4.6.1 Safety culture

Course subject(s) Module 4. How: Safe by design

Why is a safety culture key for safe-by-design approach? What is the best approach for diagnosing and improving safety culture?

The next three web lectures from a course offered by Frank Guldemund (TU Delft) will give answers to these questions and help you define a program/policy to diagnose and improve the safety culture within your own organization. It will show that organizations with a better safety culture are more likely to succeed in preventing workplace accidents and injuries and in reducing (external) damage. The other side of the coin is that establishing a safety culture should be considered as a long-term investment and that it can be very challenging!

However, let’s first have a look at some definitions.

Hazards, Risks and Safety: What is the difference?

A hazard can be defined as a potential source of harm or damage to people, property, or the environment. Note the word ‘potential’. Although a hazard can be harmful, it certainly doesn’t have to be the case that this is so. This brings us to safety, which is defined for moment as ‘freedom from unacceptable risk’. Safety can be considered the opposite of risk. Finally, risk is defined as an ‘estimate of the probability of a hazard-related incident or exposure occurring’ – this is also called a scenario – and the severity of harm or damage that could result of that.
Here are a few examples of hazards:    Fire, explosions,    Chemicals, spills (the risk here is, for example, poisoning or pollution), fibers, particles.  Radiation, moving objects (planes, trains, cars, ships, rockets, robots, machines, installations).

This is often represented by the product of chance (or probability) times consequence. However, some consequence (for instance, people getting injured) can be caused by many different events. Risk is about the future.

Because of these two dimensions, probability and consequence, you can map out various scenarios with either high or low probability and small or large consequences. Dying because of lightning or a bee-sting, for instance, has a small probability and also has minor consequences. The probability of dying in a traffic accident is obviously larger, but the consequences are still small. And so on.

Finally, the concept of safety. Safety is a state, and it can change rapidly, instantaneously. However, we call a state safe, when nobody present in that state will get hurt.  You also look at it from the angle of perceptions. You could call this a more psychological approach to safety. It starts with the question: when do we call a state, or a situation safe? To use the word safe there must somehow be a threat, a hazard, around otherwise the use of the word safe is unnecessary. This also implies that safety is related to a local state or situation, because the threat is here and not there. Furthermore, this hazard or threat is controlled, because we call the situation ‘safe’. Finally, people trust the control of the hazard, because if they wouldn’t have any confidence, they would feel unsafe, despite all the controls.

Developing a safety culture

The development model of culture looks like this. It consists of five steps,

    • Understanding,
    • Interaction,
    • Formalizing,
    • Transmitting and
    • Reinforcing.

Let’s take a look at each of the steps in more detail.

Step 1: Understanding
Novel situations often require the application of existing solutions in a new way. If people are not familiar with existing solutions, the novel application of these becomes also difficult.

Given that informed people are working together, we might still want to influence some of the meanings they assign to things in their environment. For instance, whether a particular activity is riskier than they think. In other words, we want to convince or persuade people of something. The general term for these persuasive messages is rhetoric and it is used in several different forms in organizations instance, some organizations circulate particular incidents or accidents through their intranet. These incidents could be external but also external to the company. Furthermore, many companies carry out campaigns to bring various safety topics under the attention of employees. The overall characteristics of rhetoric is that it is uni-directional, as one person (or groups of people) tries to convince another group. Much of this is also covered under the heading of ‘risk communication’, and much research has been carried out into this topic. You’re probably well aware of all this. A professor of health risk communication once told me, ‘Before we hang up a poster, much work has already been carried out’. So, keep this in mind when considering a safety campaign.

Step 2: Interaction
This ia a crucial step, as it needs to bring informed people together to reach a shared understanding about a surprise or an ambiguity. The proper term for this interaction is ‘dialogue’ or dialectics. This is not the same as a discussion or a debate, in which people try to convince each other of the appropriateness of their point of view. If required, people need to consider various viewpoints; remember the two people staring at the nine, which is also a six. This is a fragile process, not in the least because people are naïve realists, as we have seen in a previous lecture. So, people need to be able to take a step back and listen to others too.

Interventions aimed at this step are concerned with non-aggressive communication and humble inquiry. People in leadership positions should take heart and be a model for this type of communication.

Step 3: Formalizing
The third step is aimed at formalization of shared understandings. As stated before, this formalization should be based on consensus, because when it is not, it will not be embraced by all the people involved. Furthermore, this formalization should stay within the safe envelope of the process as well as take account of crucial interactions with other processes. Consideration should be given how formalization takes place. Too many rules bring confusion as well as bad rules lower respect for good rules. Finally, are the rules goal-oriented or means-oriented, meaning are they about the what or the how? So, interventions aimed at this step consider these issues.

Step 4: Transmitting 
Interventions here should be concerned with how dissemination takes place as well as what is disseminated. This is not my field of expertise, so I cannot say what will be proper interventions here. However, much is already known about effective education and training, so you should consult various reliable sources here for useful interventions.

Step 5: Reinforcing
Reinforcement takes a prominent place in a practice called behavior-based safety, or BBS for short. BBS is rooted in a branch of psychology called behaviorism. Through positive reinforcement, people are apt to repeat the behavior that has just been rewarded. A reward does not have to be a material reward, it can be a compliment or an encouragement. These already can be powerful rewards.

Safety culture

Development of a safety culture

Influencing Culture

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Responsible Innovation: Building Tomorrow’s Responsible Firms by TU Delft OpenCourseWare is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://online-learning.tudelft.nl/courses/responsible-innovation-building-tomorrows-responsible-firms/.
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