Safety Culture: Concepts

Research shows that only 10% of all accidents are caused by unsafe conditions; 90% of all accidents are the result of organizational and human factors where latent conditions combine with active failures to produce an accident. Since the greatest threats to aviation safety originate in organizational issues, making the system even safer will require action by the organization.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has identified a number of areas in which certain elements of aviation safety programs may be further supported and enhanced, through Safety Management Systems (SMS).

The Civil Aviation Authority of New Zealand defines Safety Management System as a formal organizational system to manage safety. It integrates a range of safety management tools, including senior management commitment, hazard identification, risk management, safety reporting, occurrence investigation, remedial actions and education. An effective Safety Management System generates an enhanced safety culture and provides the necessary management environment for an organization to readily identify and resolve systemic safety problems. [1]

One important tenet of Safety Management System is the attention to organizational safety culture.

Uttal (1983) defines organizational culture as "the shared values (what is important) and beliefs (how things work) that interact with an organization's structures and control systems to produce behavioral norms (the way we do things around here)." [2]

(Image embedded from Culturechange on 16 Sep 2009)

On the other the hand, safety culture refers to the extent to which individuals and groups will commit to personal responsibility for safety; act to preserve, enhance and communicate safety concerns; strive to actively learn, adapt and modify (both individual and organizational) behavior based on lessons learned from mistakes; and be rewarded in a manner consistent with these values. Safety culture is commonly viewed as an enduring characteristic of an organization that is reflected in its consistent way of dealing with critical safety issues.(von Thadden et al, 2002) [3]

Safety Management System provides an organizational framework to effectively manage safety and serves as the very structure that generates a positive safety culture. SMS frameworks have shown effectiveness when not only adopted as part of a business, but when adopted as part of regulatory oversight operations as well.

Organizational Type

Organisations can be distinguished along a line from pathological to generative: [4]

  • Pathological: The organisation cares less about safety than about not being caught.
  • Reactive: The organisation looks for fixes to accidents and incidents after they happen.
  • Calculative: The organisation has systems in place to manage hazards, however the system is applied mechanically. Staff and management follow the procedures but do not necessarily believe those procedures are critically important to their jobs or the operation.
  • Proactive: The organisation has systems in place to manage hazards and staff and management have begun to acquire beliefs that safety is genuinely worthwhile.
  • Generative: Safety behaviour is fully integrated into everything the organisation does.The value system associated with safety and safe working is fully internalised as beliefs, almost to the point of invisibility.
(Image embedded from Transport Canada on 16 Sep 2009)

Four Critical Elements of Safety Culture

An organization's culture is defined by what the people do. The decisions people makes reflects the values of the organization. The following are four critical elements of safety culture, these activities would make up an "informed culture" - one in which those who manage and operate the systems have current knowledge about the human. technical, organizational and environmental factors that determine the safety of the system as a whole. [5]

  • Reporting culture
      • people are encouraged to voice safety concerns, report their errors or near-misses
      • when safety concerns are reported they are analysed and appropriate action is taken
  • Flexible Culture
      • a culture capable of adapting effectively to changing demands
      • ability to switch from bureacratic, centralized mode to a more decentralized professional mode
  • Learning Culture
      • people are encouraged to develop and apply their own skills and knowledge to enhance organizational safety
      • staff are updated on safety issues by management
      • safety reports are fed back to staff so that everyone learns the lessons
  • Just culture
      • people are encouraged, even rewarded, for providing essential safety-related information
      • errors must be understood but wilful violations cannot be tolerated
      • the workforce knows and agrees on what is acceptable and unacceptable
(Image embedded from Coloradofirecamp on 21 Sep 2009)

According to Reason (1997, as cited in Global Aviation Information Network [GAIN], 2004, p.4), a Just Culture is, "A way of safety thinking that promotes a questioning attitude, is resistant to complacency, is committed to excellence, and fosters both personal accountability and corporate self-regulation in safety matters."

A Just Culture promotes safety by supporting the fact that humans are vulnerable to errors; errors will always occur; and some errors should not carry with them a personally harsh, punitive, resolution when in fact the system itself might be flawed. However, a clear line must be drawn that differentiates between what is common everyday human error versus flagrant or willful violations that could, and should, be dealt with in a stricter manner.

1. Civil Aviation Authority of New Zealand (2009)Safety Management System Retrieved on 18 Sep 2009 from CAANZ
2. Uttal, The corporate culture vultures Fortune, 17 Oct 1983
3. von Thaden, T. L., Zhang, H., Wiegmann, D. A., Gunjan, S., & Mitchell, A. A. (2002). Safety culture: A concept in chaos. Retrieved 18 Sep 2009 from UIUC
4. Hudson, P (2001) Safety Culture: The Ultimate Goal Flight Safety Australia.Retrieved on 18 Sep 2009 from CASA
5. Perezgonzales, JD. Engineering a Safety Culture Massey University, NZ

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