Experience Transfer Stories (03) - Degradation of (process) safety cultures (part 1)

The concept of safety culture can be defined in many different ways. A working definition can be given as “a set of commonly accepted norms within an organization dictating the perceptions, attitudes, values, and behaviors towards the safety of humans, environment, and the other assets (Botheju et al., 2015)”. No need to have a detailed discussion of this definition in order to grasp the scope of this brief article.

Safety culture spectrum can be categorized into 2 broader regions: Positive safety cultures, and negative safety cultures. A positive safety culture contributes to the overall safety within an organization. Negative safety cultures lead to regular accidents and incidents; poorer safety performance overall. We can look into more details of the differences between these two types of safety cultures in a different occasion. The aim of this text is to briefly discuss about the deterioration of safety cultures.

Even the best safety cultures in the world can be deteriorated, unless they are actively maintained. That is a key phrase: “active maintenance of the safety cultures”. According to our personal experience, there are many reasons for degrading safety cultures. Let’s look into few of them.

1. Complacency - A long period of relatively high safety:

When a certain safety culture develops into a highly positive state, then that organization reaches a long period of high safety performance, indicated with a very few or no accidents. Then everything seems to be working fine. Nothing seems to be going wrong for a long period of time. This is when it onsets a course of cultural shift. A time of complacency starts to infest the organization. People tend to believe that the expenses made on safety systems can be reduced; or they can “cut corners” out of safety expenses. As a result, major deficiencies in the process designs can occur within a short period of time, OR, greater reduction of care will infest the work procedures and safety barriers. This situation will then lead to a series of significant incidents or accidents, or even a major accident. When that happens, everybody understands that a (major) course correction is needed. And the organization attempts to re-converge towards a positive safety culture. This cycle will repeat itself. For those organizations having a greatly developed positive safety culture, this cycle is not very visible – but still happens within a certain control margin. For those organizations with negative safety cultures, this cycle becomes extremely visible. Sometimes, the cycle becomes so self-destructive that many organizations facing major disasters will simply go out of business at the first run of the cycle. Other organizations may survive through several cycles of improving and degrading safety periods. The best (positive) safety cultures shall clearly understand this cycle and fine-tune their safety management system to recognize the first signs of this self-complacency and will take actions to reduce the amplitude of this cycle.

We will meet in a 2nd part of this article to discuss more reasons for degrading safety cultures. Until then, always remember that “Even the best safety cultures in the world can deteriorate unless they are actively maintained”. The author has seen this happening during his career.