Monday, June 15, 2020

IAEA Working Paper on Safety Culture Traits and Attributes

Working paper cover
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has released a working paper* that attempts to integrate (“harmonize”) the efforts by several different entities** to identify and describe desirable safety culture (SC) traits and attributes.  The authors have also tried to make the language of SC less nuclear power specific, i.e., more general and thus helpful to other fields that deal with ionizing radiation, such as healthcare.  Below we list the 10 traits and highlight the associated attributes that we believe are most vital for a strong SC.  We also offer our suggestions for enhancing the attributes to broaden and strengthen the associated trait’s presence in the organization.

Individual Responsibility 

All individuals associated with an organization know and adhere to its standards and expectations.  Individuals promote safe behaviors in all situations, collaborate with other individuals and groups to ensure safety, and “accept the value of diverse thinking in optimizing safety.”

We applaud the positive mention of “diverse thinking.”  We also believe each individual should have the duty to report unsafe situations or behavior to the appropriate authority and this duty should be specified in the attributes.

Questioning Attitude 

Individuals watch for anomalies, conditions, behaviors or activities that can adversely impact safety.  They stop when they are uncertain and get advice or help.  They try to avoid complacency.  “They understand that the technologies are complex and may fail in unforeseen ways . . .” and speak up when they believe something is incorrect.

Acknowledging that technology may “fail in unforeseen ways” is important.  Probabilistic Risk Assessments and similar analyses do not identify all the possible ways bad things can happen. 


Individuals communicate openly and candidly throughout the organization.  Communication with external organizations and the public is accurate.  The reasons for decisions are communicated.  The expectation that safety is emphasized over competing goals is regularly reinforced.

Leader Responsibility

Leaders place safety above competing goals, model desired safety behaviors, frequently visit work areas, involve individuals at all levels in identifying and resolving issues, and ensure that resources are available and adequate.

“Leaders ensure rewards and sanctions encourage attitudes and behaviors that promote safety.”  An organization’s reward system is a hot button issue for us.  Previous SC framework documents have never addressed management compensation and this one doesn’t either.  If SC and safety performance are important then people from top executives to individual workers should be rewarded (by which we mean paid money) for doing it well.

Leaders should also address work backlogs.  Backlogs send a signal to the organization that sub-optimal conditions are tolerated and, if such conditions continue long enough,  are implicitly acceptable.  Backlogs encourage workarounds and lack of attention to detail, which will eventually create challenges to the safety management system.  


“Individuals use a consistent, systematic approach to evaluate relevant factors, including risk, when making decisions.”  Organizations develop the ability to adapt in anticipation of unforeseen situations where no procedure or plan applies.

We believe the decision making process should be robust, i.e., different individuals or groups facing the same issue should come up with the same or an equally effective solution.  The organization’s approach to decision making (goals, priorities, steps, etc.) should be documented to the extent practical.  Robustness and transparency support efficient, effective communication of the reasons for decisions.

Work Environment 

“Trust and respect permeate the organization. . . . Differing opinions are encouraged, discussed, and thoughtfully considered.”

In addition, senior managers need to be trusted to tell the truth, do the right things, and not sacrifice subordinates to evade the managers’ own responsibilities.

Continuous Learning 

The organization uses multiple approaches to learn including independent and self-assessments, lessons learned from their own experience, and benchmarking other organizations.

Problem Identification and Resolution

“Issues are thoroughly evaluated to determine underlying causes and whether the issue exists in other areas. . . . The effectiveness of the actions is assessed to ensure issues are adequately addressed. . . . Issues are analysed to identify possible patterns and trends. A broad range of information is evaluated to obtain a holistic view of causes and results.”

This is good but could be stronger.  Leaders should ensure the most knowledgeable individuals, regardless of their role or rank, are involved in addressing an issue. Problem solvers should think about the systemic relationships of issues, e.g., is an issue caused by activity in or feedback from some other sub-system, the result of a built-in time delay, or performance drift that exceeded the system’s capacities?  Will the proposed fix permanently address the issue or is it just a band-aid?

Raising Concerns

The organization encourages personnel to raise safety concerns and does not tolerate harassment, intimidation, retaliation or discrimination for raising safety concerns. 

This is the essence of a Safety Conscious Work Environment and is sine qua non for any high hazard undertaking.

Work Planning 

“Work is planned and conducted such that safety margins are preserved.”

Our Perspective

We have never been shy about criticizing IAEA for some of its feckless efforts to get out in front of the SC parade and pretend to be the drum major.***  However, in this case the agency has been content, so far, to build on the work of others.  It’s difficult for any organization to develop, implement, and maintain a strong, robust SC and the existence of many different SC guidebooks has never been helpful.  This is one step in the right direction.  We’d like to see other high hazard industries, in particular healthcare organizations such as hospitals, take to heart SC lessons learned from the nuclear industry.

Bottom line: This concise paper is worth checking out.

*  IAEA Working Document, “A Harmonized Safety Culture Model” (May 5, 2020).  This document is not an official IAEA publication.

**  Including IAEA, WANO, INPO, and government institutions from the United States, Japan, and Finland.

***  See, for example, our August 1, 2016 post on IAEA’s document describing how to perform safety culture self-assessments.  Click on the IAEA label to see all posts related to IAEA.

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