The Safety of Work

Ep.44 What do we mean when we talk about safety culture?

Episode Summary

On this episode of Safety of Work, we discuss “safety culture” and what that actually means.

Episode Notes

To frame our discussion, we reference the paper What We Talk About When We Talk About HSE and Culture.

Please send us your further questions of safety culture, so we can dig into more specifics in later episodes.





“The argument is, really, that culture only matters, because it influences climate. And climate’s what we measure and what we try to change.”

“42% of the papers are by engineering authors. 30% of them are by psychology authors. 14% from the health sciences. 10% from the social sciences. 3% from business. Which I find remarkable, given that organizational culture comes out of social science of organizations.”

“...That’s remarkable that 30% of the papers weren’t empirical in any sense. They were just people talking about safety culture as if they knew about it or summarizing other people who had talked about it.”



What We Talk About When We Talk About HSE and Culture

Episode Transcription

David: You’re listening to the Safety of Work Podcast episode 44. Today we’re asking the question: What do we mean when we talk about safety culture? Let’s get started.

Hey everybody, my name is David Provan, and I’m here with Drew Rae. We’re from the Safety Science Innovation Lab at Griffith University. Drew, safety culture has taken us until episode 44 to get around to dedicating a whole episode to this topic. I think we mentioned in episode 33 on institutional logics that we should do this episode.

Again, this topic is not something that we can justice in a single podcast. We thought we would start with one of the ontological questions, which would be what do we mean when we talk about safety culture? Drew, I’d like to ask our listeners a question right at the start. As we go through this episode, think about the specific questions that you have on safety culture and add them to the comments on the Safety of Work LinkedIn page when this episode comes out. And then we might be able to get some more specific papers and address questions that you have in relation to safety culture.

But Drew, how would you like to start us off today?

Drew: Dave, you found and have put the effort into reading the paper that we’re going to talk about. I just wanted to give a little bit of background on the term safety culture. One of the things you noted in the original notes was everyone started talking about safety culture after Chernobyl. But that’s not where the term safety culture comes from.

This was something that was a very popular way of talking and thinking about management science back in the 1970s. Lots and lots of stuff were written about organizations as reflections of the society they were within. Sociologists started treating organizations as these microcosms or miniature societies that reflected the outside society and included aspects of it inside the organization.

And then management theorists started talking about it almost as if organizations had personalities. The organizational cult was almost like a synonym for the personality of IBM or the personality of Dell. The idea has come over into safety, as far as I know, several different times. Some people might have heard of Barry Turner in the 1970s talk about organizational accidents as failures of intelligence. David, I can remember Turner specifically talking about safety culture.

David: Generally, we’d say that he didn’t use the word safety culture. But the way he talked about things that were important to safety or probably associated with the cause of accidents, we would liken the way he talked about them to the way many people describe safety culture in more modern papers.

Drew: And he was a sociologist coming out of that group of people who talked about organizational culture. And then we’ve got an author. Lots of people may have heard of Dov Zohar. In 1980, he started talking about the safety climate. Climate and culture are not the same things. But they come out of that same theoretical structure. The broad idea is that culture is deep-seated beliefs and values, often coming a lot from the external social culture. And then climate is the recurring pattern of behaviors and perceptions that comes out of the cultures.

This didn’t get talked about explicitly in safety until the IAEA report into Chernobyl. It drew heavily on these organizational theories, and it introduced the term safety culture almost as if it was like a well-established and accepted idea. Then they got surprised when no one knew what they were talking about, and they published another whole report saying, what we mean when we said safety culture.

Ever since then, lots of people have talked about safety culture without ever properly defining it. Or they’ve tried to go back, define, and explain it, but without any real consensus. It was just people giving their individual opinions. To the extent that there’s a consensus now, and we’ll talk about that a bit with this paper.

Most people who deal with this focus now on safety climate. The argument is that culture only matters because it influences climate, and climate is what we measure and what we try to change. What’s the actual point of talking about culture instead of talking about climate? We might get into that a bit as we go through the paper.

David: Drew, there’s been a number of literature review papers that have covered safety culture or different aspects of safety culture. But the paper that I found to discuss today was a little bit unique because it was trying to scrutinize the history of that term culture within the safety research literature. I thought this was important for our listeners because I thought the first full topic that we’d do on safety culture, we just say what do we mean when we talk about safety culture, which is the title of this episode.

When people talk about safety culture within the literature, what are they actually talking about? One of the things that jumped out of me—like you said Drew, and the authors agree with what you said there—is we don’t have an agreed definition. The authors of this paper felt that was okay because it’s appropriate to use this term culture to represent this safety-related knowledge or intelligence—as Turner might have called it—that might be declared like climate, or it might be tacit like culture. It’s difficult to express using our other existing concepts.

The author said that’s okay for research to do that. From my perspective reading that, I thought that’s a bit of a cop-out. That’s a bit like researchers not taking the effort to specifically describe and maybe clearly label the phenomena that they theorize while researching. It’s almost like if we don’t have a way of talking about it, we can just use this general term and people will know what we mean.

Drew: I don’t think it’s a cop-out by the particular authors that we’re talking about today because all they’re trying to do is summarize the literature. But I think they are making excuses for the literature that the literature does not deserve.

One of my favorite paper titles is by Zhang, which is just Safety Culture: A Concept in Chaos? Whenever you see a question mark in the paper of the title, the answer is either going to be yes or no. This paper was definitely arguing yes. They just say this concept is so confusing, we can’t even have discussions about it anymore because people mean so many different things by the same term.

David: That would be a good thing for our listeners to reflect on just right now. Hit pause on your player or something. Grab a piece of paper and when you say safety culture, write down a few sentences of what you mean by that. That might be a good thing to do.

Assuming that you’re now back with us, let’s talk about this paper. The paper that we chose for today is titled What do we mean when we talk about HSE and culture – A mapping and analysis of the academic discourses. Right up here Drew, I’ll just say that the word HSE is in the title there. The authors specifically use HSE instead of safety, and we’ll talk about that in a second. But HSE, for those who aren’t aware, stands for Health Safety and Environment. Which is just one of those acronyms that industry uses like EHS, HSE, HSEQ, QSE, or whatever they used to describe their department or their management system that incorporates safety.

We’ll talk about that in a minute. The authors are Rolf Bye, Asbjørn Aalberg, and Jens Røyrvik. I apologize if I haven’t got my Norwegian right, but the authors are all from SINTEF and NTNU in Norway. Drew, there’s a lot of good safety research that’s been done from these organizations in Norway, particularly in relation to the oil and gas in the maritime industries, and also in describing and applying more contemporary safety theory.

Drew, you’ve put a note in there that these authors have quite eclectic collections of papers. Do you want to talk about some of the other things they’ve written?

Drew: Everything ranging from very specific maritime or oil and gas topics to human factors to some sort of modern safety theory papers. I’ve only found a couple of papers that mention safety culture in their list of things they’ve published. In this particular case, that’s fair enough. These aren’t safety culture specialists, but they know the field enough to be able to do a proper literature review in the field. Having that little bit of an independent outsider perspective helps when you’re trying to deal with a concept where there are big divisions within the community about what the concept means. It means they’re not going to be taking sides.

David: That is a good point, Drew. This is a recent paper. It was published in 2020 in Safety Science. Drew, like we said, this is a literature review, and I’m fascinated by the background of this research. I’m not sure exactly how it was funded. The authors say this research project was all about studying the consequences of the introduction of a single paragraph into the Norwegian Patrol in regulations that required "an HSE culture" that includes "all phases and activity areas shall be encouraged through continuous work to reduce risk and improve health safety in the environment."

The Norwegian petroleum regulator had inserted this legislative obligation to require oil and gas companies to have an HSE culture. We know, Drew, also that you mention IEA or the International Energy Association earlier. They’ve required the nuclear industry to have a safety culture for a long time and have a global program of safety culture audits for all our nuclear power operators. That’s the genesis of the papers. Anything to comment in relation to putting the requirement to have an HSE culture into a regulation? 

Drew: I find it deeply problematic, to be honest. But that is probably something that we need to take as the topic for another discussion. It’s a little bit like trying to measure safety climate by the use of scaled surveys. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything in a definition or explanation of safety culture that suggests that it’s something that can or should be audited.

David: It’s one of those things whether it can be audited, categorized, or described. We’ll talk about a few of these things in a minute. But it’ll be like having a department of human services regulate through a requirement to be a good parent.

Drew, they found 229 papers that had HSE and culture in the title. Now, straight away, they used these terms in their literature review—cultures and HSE, and are looking for both of those terms to exist in the same paper. The authors acknowledged that papers that just had the term safety in them and not HSE weren’t in the sample of 229 papers. I felt, Drew, that this paper was still worth talking about in relation to safety culture. Even the author said that 75% of the papers when they said HSE, they meant just safety.

I think that we’re using the term HSE. This happens a bit in research, Drew, where depending on where the funding grant comes from, the industry that the paper is trying to target, or the common language of the practitioners can influence what language researchers use.

Drew: There’s no good justification for just using the term HSE instead of all of its synonyms. At least no good academic justification for it. I’m sure the reason they did it was that there were just too many papers that show up when you use synonyms. They had to have some way of cutting it down to a manageable sample. They did it just by being strict on the terms they use.

They make the point of their paper that you can’t necessarily then generalize from HSE to broader safety culture, but there’s no particular reason to think that HSE papers are a subset or even a particularly meaningful subset. It’s a rather weird and awkward thing to do. Having looked through the findings, there are reasonable reasons to think that the findings do just generalize the safety culture.

David: Drew, they asked a couple of specific research questions to what are we talking about. Let’s just go back to safety culture. Who’s writing about safety culture? When they say HSE, are they talking about health, safety, environment, or a combination of these? What methods get used when we’re studying safety culture? What are the most frequently used references for safety culture or definitions? When they say culture, what are they talking about in terms of what does this denote? What are they describing? And to what extent are the papers normative? And I suppose, Drew, normative means in terms of to what extent are the papers describing what should be as opposed to being descriptive and describing what is.

The authors themselves had this hypothesis that the variation in the use of the term safety culture may be associated with the different sub-communities of safety researchers. Who the researchers are or the authors are, how the research was designed, what country it was done in, and what industry they were talking about was all going to influence the way that safety culture was defined and described.

Drew, the authors developed a set of categories to carry the paper. I might just talk about some of these and get your perspective on them. They got each of these 229 papers, and they got the demographics, the name of the paper, the year, and the number of citations. Then they started focusing on the author. They wanted to know who the author was; what their professional background was; what their current location and their ethnic background were; what industry they were talking about, studying, or referring to when they were writing the paper; and how the research was designed. Then they had a whole bunch of categories on the conceptualization of cultures.

Because they were going to do a lot of quantitative analysis to try to figure out relationships between who the authors were—those things that I’d just described—and how they talked about that culture, they needed categories to plug into their statistical test, Drew. We’re now going to talk about each one of these. 

The first one was the extent of the community. When they talked about culture, were they talking about something national, something that was a factor of the broader social construct of the organizational [...] within? Or were they talking about a subset of that like an organization or even groups within an organization? Drew, that goes back to the early work of culture in the ‘70s, versus maybe some of the more specific descriptions of safety culture in the last 20 years. 

Then they were looking about whether culture was something that was within or between communities. This is whether the description of culture was either a factor of many factors associated with an organization or a more holistic term. I like the way the authors describe this as is a safety culture something an organization has? Or is a safety culture a description of something that the organization is?

By that, I mean do you have a safety culture, safety management systems, safety leadership, and safety risk management? Is safety culture just another factor? Or is safety culture this holistic, all-encompassing description of what your organization is? 

Drew, then the location of culture. This is interesting, and this gets us a bit closer to some of the discussions we had in the institutional logics episode. Here, the authors were interested in differentiating between perspectives of culture. A term that I hadn’t heard before, is it an ideational system? Straight away in here, I thought about hearts and minds. Is this about mental models, beliefs, attitudes, values, and the things inside—the hearts and heads of individuals? Or is it more about social norms, social practices, social behaviors within a local and social context? 

Even though everyone was talking about culture, Drew, I think this was getting a little bit closer whether they were talking about culture or whether they were talking about climate. We can see in these papers that there’s a fair range of definitions that go inside and outside of what we might think of as culture. 

Drew: I don’t think the authors say this directly, but they’re getting at do people even make the distinction between culture and the climate? Or do they treat culture as this very vague thing that encompasses both beliefs, logics, and behaviors? If you put that together with the location and level of its traction, all of these questions add together about just how vague are people being. Have they pinned culture down to a specific clear concept that sits somewhere? Does it expand across all activities; all types of leadership; and all concepts of beliefs, behaviors, attitudes, and perceptions? Or have they pinned it down to a specific thing?

David: What we’ve got is we’ve got 229 papers. We’ve got a whole lot of demographic information, methodological information, and then all of these categories that say these people with these sorts of research approaches, what are they doing? What are they talking about? What are they saying? They went to all this data, and they plugged it into a whole range of statistical tests, drew some standard symmetrical biplots, which look like what are the relationships between two different variables. Then they do a whole bunch of significance and reliability tests.

We’re into the result. For example, two things might be. What’s the relationship between the background of the authors and whether they write descriptive or normative papers? One of the early results is that authors from a social science background write about culture in a generally descriptive way, authors from engineering backgrounds are more likely to write normative papers, and psychologists are somewhere in the middle.

Drew: That one is unsurprising but important. David, I don’t know if you’ve run into these teaching classes in safety. But when the topic of culture comes up, one of the challenges is always that social scientists are trying to teach it as if it is this descriptive thing. We describe cultures, we don’t measure them. Engineers come into the class and they say, if you can’t measure it, what good is it? How do we know whether we can make it better or not? The point is that to a social scientist, there’s no better or worse culture. There’s just a culture, and you describe what it is.

David: I think Drew, by the time people are authoring academic papers, they’ve been through a whole lot of academic and professional training in particular disciplines. Those disciplines very much do have a way of thinking about thinking or thinking about worldviews and ways of thinking about the world. I suppose that when you’re looking at things through a certain set of glasses, then everything looks a certain way. 

You and I are no different, Drew, in the way that we see the world. You might be. You’ve had more of a confusing career pathway or discipline pathway than I have—part engineer and part scientist—but I very much come through a psychology and social science background. Maybe you can be a little bit less narrow in your views than I can be.

Drew: I thought you’re about to say I have permission to dump on the engineers because I have an engineering degree. It is really fascinating, particularly when it comes to who writes about culture. As well as the things that social scientists tend to be more descriptive, engineers tend to be more normative, and psychologists in the middle. 42% of the papers are by engineering authors, 30% of them are by psychology authors, 14% from the health sciences, 10% from the social sciences, and 3% from business. Which I found remarkable given that organizational culture comes out of the social science of organizations. 

The people who are least equipped or embedded in all of the ideas that an organization comes from are the ones who talk about it the most. The people you would expect to be most ingrained in ideas like culture and talking about it as an explanation for why people do what they do are the ones who study it and talk about it least in safety. It reminds me of this idea about amateurs talk about tactics and provisional study logistics. I really think that maybe there’s this thing where culture is an exotic and interesting idea for engineering authors. Whereas to social science authors, it's fairly stale and 1970s like the lime green cabinets in your kitchen. People just aren’t interested in talking about it anymore.

David: No, that’s good. Any of our listeners who are engineers, make sure you direct those comments, any feedback directly to Drew’s inbox. I’ll give you the email if you want it. Also, this might be one limitation of the sample, Drew, because depending on the papers, people who were choosing to say HSE in their paper instead of safety might be more practitioner orientated in some of the heavy industries.

Also, some of the timing of these papers were between 1992 and 2013. Depending on what was going on in some of these safety science laboratories, who are staffing them, and who is writing about them, it would be interesting just to say who is involved in safety science research more broadly at that point in time. Whether this was representative of the safety science research field or whether this was something quite different to the rest of the field.

Drew: That’s a fair comment. We don’t really know what the underlying sample that is drawn from because of that use of the term HSE. If they’d restricted it to certain journals, then we’d know what the background population was from those journals. If they were looking specifically at safety science, then we’d know that safety science tends to be psychologists and social sciences. The engineers would be remarkable. But if they’re drawing from oil and gas publications, then lots and lots of those authors are from engineering departments.

David: Yup, great, Drew. It might have saved you a little bit of hate mail there just with [...] out of that one. What industry are they talking about? 26% of the papers are from transpiration; 23% from oil and gas; 8% from nuclear; 30% just come from a diverse range of industry areas like health care, manufacturing, construction, mining, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, firefighting, fishing defense, agriculture and service industries; and then 14% are more broadly just theory papers or don’t address specific industry, a literature review papers, or those types of things. 

The thing that’s interesting about some of those things is when they were done—between ‘92 and ‘99, most of the papers are addressing no specific industry. This might be where people just started generally talking about safety culture post-Chernobyl—a couple of years after the report into Chernobyl came out. People just started theorizing and talking about safety culture. 

Then it seems—between 2000 and 2006—that the research was really focused on the nuclear and oil and gas industries. I suppose nuclear was obvious because of Chernobyl. About the same year or so, about the time of Chernobyl [...] you have Piper Alpha, and there’s a number of oil and gas industry incidents. That becomes an environment where attention and research money starts to flow into the oil and gas industry.

From 2007 to 2013, transportation and other industries picked it up. Typically, maybe feeling like they’re potentially a little bit behind nuclear and oil and gas, so they’re trying to catch up to what they think are some of these more mature industries. Drew, that was interesting to me to see the way that the papers fell through those time ranges in those industries.

Drew: That wave of coming into an industry and then back out again seems to be driven by industry attention on that particular topic.

David: Drew, 80% of the papers stem from research in Europe, North America, and Australia. They looked at even the authorship background, something like over 60% of the authors was in Europe, North America, or the UK alone. What the paper concludes is that any generalizations that we make about safety culture—generalizable to global countries, companies with global company [...], or companies with operations outside of the Anglo world—probably shouldn’t be used to think about culture in some of those areas where there’s pretty much been no research done in the same way.

Drew: I’m going to jump in there, David, I’m almost 100% sure that is a side effect of the HSE term. I’m very confident that there is lots of safety culture research outside of Europe, North America, and Australia. It’s very popular on the subcontinent, in China, and with Middle Eastern researchers. They just don’t call it HSE. They call it a safety culture or safety climate.

David: That’s a good pick up, Drew. I think you see what flows through the safety science editorial queue. I know, generally, even when we do safety professional research or other research, there is a lot of research that comes out of those other countries other than those we talked about here. That’s going to be a term issue.

Drew: But that said, I will say that the idea of a national culture bias is also very, very valid. Because the term came out of (originally) Western authors. One of the interesting things the paper does is it tracks where people got their definition of culture from. That means a lot of the things that we talk about in safety culture are very much you can see the Western individualistic mindset coming through even though we’re talking about culture.

David: Yeah, absolutely, Drew. Let’s just talk about that now. They looked at what were the most frequent references in these papers. When the authors of these 229 papers introduced the term culture, who did they cite in relation to that definition, or what definition did they give that they were talking about? 

The top three frequent references for the authors pinning their work back to an underlying definition, theory, or approach to culture, the top one was James Reason or Jim Reason, second was [...] and third was [...] Hofstadter, who sadly passed away early this year. They’re fairly prominent names in the Western culture world, Drew.

Drew: Yeah. Interesting because Jim Reason was primarily a human factors researcher. He talks about organizational safety, but he was by no means concentrating on safety culture as a key topic of research. This is somewhat indicative of a lack of a theoretical core to professional people. They mentioned the word safety culture and then think, I’ve got to cite someone for it. Who will I cite? Who do I think of? James Reason, [...], or Hofstadter? Pick one, cite them. Don’t think really about what they had to say about it.

David: Yes, you’re right, Drew. 41% or something the papers didn’t link any citation to their core term culture or didn’t include a definition of what they were talking about with culture. 60% who did include a definition were either mostly vague, we did that, Drew, which was just lean on a previous author or just put a citation in there, or provided some broad or non-specific definition.

I think, Drew, the authors said that this finding might partly reflect that culture is so incorporated as part of our everyday language of both the authors as well as potentially the readers that it makes it possible of getting away without defining it. I remember trying to think about have every paper that I’ve written on the safety professional, have I stopped in the introduction and defined, when I say safety professional, this is what I mean?

I know I did it as a result of one piece of peer review feedback, where I put that definition in there. But the safety professional is someone whose dominant role and purpose in the organization are primarily directed toward safety outcomes as opposed to delivering on the core business of the organization. I got asked to define it by one peer reviewer because until then, I was just not thinking of the need to define it.

Drew, in terms of research design, half the papers were quantitative. When we say quantitative, half of the research papers were primarily surveys and reviewing incident data. 29% were based on other publications. Reprocessing data from other research or literature reviews, and then 20% were qualitative methods which were primarily interviews, case descriptions, or case studies.

Drew: If you think about it, David, that’s remarkable that 30% of the papers weren’t empirical in any sense. They were just people talking about safety culture as if they knew about it, or summarizing other people who had talked about it. You can see how a term can get vague when we’re not doing a lot to analyze it. Particularly given a lot of these quantitative ones are just applying the concept of culture to do the measurement. They’re not using the measurement to refine or improve our understanding of safety culture. We just got lots of recycled and reinterpreted ideas.

David: Yeah. You’re right, Drew. The authors say this contributes to this safety culture discourse being dominated by individual perceptions and attitudes because of this weighting of survey-based research designs. And also, predominantly about ethics case descriptions. Ethics is like the perception of the observer or the researcher versus an emic description, which is what the actual perception of observee or the actors and the people involved are.

And then the authors concluded, it’s just like this real absence of studies where researchers have looked at actual work practice within actual organizations with methods that are using sense-making methods that involve the actors and the people within those organizations or within the groups that the researcher is trying to understand and describe. 

To take our listeners back to about episode 20 where we talked about our manifesto for reality-based safety science with the conclusion after a big literature review of 229 papers, that statement would be true if many of the other literature reviews have core concepts in safety science.

Drew: We really should hold culture to a higher standard even [...] than some of those other things. If you ask anyone what they mean by culture, even if we’re not going to give it a precise definition, anyone would say that you understand the culture from the inside. You understand the culture from the beliefs and values that people hold. It’s rather shocking then how little of safety culture research tries to understand the beliefs and values that people hold instead of not coming in from the outside and applying surveys and quantitative measures.

David: Drew, let’s go through a couple of findings, and then we’ll talk about some practical takeaways. Some perspectives on culture are dominant. What the authors say is that this conceptualization of culture as shared and aligned perceptions and attitudes about safety. That idea is shared and consistent between people in a group about their attitude towards safety. 

There is also this conclusion that culture is this ideational thing. It’s not something that’s real that we can touch, feel, and see it. It’s, like I said, more about hearts and minds, or it’s about the vibe. Culture is about the vibe about safety in the organization. Culture is one factor among several factors that influence safety. Safety culture, safety leadership, and safety management system. Those three things shared and aligned perceptions. It’s about the vibe, not what you can touch and see, and it’s one of several factors that are relevant to safety in an organization.

Drew, they then go on to say that relatively few papers take a different perspective on that. They described this different perspective in some of their categories as relatively few papers describe culture as a holistic metaphor used to denote all of the systemic relationships within an organizational system that could influence safety. Or as something that develops in the interaction between people within a particular organizational context.

That system's view or that development of actions between people and that sense-making that goes on. I’d take people back to episode 33, and that’s the sort of thing that we’re talking about with institutional logics, which is why it’s probably seen to be different than what the way safety culture is talked about in literature when we made that reference within that episode.

Drew: There are certainly voices within the literature that calls for more of those other concepts of culture. I’m thinking, for example, of some work by Beth [...] who talks about the importance of studying culture by looking at the interactions between people, what they reveal about parastructures and commonly held beliefs and assumptions, and who gets to challenge those beliefs and assumptions.

A lot of these other papers pay lip service to that, but once they get into how they actually look at culture, they step away from closely interrogating those interactions, and they get more into this just vague culture as a vibe.

David: Drew, I thought we might move on to practical takeaways, if you’re okay with that?

Drew: Yup, let’s indeed.

David: I’m sure our listeners are wondering what could you possibly have in terms of practical takeaways from that episode about what we talk about when we talk about culture. But I’m going to throw a couple out there. 

If you’re using the word safety culture, make sure you immediately follow up those words with, and when I use the term safety culture, I mean, and then finish off that sentence for yourselves. Don’t be someone who throws the term safety culture out and do what 40% of the authors in this paper do and not tell people what you mean by it. Because just know that whoever you’re talking to about safety culture is going to have a different idea about what you’re talking about than what you might actually be talking about.

Drew, the same goes, if someone mentions safety culture to you. As soon as someone says something to you about safety culture, ask them what they mean. You might need to ask them a few times. Drew, I wrote in here, let’s call this the five what do you means, which people might know the five whys with accident investigation. Although we can probably do a podcast on that as well. 

But it might be like, we need to improve the safety culture. What do you mean by that? Oh, we need to improve the beliefs of our people. Oh, what do you mean by that? Just keep going until you get to what someone is actually trying to tell you.

Drew: David, I thought about this one the moment you said at the start of the episode, inviting our listeners to write down what they meant by safety culture. If what you’ve got written down on your piece of paper is the way things are done around here, or that’s the answer someone gives you when you ask them about safety culture, that really is not good enough.

If what you mean is the way things are done around here, then just say that. If you’re going to use a term like safety culture, what work are you trying to do by introducing that concept? What’s the specific meaning that gives you something different from just talking about doing work? If we’re going to talk about culture, we need to be specific if we want it to be useful either for our understanding or for our safety improvement. Knowing what we mean is the first sign in being able to actually directly intervene in dealing with it. 

David: Yeah, exactly right, Drew. That’s not bad advice for a lot about general terms that we use in safety. We want to improve leadership accountability. We want to improve personal ownership of the workforce. Or some of these other things that we throw out there with the assumption that we’re clear in what we’re talking about and that’s a good check to ask yourself. Even if you are, just assume that people won’t interpret those big words in the same way that you will.

What I hope also, Drew, is our listeners have got out of the discussion is that when people talk about the safety culture literature, or they talk about safety culture as being absolutely linked to safety outcomes or well-proven in the literature. I just hope our listeners took away that this whole body of research is generally ill-defined, generally poor quality in terms of what it’s trying to measure and understand, and it’s quite fragmented. 

I think that’s why a number of the prominent safety science researchers in—and even those who have published a lot in the safety culture space. Our listeners might be cool with Frank Guldenmund, Andrew Hopkins, and others. In the last decade or so, they’ve made lots of public calls for us to move on from the term and start to be more specific about what we’re talking about.

Drew: I’m always fascinated by the fact that Guldenmund only wrote one full paper about safety culture. He basically said, let’s just stop this. Then so many safety cultures cite Guldenmund, and they just go on and use the term uncritically.

David: Drew, anything else you’d like to know from our listeners? Other than just seeing what they wrote down as their definition or what they might like us to talk about in the future in relation to safety culture?

Drew: I think it’s having some of those questions understanding what work this concept is doing within your organization? What are the demands for doing things about safety culture? How are you using the term, how are you using the concept? What would be useful for you to know? Particularly a number of our listeners have said they like it when they talk about specific activities. If there are particular activities you do in that safety culture space that you’re interested in, what’s the evidence for them? We’d love to have some pointers as to what you’d like us to talk about.

David: Drew, you’ve also mentioned a few times if you’re a postgraduate researcher or an early career researcher, maybe steer away from asking research questions that have the word safety culture in them or trying to write papers in this area because it’s generally poorly done.

Drew: Yeah. There are some land mines you just don’t want to step on as a researcher. One of them is trying to create a new method of risk assessment. Number two, right behind that is trying to create a newer, better explanation of safety culture.

David: Drew, the question we asked this week is what do we mean when we talk about safety culture? My go with that answer is, most of the time when we talk about safety culture in the safety literature, it’s referring to something that’s in the hearts and the minds of individuals—60% of the papers here. It’s something that’s one factor of a number of things that are relevant to safety. This is mainly due to the fact that most of the research is being conducted in limited geographies and based on some vague theories and research using questionnaires.

It’s about asking individuals about their beliefs and attitudes and then discussing the results in relation to the researcher’s normative ideas of what is good and bad.

Drew: Good summary, David. That’s it for this week. We hope you found this episode thought-provoking and ultimately useful in shaping the safety of work in your organization, or possibly not in the case of this particular episode. Send any comments, questions, or ideas for future episodes to