Monday, June 23, 2014

Regulatory Oversight of Safety Culture in Belgium

The latest International Nuclear Safety Journal has an article* by Benoit Bernard describing a new safety culture (SC) regulatory oversight process now in use in Belgium.  It is based on observations of SC during interactions with a licensee.  This post describes the process and the rationale for it, followed by our perspective.

Bernard starts with a brief history of SC in the nuclear industry then describes two types of regulation currently used, compliance-based and performance-based, and highlights the shortcomings of each.  “Compliance-based” regulation is focused on a licensee’s control of isolated technical components.  This traditional approach can lead to an “adversarial legalism” between the regulator and the licensee, discourage open communication and fail to promote continuous improvement.  In contrast, “performance-based” regulation is based on specific outcomes the licensee is expected to achieve.  The regulator focuses on monitoring outcomes.  This is a reactive approach that can tend to concentrate on well-known risks or familiar issues, and ignore emergent new issues.  Both approaches are inadequate to deal with human factors issues.

The New Process

The author notes “Safety culture cannot be directly regulated but it can be observed . . . [The new Belgian approach] is based on field observations provided by inspectors or safety analysts during any contact with a licensee (inspections, meetings, phone calls…).” (p. 3)  It is expected to be more proactive and systemic than the earlier regulatory approaches.

The process has both short-term and longer-term applications.  In the short term, the purpose is to identify findings that require more-or-less immediate licensee attention or action.  In the longer term, SC observations are input to the overall oversight process. (p. 4)

Observations focus on both facts (what happened) and context (the circumstances surrounding an event).  The approach leads to “Why?” questions rather than degree of compliance with defined SC attributes.  For example, if someone doesn’t follow a rule, is it because of bad behavior or a bad rule?  Was there inadequate training or task-specific knowledge, an inadequate procedure, poor documentation or lack of management commitment to SC?  “The important point is to . . . shed light on the underlying reasons as to why the rules were ignored. . . . [L]inking an observation to an attribute must not be considered as an end but as a starting point to further questions.” (p. 7)

Bernard goes on to describe three aspects of SC that an overall assessment must address: Integration, Differentiation and Fragmentation.  “Integration” refers to the “level of consensus concerning a set of values unifying people and reflected in practices and management systems.” (p. 8)  Prior to the annual SC review with a licensee, SC observations are assessed through four key safety dimensions: Management, Organization, Workplace Practices and Behavior.  You probably can’t read the figure below but each dimension has two component factors, e.g., Management consists of “Management system” and “Leadership,” and each factor appears under two different dimensions, e.g., “Management system” appears under Management and Organization.  Each factor also has several attributes.  This is where the rubber meets the road so think about the training, teamwork, supervision and overall effort required to get regulatory observers (who are more likely to be technical experts than social scientists) to reliably associate specific observations with the correct dimension(s), factor(s) and attribute(s) and then integrate their findings into an overall SC assessment.

“Differentiation” refers to “the ability of [sub-]groups to share a common definition of problems
and “Fragmentation” refers to the “contrast of perceptions and contradictions [across an organization] about what is safe or dangerous.” (p. 9)

Comparison with Romanian Approach

If this topic sounds familiar, on April 21, 2014 we posted on an SC oversight process developed by the Romanian nuclear regulatory agency (CNCAN).  The CNCAN approach looks at artifacts (documents, interviews and observations) to develop an overall, longer-term perspective on SC.

CNCAN recognizes there are limitations to using their process including findings that reflect a reviewer’s subjective opinion and over-reliance on one specific finding.  The Belgian paper recognizes that training technically-oriented reviewers to become competent observers is a challenge.  But Bernard also appears to promote the possibility of “one specific finding” being an early warning, a leading indicator of problems.

Bernard explicitly states this is not a one-size-fits all approach.  The search for event context implies a type of customization of the process for each licensee.  The author says the result is “a regulation style responding to the reference framework of a particular licensee.” (p. 9)

Belgium has seven operating units at two sites, both sites owned and managed by Electrabel, a Belgium-based energy company.  A customized approach may work in Belgium.  But as we noted in our review of the CNCAN approach, “the U.S. currently has 32 operators reporting to 81 owners. Developing SC assessment techniques that are comprehensive, consistent and perceived as fair by such a large group is not a simple task.”

Our Perspective

This is a good paper for its comprehensive discussion of nuclear SC in general and its description of two existing regulatory world views. 

But we have some concerns with the SC observation process.  As noted above, training observers is a major challenge and we think it would be very difficult to adopt such a process in the relatively fragmented U.S. nuclear industry.

In addition, observations are a very soft artifact (compared to documents or even structured interviews) and thus open to to misunderstandings, observational errors and false positives.  It’s easy to imagine a licensee being sent off on a wild goose chase after a regulator misreads one (or more) interactions with licensee personnel.

Furthermore, as instant observations become used as leading indicators, the process could become more like a backseat driver commenting on every turn of the steering wheel.  Licensees might oversteer in their attempt to get back into this new type of compliance.  The risk is the observational process begins to intrude on day-to-day management.  And, at some point, ownership of plant SC could subtly shift from the licensee to the regulator.

Finally, although we constantly chide the industry for concentrating on the “what” and ignoring the “why” associated with incidents or infractions, it’s also clear that the pendulum could swing too far in the other direction.  In plain language, not every minor issue merits an in-depth “why” investigation; that can be a route to over-use of resources and organizational paralysis.

We’re not condemning this as a bad idea.  But a regulatory user (and licensees) should be alert to the possibility of unintended consequences.

**  B. Bernard, “Safety Culture as a Way of Responsive Regulation: Proposal for a Nuclear Safety Culture Oversight Model,” International Nuclear Safety Journal vol. 3 no. 2 (2014) pp. 1-11.  Thanks to Madalina Tronea for promoting this journal.  Dr. Tronea is the founder/moderator of the LinkedIn Nuclear Safety group.

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