Safety culture and performance

The relationship between safety culture & safety performance

So what role does safety culture play in safety performance? A simple analogy is to consider driving a car. There are 3 distinct ingredients to safe driving:

  • The inherent design of the car – safety features (e.g. seat belts, crumple zones, anti-lock brakes, etc.);
  • The overall traffic management arrangements (e.g. the road design & layout, road surface, signage, etc.);
  • The driver.

Some cars are inherently safer than others (shown by many research findings), some traffic management arrangements are safer than others (e.g. motorways are safer than most single carriageway roads; autobahns have known deficiencies). However, even with good systems, it is the attitudes and behaviours of the driver that will ultimately determine the safety performance of driving. For the highest levels of safety performance we need all three elements – attitudes, behaviours and systems - to be as good as possible.

The true ‘health’ of the safety of any organisation is primarily defined by the frequency of key day-to-day behaviours (frontline and management) and the extent to which these are encouraged and supported by an effective and flexible safety management system. The shared belief in the importance of safety, the extent to which an organisation actively strives to ensure health and safety is done properly and always given a high priority is what defines a positive safety culture. This serves to emphasise the importance of proactive risk management, to complement the focus on technical systems.

This lies in stark contrast to the recording of traditional (reactive) measures of system safety which are based on a reduction, or absence, of negative events which are becoming increasingly rare due to the impact of technological and engineering solutions.