What is a safety culture?
Safety within an organisation is dependent upon its safety culture. This concept was first coined by the nuclear power industry in the aftermath of the Chernobyl accident in 1986. Following an error during the testing of a reactor, a radioactive cloud was discharged which contaminated much of Europe – an estimated 15,000 to 30,000 people died in the aftermath.1
Of course, first thoughts are to blame the plant operators – they made a mistake – but as with most disasters when things go wrong it is rarely because of a single isolated event.
Errors and incidents occur within a system and usually there is a sequence of events that occur before an accident happens.
With Chernobyl, investigators found that the disaster was the product of a flawed Soviet reactor design coupled with serious mistakes made by the plant operators. It was a direct consequence of Cold War isolation and the resulting lack of any safety culture.2
- The reactor was operated with inadequately trained personnel.
- The team was not competent to do the job; they were electrical engineers rather than specialists in nuclear plants.
- There was poor communication between the team and managers.
- The nuclear reactor was housed in inappropriate premises.
The Advisory Committee on the Safety of Nuclear Installations 1991 stated that: “The safety culture of an organisation is the product of individual and group values, attitudes, perceptions, competencies and patterns of behaviour that determine the commitment to an organisation’s safety management.”