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What is safety culture?

Definition :
Safety culture is a set of ways of doing and thinking that is widely shared by the employees of an organisation in the context of managing the most significant risks associated with its activities.

What is a culture?

All human groups develop their own culture. This encompasses the shared experience of:

  • ways of doing:
    A group’s culture is primarily reflected in their ways of doing, behaviours and practices (a shared language, ways of greeting each other or dressing...)
  • ways of thinking:
    These shared practices are linked to less visible aspects of the culture: common thought patterns, specific knowledge, beliefs, values, and often underlying “myths”, views on what is and isn’t acceptable.

What prompted the interest in safety culture?
In 1986, two major accidents occurred: the explosion of space shuttle Challenger just after lift-off, and the nuclear accident at the Chernobyl power plant in Ukraine.
In both cases, the analysis revealed that these were organisational (or systemic) accidents: they could not be explained solely by inappropriate behaviours on the part of “sharp-end” workers (front-line staff); rather, they were the result of a gradual accumulation of failures within the organisation which had weakened all of the protective barriers, one by one.
The concept of “safety culture” is gaining ground, both in the scientific literature and in its operational application.

Organisational culture and safety culture

Large organisations, such as corporations, trade unions, public services, and non-governmental organisations, develop their own culture. It’s called organisational culture.

Organisational culture has the same basic characteristics of any cultural group: it fosters ways of doing (how the organisation is structured, its rules and procedures, its operation, etc.) and ways of thinking (shared knowledge, beliefs, values, and implicit ways of doing, etc.). How it adopts certain values is underpinned by implicit assumptions. The organisational culture of a business or a branch stems from its history, and depends on its environment, the nature of its activities, and the risks it faces.

Safety culture can then be defined as a set of ways of doing and thinking that are widely-shared by the actors of an organisation in order to manage the most significant risks associated with their activity. It is linked to organisational culture and effects the way the company thinks about, and approaches safety. An interesting question is how can the organisation’s culture impose or support behaviours, ways of interacting, rules and values that improve or degrade safety?

A healthy, inclusive approach considers safety trade-offs in the decision-making process, and recognises the influence that organisational culture has on safety behaviours and practices. At the end of the day, safety culture depends on organisational culture.

Managing the most significant risks associated with the organisation's activities

Organisations can face several types of risks: minor incidents, serious or fatal occupational accidents, or major events that can result in a large number of victims and affect the facility or even the environment. These different types of risks have different degrees of probability and severity.

The priority, in the safety culture approach, is to manage the most significant risks associated with the organisation’s activities.

It is important to note that prevention actions are not the same for these different risk categories (minor accidents, serious or major accidents): organisational failure generally plays a much greater role in serious than minor accidents (see above). In practice, the occurrence of a serious event usually implies that there has been a systemic failure involving a large number of barriers.