Safety Culture Program Essentials

Originally posted on May 17, 2014 @ 2:08 PM

Safety Culture Program Essentials


Now is the time of the year when people begin to think of rebooting or starting up a safety culture program.  The concept of safety culture is so overworked yet so poorly defined.  Most organisations seem to use the word ‘culture’ interchangeably with ‘systems” which probably explains why many so called ‘safety culture programs’ don’t work.  It doesn’t make sense to apply systems solutions to cultural problems, as if they are one and the same. Systems are a small aspect of what comprises a culture.  The idea that culture is “what we do around here” is too simplistic and unfortunately supports behaviourist assumptions about culture formation.  The three most prominent myths about safety culture in the safety industry are: behaviour-is-culture, legislation-is-culture (eg. NSW WorkCover) or systems-is-culture.

McLaren describes culture as:

… value-based interpretations; artifacts; shared experiences; interaction, adaptation, and survival; social customs and social norms; the expressive forms of social and material life; a distinctive ‘way of life’ of a group or class; historically transmitted ensembles of symbols; ‘maps of meanings’ that make social life intelligible to its members; systems of knowledge shared by large groups of people; the quotidian, self-interpreted conduct of particular groups and communities; historically shaped forms of consciousness; contradictory forms of ‘common sense’ that shape public and popular life; everyday activities and patterns of actions; an evolving totality of meanings; a living tradition; socially transmitted patterns of behaviour; meanings alive in institutional life as well as in ordinary behaviour; socially embodied differences and ‘performed’ at the level of everyday life; the symbolic production of material structures; a conception of the world or worldview; …

For the purpose of this discussion, a narrowing down to some sense of commonality could be:

1.  Common and exclusive language/knowledge (cultural discourse);

2.  Accepted terms of reference by a group;

3.  Clear identifiers of membership;

4.  Common values, attitudes and beliefs;

5.  Explicit and implicit symbols;

6.  Shared experiences;

7.  Social customs and social norms;

8.  Historically transmitted ensembles of symbols;

9.  ‘Maps of meanings’ that make social life intelligible to its members;

Once we have a clear and comprehensive understanding of culture then we might be better able to: measure it, assess it and influence it.

If we look at the map below, this may help give a perspective on the various ‘trajectories’ that exist within a cultural understanding of safety.  Any so called ‘safety culture program’ which ignores aspects of this map is not likely to succeed.  Unfortunately the space of this brief article does not provide the opportunity to explain much of this map.  For cartographic learners, it may help illustrate the point that culture is not systems.  Models of safety culture programs which offer little more than the policing of systems are not safety culture programs.  No amount of ‘spin’ about ‘generative’ safety or ‘transformational’ safety changes much if discourse, framing and priming maintain old patterns, habits and sub-cultures through punitive pitching.

A Map of About Culture

safety culture map


It was in response to the malaise of systems-as-safety-culture programs in the safety sector that I developed the MiProfile safety culture diagnostic tool.  The survey tool is complemented by the Psychosocial Risk Observation, Culture, Conversation, Competency Training program (PROACT).  The survey and program emerged from research into Weick, Sunstein, Schein, Slovic, Plous and Geller.

Within each cultural ‘trajectory’ suggested above the MiProfile assesses ten critical cultural elements, these are:

  1. Leadership (Sensemaking)
  2. Preparedness (Mindfulness)
  3. Thinking and Practice (Cognitive Dissonance)
  4. Influences (Psychosocial Triggers)
  5. Systems
  6. Core Vision
  7. Priorities
  8. Learning Capacity (Resilience)
  9. Competence
  1. Actions

These ten cultural elements and cultural trajectories form the framework for a safety culture program.  I hope this all makes sense but if you would like to know more please contact me.

McLaren, P., (1999) Schooling as a Ritual Performance


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