promulgation of the NRC’s safety culture policy statement and industry efforts to remain out in front of regulatory scrutiny have led to increasing attention to identifying safety culture issues and achieving a consistently strong safety culture.

The typical scenario for the identification of safety culture problems starts with performance deficiencies of one sort or another, identified by the NRC through the inspection process or internally through various quality processes.  When the circumstances of the deficiencies suggest that safety culture traits, values or behaviors are involved, safety culture may be deemed in need of strengthening and a standard prescription is triggered.  This usually includes the inevitable safety culture assessment, retraining, re-iteration of safety priorities, re-training in safety culture principles, etc.  The safety culture surveys focus on perceptions of problems and organizational “hot spots” but rarely delve deeply into underlying causes.  Safety culture surveys generate anecdotal data based on the perceptions of individuals, primarily focused on whether safety culture traits are well established but generally not focused on asking “why” there are deficiencies.

This approach to safety culture seems to us to suffer from several limitations.  One is that the standard prescription does not necessarily yield improved, sustainable results, an indication that symptoms are being treated instead of causes.  And therein is the source of the other limitation, a lack of explicit consideration of the possible causes that have led to safety culture being deficient.  The standard prescribed fixes include an implicit presumption that safety culture issues are the result of inadequate training, insufficient reinforcement of safety culture values, and sometimes the catchall of “leadership” shortcomings. 

We think there are a number of potential causes that are important to ensuring strong safety culture but are not receiving the explicit attention they deserve.  Whatever the true causes we believe that there will be multiple causes acting in a systematic manner - i.e., causes that interact and feedback in complex combinations to either reinforce or erode the safety culture state.  For now we want to use this post to highlight the need to think more about the reasons for safety culture problems and whether a “causal chain” exists.  Nuclear safety relies heavily on the concept of root causes as a means to understand the origin of problems and a belief that “fix-the-root cause” will “fix-the-problem”.  But a linear approach may not be effective in understanding or addressing complex organizational dynamics, and concerted efforts in one dimension may lead to emergent issues elsewhere.

In upcoming posts we’ll explore specific causes of safety culture performance and elicit readers’ input on their views and experience.


  1. Do you subscribe to Edgar Schein's culture model?

    1. This is an important question; thank you for asking it. Please see our Sept. 21, 2012 post for our answer.


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