Resolving the Safety Culture/Safety Climate Debate

What is Safety Culture?  How is it differentiated from Safety Climate?  Is there a functional or simply an academic differentiation?  Is it important to understand the differences?  These questions have been debated and discussed in academic circles and the various echelons of safety for many years.  This paper will endeavor to define each term in a manner that is understandable and useful for an applied setting.  This paper will not establish means of enhancing or improving a Safety Culture or Safety Climate, and it will not seek to evaluate the validity of the measurement or efficacy of interventions on the overall safety process or performance-based outcomes.  Significant work has already been undertaken in these fields and is beyond the current scope of this writing.   For relevant information please see the following (Cooper and Phillips, 2004; Fernandez-Muniz, Montes-Peon, and Vazquez-Ordas, 2007; and O’Conner, Buttery, O’Dea, Kennedy, 2011).

Of the two terms Safety Climate and Safety Culture, by far the easier to define is Safety Climate.  According to numerous academic works, Safety Climate is the accumulation of beliefs, values, and perceptions about safety that are shared within a specific group (Zohar, 1980 and Cooper, 2004) at any given time.  For the purposes of this paper, we are interested in considering workplace-based groupings that are generally employees of a company, institution, or other employing organizations.  It is of note that the term Safety Climate actually appears to precede the introduction of the term Safety Culture into the lexicon of safety professionals.  It is generally accepted that the concept of Safety Culture was first described in relation to the nuclear reactor disaster that occurred in Chernobyl in 1986 whereas the term Safety Climate was used at least as earlier as 1980 and could have been used much earlier.

safety climateAccording to much of the scientific literature (Zohar, 1980; Phillips, et al 1993, & Cooper, 2004) Safety Climate is generally the accepted term for the collective view of Safety within an organization as manifested by recent or current events. In other words, the Safety Climate can be considered an immediate antecedent to behavior.  An organization’s employees are often driven to action, or inaction, based on their perceptions of reality driven by the Safety Climate.  Safety Climate is typically evaluated using perception surveys and interviews.  Safety Climate is often significantly influenced by recent events.  For example, the Safety Climate of an organization can experience an immediate negative impact if a major workplace event such as a fatality occurs.  Although this event may eventually also impact the Safety Culture, it could have a significant latency and its long-term impact may require years to accurately evaluate.

Safety Culture tends to be a term that is generally used to describe an overall sense of shared beliefs, values and traditions around workplace safety that is viewed within the larger framework of organizational systems.  Experts such as Cooper, (2004) and Guldenmund, (2000), have, to various degrees, expressed that Safety Climate is the manifestation of normative values, beliefs, and behaviors at a point in time.  They express Safety Culture as the underlying or driving belief system that creates a climate.  Safety Culture generally takes a long-period of time to create and it is this historical context of the concept that differentiates it from Safety Climate.

When analyzed from a relatively parsimonious perspective the differences between Safety Climate and Safety Culture are reasonably simple to separate.  Safety Culture is a measure of perspectives, beliefs, and traditions measured through the lens of a historical perspective.  Safety Climate, on the other hand, is a measure of perceptions about safety that are reflective of the immediate circumstances.  These temporal separators are not the only means of differentiating Safety Climate and Safety Culture.  There are other, less abstract components of each that create a divergence as well. 

Since Safety Climate is a measure of what is occurring in the instant, it is directly influenced by events that have recently occurred.  By direct extension, the views and perceptions about safety today are molded by the very recent activities of the organization.  This means that the current elements of an organization’s Safety Management System (SMS) have a direct impact on the Safety Climate.  Thus the metrics that are measured and evaluated by the SMS are foundational elements that make up the Safety Climate.  Another point to consider is the role that Organizational Behavior and Organizational Actions play on Safety Climate as well.

Organizational Behavior is the sum-total of all activities, actions, and undertakings that an organization engages in.  Organizational Behavior is a driving force behind the Safety Climate as the recent actions of an organization have a profound means of shaping employees beliefs and motivations.  Repeated patterns of Organizational Behavior can begin to create traditions, and sometimes evolve into values.  However, unlike individual behavior, Organizational Behavior is much more difficult to predict and can often change much more quickly.  This is derived from the multiplicity of drivers that create motivation for organizational decisions.  For example, when a management regime changes, a new philosophy that impacts decision making is likely to occur.  When this happens, the decisions by the management team will often deviate from previously established practices.  The result will be new Organizational Behavior that can have an immediate impact on the Safety Climate.  The Safety Culture, however, may remain unaffected for a long period of time, potentially even years. 

Conceptually, this can be considered when we examine the role of Safety within an organization and engage in the discussion of whether workplace safety is a priority or a core value.  Core values are considered as elements of an organization that are immutable, unchangeable, and drive all of the deliberate and strategic actions of the organization.  Priorities can change regularly and rapidly.  In fact, a tendency to shift priorities frequently is often considered a weak element of an organization’s culture and may even be seen in the Safety Culture.  When a company has recently experienced a severe event such as a serious injury, workplace fatality, or fine from a regulatory agency, the priorities within the Safety Process may shift dramatically to address whatever set of circumstances acted as drivers for the negative event.  The change in priorities can affect the Safety Climate immediately, but may have little impact on the overall Safety Culture.  This is sometimes manifested in the belief that various safety initiatives can sometimes be considered “flavor of the month” and viewed as a knee-jerk reaction to a recent event.  Given the latency of organizational changes having an impact on culture, it becomes easier to understand the view that Safety Climate exists at a point in time and that Safety Culture is much more of a legacy than an immediate result.

Safety Culture is derived from a historical context or organizational operations, values, and traditions that may be years, or decades in the making.  Safety Culture is formed based on long-term and repeated patterns of performance.  Due to the deep-rooted nature, and relative stability, of Safety Culture, it can be a profound antecedent for individual behavior.  Safety Climate is less effective as an originator of behavior or action as it may not have been in place long enough to create habitual responses by employees.  In other words, the Safety Climate is not as strong an antecedent as Safety Culture because it may alter some behavior immediately, but the cultural norms that were in place before the climatic shift will likely cause behavior to revert back to a baseline.  Thus, it is easy to understand how the current Safety Climate can be a temporary condition that may, or may not, eventually become a cultural norm.

That is not to say that Safety Climate is completely ineffective in creating consequence, though.  Safety Climate has the ability to create some consequences to behavior that can be every bit as powerful as consequences derived from Safety Culture.  If an organization has shifted priorities and is actively working to establish a new climate, and an employee exhibits behavior that goes against new paradigm, the employee may be severely disciplined. This could occur when the employee follows the existing Safety Culture, but these cultural norms are at odds with the new Safety Climate. An example would be that management in a particular organization has decided to direct all employees to wear hard hats.  If the existing Safety Culture was one where employees only followed the safety rules in the presence of management and did not comply when management was not present, this would create a conflict with the new Safety Climate of wearing hard hats at all times.  If the employee is discovered by management not wearing the hard hat and is disciplined by being suspended for a week without pay, then the new Safety Climate resulted in a significant negative consequence.  This despite the fact that the employee had been experiencing a very positive consequence by continuing to participate in the Safety Culture of not following the rules if management is not around.

Discipline or acknowledgment for following recent directives in a new Safety Climate can be highly motivating, but deviating from long established normative values and actions of an established Safety Culture can produce highly meaningful outcomes.  Therefore, it is easy to understand the nature of both Safety Climate and Safety Culture as motivators of behavior and as consequences to behavior.

The final differentiator between Safety Climate and Safety Culture is the relationship that one plays toward the other.  Since Safety Climate is a current condition and is composed of the existing Safety Management System, current Organizational Behavior, and the latent beliefs and values encapsulated within the Safety Culture, then it is safe to say that Safety Culture is a constituent component of Safety Climate.  This concept is captured visually below.  Figure one (1) shows how Safety Culture can be considered a part of Safety Climate.  Safety Climate resides above all other elements of the organization’s safety activities.  Therefore, Safety Climate acts as a unifier for all of the elements of an organization’s safety.   In many respects, Safety Climate can be considered a very sophisticated and comprehensive balanced-scorecard.  Indeed, one of the properties of all of the elements that make up the Safety Climate is that they can be quantified and empirically measured.  Safety Culture can be evaluated and quantified with surveys and interviews.  Well-designed Safety Management Systems are comprised of activities with numerous metrics.  Organizational and individual behavior can even be measured and evaluated as “safe” or “unsafe”.  Therefore, Safety Climate measures can be aggregated and indexed, trended and evaluated, managed and enhanced.

Although this article has gone to pains to illustrate the differences between Safety Culture and Safety Climate, there is one situation that has not yet been discussed, which is when both the Safety Climate and the Safety Culture are in alignment.  This will occur when an organization has used a consistent approach to safety management that has not changed appreciably for a significant length of time.  This typically occurs when organizations are content with their safety performance and do not undertake actions that will improve the Safety Climate.  In these cases, the underlying Safety Culture is the primary driver of safety activities and will not exist in conflict with the Safety Climate as no noteworthy changes are underway.  Needless to say, given the pace of change in today’s dynamic working environment, organizations with static Safety Culture and no changes in Safety Climate are in the extreme minority.  Most companies have realized the importance of working to enhance safety practices over the last few decades and this often creates the inherent conflict observed between Safety Climate and Safety Culture.   

However, most organizations that are undergoing deliberate attempts to improve their safety processes will also see an eventual alignment between their Safety Climate and Safety Culture.  As the actions of the organization prompt employees to make safe decisions, as the company works diligently to engage and empower employees, and as leaders create a vision of continuous safety improvement, the positive Safety Climate will inexorably influence the Safety Culture to create long-standing normative beliefs and values about the importance of protecting employee’s safety and well-being.  This alignment of Safety Climate and Safety Culture results in the true pinnacle of workplace safety, an environment where safety is fully integrated with the work process and all values of the organization fully support safe work practices. 

In conclusion, although the terms Safety Culture and Safety Climate are often used interchangeably, they are, in fact, very different.  Safety Culture is expressed as the summative norms, values, traditions, and behaviors that are tied together in a historical context with respect to Organizational Safety.  Safety Climate is the fully robust and comprehensive measure of safety for an organization at a point in time.  Both can be changed, yet both are resistant to change in their own ways.  The relationship between Safety Culture and Safety Climate is formative, summative, complex and yet quite easy to comprehend once closely examined.

Chris Goulart, MSSM, CSP, ARM, CHSM, CDT is the Director of Safety Services for RCI Safety and has been a practicing Safety Professional for almost 20 years.

Posted by Chris Goulart on Nov 08, 2013

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