Wednesday, September 10, 2014

A Safety Culture Guide for Regulators

This paper* was referenced in a safety culture (SC) presentation we recently reviewed.  It was prepared for Canadian offshore oil industry regulators.  Although not nuclear oriented, it’s a good introduction to SC basics, the different methods for evaluating SC and possible approaches to regulating SC.  We’ll summarize the paper then provide our perspective on it.  The authors probably did not invent anything other than the analysis discussed below but they used a decent set of references and picked appropriate points to highlight.

Introduction to SC and its Importance

The paper provides some background on SC, its origins and definition, then covers the Schein three-tier model of culture and the difference between SC and safety climate.  The last topic is covered concisely and clearly: “. . . safety climate is an outward manifestation of culture. Therefore, safety culture includes safety climate, but safety culture uniquely includes shared values about risk and safety.” (p. 11)  SC attributes (from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission) are described.  Under attributes, the authors stress one of our basic beliefs, viz., “The importance of safety is made clear by the decisions managers make and how they allocate resources.” (p. 12)  The authors also summarize the characteristics of High Reliability Organizations, Low Accident Organizations, and James Reason’s model of SC and symptoms of poor SC.

The chapter on SC as a causal factor in accidents contains an interesting original analysis.  The authors reviewed reports on 17 offshore or petroleum related accidents (ranging from helicopter crashes to oil rig explosions) and determined for each accident which of four negative SC factors (Normalization of deviance, Tolerance of inadequate systems and resources, Complacency, Work pressure) were present.  The number of negative SC factors per accident ranged from 0 (three instances) to 4 (also three instances, including two familiar to Safetymatters readers: BP Texas City and Deepwater Horizon).  The negative factor that appeared in the most accidents was Tolerance of inadequate systems and resources (10) and the least was Work pressure (4).

Assessing SC

The authors describe different SC assessment methods (questionnaires, interviews, focus groups, observations and document analysis) and cover the strengths and weaknesses of each method.  The authors note that no single method provides a comprehensive SC assessment and they recommend a multi-method approach.  This is familiar ground for Safetymatters readers; for other related posts, click on the “Assessment” label in the right hand column.

A couple of highlights stand out.  Under observations the authors urge caution:  “The fact that people are being observed is likely to influence their behaviour [the well-known Hawthorne Effect] so the results need to be treated with caution. The concrete nature of observations can result in too much weight being placed on the results of the observation versus other methods.“ (p. 37)  A strength of document analysis is it can evidence how (and how well) the organization identifies and corrects its problems, another key artifact in our view.

Influencing SC

This chapter covers leadership and the regulator’s role.  The section on leadership is well-trod ground so we won’t dwell on it.  It is a major (but in our opinion not the only) internal factor that can influence the evolution of SC.  The statement that “Leaders also shape the safety culture through the allocation of resources” (p. 42) is worth repeating.

The section on regulatory influence is more informative and describes three methods: the regulator’s practices, promotion of SC, and enforcement of SC regulations.  Practices refer to the ways the regulator goes about its inspection and enforcement activities with licensees.  For example, the regulator can promote organizational learning by requiring licensees to have effective incident investigation systems and monitoring how effectively such systems are used in practice. (p. 44)  In the U.S. the NRC constantly reinforces SC’s importance and, through its SC Policy Statement, the expectation that licensees will strive for a strong SC.

Promoting SC can occur through research, education and direct provision of SC-related services.  Regulators in other countries conduct their own surveys of industry personnel to appraise safety climate or they assess an organization’s SC and report their findings to the regulated entity.**  (pp. 45-46)  The NRC both supports and cooperates with industry groups on SC research and sponsors the Regulatory Information Conference (which has a SC module).

Regulation of SC means just what it says.  The authors point out that direct regulation in the offshore industry is controversial. (p. 47)  Such controversy notwithstanding, Norway has developed  regulations requiring offshore companies to promote a positive SC.  Norway’s experience has shown that SC regulations may be misinterpreted or result in unintended consequences. (pp. 48-50)  In the nuclear space, regulation of SC is a popular topic outside the U.S.; the IAEA even has a document describing how to go about it, which we reviewed on May 15, 2013.  More formal regulatory oversight of SC is being developed in Romania and Belgium.  We reported on the former on April 21, 2014 and the latter on June 23, 2014.

Our Perspective

This paper is written by academics but intended for a more general audience; it is easy reading.  The authors score points with us when they say: “Importantly, safety culture moves the focus beyond what happened to offer a potential explanation of why it happened.” (p. 7)  Important factors such as management decision making and work backlogs are mentioned.  The importance of an effective CAP is hinted at.

The paper does have some holes.  Most importantly, it limits the discussion on influencing SC to leadership and regulatory behavior.  There are many other factors that can affect an organization’s SC including existing management systems; the corporate owner’s culture, goals, priorities and policies; market factors or economic regulators; and political pressure.  The organization’s reward system is referred to multiple times but the focus appears to be on lower-level personnel; the management compensation scheme is not mentioned.

Bottom line: This paper is a good introduction to SC attributes, assessments and regulation.

*  M. Fleming and N. Scott, “A Regulator’s Guide to Safety Culture and Leadership” (no date).

**  No regulations exist in these cases; the regulator assesses SC and then uses its influence and persuasion to affect regulated entity behavior.

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