Defining Safety Culture

Safety culture is one of the most misunderstood safety constructs.

Safety culture is not:

  • Limited to front-line employee attitudes
  • Only concerned with employee safety behaviour or behavioural safety programs
  • Equal to low injury rates
  • The sum of employee questionnaire responses
  • Unimportant
  • The solution to all health and safety problems
  • An alternative to sound engineering controls and safety management practices

It is important to remember that the term "safety culture" was first used as a causal factor in the Chernobyl disaster (1986).

Terms and Definitions

Safety Culture
Safety culture refers to how safety is addressed and communicated in the workplace. Safety culture encompasses the attitudes, beliefs, perceptions, and values of all employees in an organization in relation to safety. 

Organizational Culture
Organizational culture has been defined as “the shared values, attitudes, and beliefs of members of an organization that interact with an organization’s systems and structures to produce behavioral norms.”

Safety Climate
Safety culture and safety climate are often used interchangeably even though they are distinct concepts. The term safety climate was developed by Dov Zohar before safety culture. Safety climate is typically viewed as a component of safety culture. It captures the perceived relative priority placed on safety by management.

Process Safety Culture
The term process safety culture refers to cultural factors that influence process safety. Since the term ‘safety culture’ originated from a disaster and refers to fundamental values about risk and safety, it incorporates ‘process safety culture’.

Blame Culture
This term is often used to describe a negative culture where those directly involved in an incident are unfairly blamed or scapegoated. This type of culture reduces learning as employees hide incidents for fear of punishment. Some safety professionals argue for a ‘no blame’ culture but a fair, just culture is more appropriate as blame is appropriate in some instances.

Safety Culture Model

The figure below illustrates a multidimensional, multi-layer conceptual framework of safety culture.  This model uses Edgar Schein’s three levels to categorize the safety culture dimensions identified through the review and provides an integrated, comprehensive conceptual model of safety culture. The dimensions presented in this model are positively framed, representing the attributes of a positive safety culture.

Basic Assumptions: The innermost ring represents the core of the model and the shared common values of a group that guide decision-making and goals. 

Espoused Values: The middle ring features the six most common dimensions of safety culture, as determined and categorized by a literature review. These dimensions fall in line with the Canadian Nuclear Safety Committee's framework.

Artifacts: The attributes in the outermost ring are more concrete and observable than the concepts in the inner rings. The outer terms can range from positive to negative practices, serving as valuable indicators of safety culture.

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