The term “safety culture” appeared for the first time in a report written by the International Atomic Energy Agency following the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. It was used to collectively describe the catastrophic failures in company-wide attitudes towards safety that were blamed for the disaster.
Rather like the Titanic, the fate of seemingly unsinkable operations rests in the hands of its safety culture. Icebergs happen, but if safety had over-ridden profit, hubris and human frailties Kate Winslett’s career would have had to start somewhere else…
Since Chernobyl, the phrase “safety culture” has become part of the safety industry’s vernacular but what is it? Even now in 2016, there is still no universally agreed definition of what that phrase actually encompasses. What does it actually measure?
Muddying the waters further, occasionally the phrase sometimes morphs from “safety culture” into “safety climate”, depending on what you are reading, often within the same paragraph. Most people understandably assume that they are the same thing.
They are, however, fundamentally different.
Culture versus Climate
Safety culture is like any other culture, think of the British culture. In general, our culture is shaped by rules, beliefs, superstitions, ethics, and codes of conduct concerning what we find acceptable and unacceptable. All of which, is based around a shared moral sense that we learn by osmosis from an early age. Our culture is made up of subcultures, but the collective consensus subtlety shapes us and our behaviour.
Safety culture is all of those things but focussed entirely on how safety is thought about collectively within an organisation and whether it is ultimately prioritised or not.
The safety climate is the current mood, for want of a better word. Going back to British culture, consider how it changes when we host the Olympics, win the Ashes or even when the sun comes out. Compare that to news of political scandals, long winters and recession. The underlying culture is still exactly the same, but the climate has shifted, in a fundamentally, dynamic way.
Good versus bad safety culture
When people talk about safety culture, it tends to be in terms of “poor safety culture” or “good safety culture”. A poor safety culture is an organisation where safety does not come first. Where, for example, safety is always trumped by profit, a collective blind eye is turned to dangerous behaviour, and where peer pressure leads to unwilling participation in corner-cutting and risky behaviour.
A good safety culture is one that puts safety first at all times, trains staff, has built-in procedures and checks and encourages trust, open dialogue and shared responsibility (amongst other things). Inevitably then, the people that work within that framework adopt those principles and know that their bosses care about keeping them safe.
What does the safety climate tell us?
The safety climate is a direct reflection of the health of the safety culture and therefore tells you everything you need to know to be able to tighten your safety operations and reduce your vulnerability to preventable accidents and losses.
The safety climate is a fickle creature as it is hugely influenced by recent events. If safety equipment is replaced with shiny new kit, or safety training updated for example, there will be a positive effect on the safety climate felt by all. An accident, or a cheap, temporary fix on equipment will have the opposite effect on the safety climate until things are put right. If the underlying safety culture is a good one, then the climate will bounce back to its former good self following any deviations.
Why is this important – well, because the way we feel is an absolute precursor to how we act and the decisions we make – get the climate right (by creating a good culture and being consistent) and actions will follow.
Do you have a clear picture of the safety culture and climate within your operation? If not, then you really should find out.
Use our Safety Culture Survey to find our what effect you operation’s safety culture is having on your safety climate and how to to make it even better…
You may be surprised by the results, studies examining the perception of the climate by management and staff show that management often think that the climate is much rosier than it actually is.
Deal With It! Can help you negotiate and re-build the sometimes wobbly bridge between culture and climate and make sure that everyone is on the same page when it comes to safety.
Do it today, studies show a direct association between a good safety climate and lower accident rates.