What’s All the Buzz About Safety Culture?

Chances are that if you follow local and world-wide events you have heard references to how an organization’s safety culture played a role in what happened. So, what is “safety culture?”

There are various definitions of safety culture. Most of these focus on the idea that when an organization’s activities could have serious consequences, it should develop and maintain its programs, practices, and procedures with a safety-first focus. In the medical world, for example, before beginning surgery, many hospitals have what’s called a “five minute time out.” During the “time out,” everyone from the surgeons to the technical staff stops to ensure the right people are present, the right equipment is present, the right patient is on the table, and that everyone understands their role. This is a good example of safety culture at work.

The higher the stakes, the more important it is for individuals and organizations to understand that they should engage in their activities with a strong safety-first focus. And the materials that the NRC regulates put our activities into that “high stakes” category.

We recently issued a Safety Culture Policy Statement that reiterates the NRC’s expectation that anyone with a role in NRC-regulated activities will establish and maintain a positive safety culture that takes into account the safety and security significance of their activities. In the statement, we define nuclear safety culture as “the core values and behaviors resulting from a collective commitment by leaders and individuals to emphasize safety over competing goals to ensure protection of people and the environment.”

The policy statement was developed in collaboration with leaders in the nuclear industry who are responsible for a positive safety culture as well as organizations and members of the public interested in the safe and secure use of nuclear materials. While the policy statement is not a regulation, it supports the effective implementation of the NRC’s regulations.

Chairman Jaczko spoke about the importance of safety culture in a 2010 speech at the Annual CEO Conference of the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations. In that speech, he said: “In order to ensure that the NRC’s safety rules are followed, you can’t simply focus on qualifications and training. Those are essential, of course [but you also] need employees who have a safety focus and the dedication to consistently apply their skills to follow NRC requirements.”

This message underscores the importance the NRC places on ensuring the development and maintenance of a positive safety culture in the activities we regulate. Look for more information in the future about the importance of a positive safety culture on what the NRC does. Feel free to post comments to this post with your thoughts, suggestions and questions related to safety culture.

Maria Schwartz
Office of Enforcement