Safety culture – Have you got it? Do you ‘get’ it?

Safety culture is that assembly of characteristics and attributes in organisations and individuals which establishes that, as an overriding priority, nuclear (plant) safety issues receive the attention warranted by their significance.

Modified from the Institute of Nuclear Power Operators (INPO) definition of Safety Culture

If you consider that every hour of every day each of us will make an error, or create an error likely situation about five times an hour. Now most of those errors or situations have little or no immediate consequence.  BUT, our industry, whether it’s nuclear or oil or gas or some other manufacturing company, has a history of making errors.  And it is only a matter of time until the ‘perfect storm’ of accumulated errors arrives.

Sometimes, to go forward, we need to look back a tad.  In the nuclear environment, the concept of Safety Culture was developed by the international community after the Chernobyl accident in 1986. Since then the nuclear industry has had other newsworthy incidents, most recently of course is the Fukushima accident. But after Chernobyl, the nuclear community’s perspective on safety culture expanded with time as its recognition of the complexities of the concept developed.  The aim now is to make safety culture robust, resilient and sustainable, enabling safety to become the prime focus for all activities in the organisation, even for those which might not look safety-related at first.

So, how do I get a ‘safety culture’ you ask?

Safety culture is a very fashionable phrase at the moment.  Everybody wants one, but they either already have one (or so they say) or they don’t know how to get one.   There is a lot written about culture, national culture, organisational culture, professional culture, individual and group culture.  Gosh, what a lot of culture.  But what does it mean? Safety culture according to industry experts such as James Reason means

  • Flexible culture – where the organization is able to reconfigure itself quickly and effectively in times of crisis
  • Reporting culture – an organizational climate where people are prepared to report their errors and near misses
  • Informed culture – where those who manage and operate the systems have current knowledge about the human, technical, organisational and environmental factors that determine the safety of the system as a whole
  • ‘just’ culture – An atmosphere of trust in which people are encouraged for providing essential safety related information; and where they are also clear about where the line must be drawn between acceptable and unacceptable behaviours
  • Organisational learning culture – This is where an organisation must posses the willingness and the competence to draw the right conclusions from its safety information systems and the will to implement major reforms (even if it isn’t the ‘right’ time)
  • Human performance – A suite of behaviours, practices, tools and techniques to support proactive error prevention in the workplace


Have you got all that? 

Why then is safety culture so fashionable?  Well, you only have to look at the conventional and industrial health and safety statistics to see that the numbers of accidents and lost time injuries have reduced considerably over the last few years.   The numbers got to a point where they just stopped falling any more.  So organisations need to reduce their tolerance for error in a way to further reduce the likelihood of errors and reduce costs such as insurance and compensation.


But, therein lies the problem.  To have a strong safety culture you need people to behave in a way which might be quite different to the way they behave now.  What do we mean?  Well, pretty much every organisation we know has said, ‘Safety is our first priority’.  You will have seen those statements too on websites, in your own workplace and elsewhere.  What do we see when we visit those same organisations?  Hmm, well – the facts vary somewhat.  The executives tell us, ‘yes, safety is always our priority and woe betides anyone who doesn’t work safely on my watch’.  But when we go out with managers and leaders in the workplace we see (far too often), that productivity is what they reinforce.  Phrases like ‘Just do what you can’, ‘Can we get it done today’, ‘never mind those issues, let’s just get on with it’, or ‘this job needs to be out of the door tonight, so let’s make it happen folks’. Having a robust safety culture means that as a leader, you don’t even think about saying those things to your teams.  It means you know that people need to work safely and that means not compromising safety for productivity – ever.


People are what make your organisation function the way it does, behaviour is what you see and hear, culture is about how you want to have people behave.  Your organisation is just an enabler to help people do the good job the intended to do when they set out for work today.   As leaders, you’re there to help bridge the gap between what people need to do and what gets in the way.


Sadly, you don’t get a safety culture off the shelf and hey presto, tomorrow everything works as you think it should.  And if it is so easy, why doesn’t everyone have it? And why doesn’t everyone ‘get’ it?


Human Performance and Leadership Ltd (HP&L) is the thought leaders in the field of enabling organisations set and apply its vision of nuclear safety culture.  HP&L have broad and deep strategic and practitioner experience in this area working with nuclear and other regulated industries.  HP&L has the ability to work with all levels of the organisation and can demonstrate clear benefits of the application of human performance and nuclear safety culture.