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

Author: Moderator

Public Affairs Officer for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

14 thoughts on “What’s All the Buzz About Safety Culture?”

  1. These are actually the kinds of work that men and women invariably miss to do.
    Just like changing your filtration unit in their furnace.

  2. How about this for a new definition – It answers all of the above questions:

    Nuclear Safety Culture
    Professional leadership attitudes that manage hazardous processes such that the risk of harm to the public and the environment is continually maintained acceptably low, thereby assuring stakeholder trust.

    Is very important to get the definition exactly right. This is because if you don’t, it makes it almost impossible to get the assessment, management and regulation part right.

    There is a lot of evidence right now [in Japan and for many years in the US] that the Industry has not been doing the assessment, management and regulation part right as far as the inspection and maintenance, identification and resolutions of safety culture health issues is concerned.

    For the maintenance and regulation of safety culture health, getting the definition exactly right is very very very important.

    Good luck NRC and best wishes!!! ; )

  3. About the new definition:
    Can you specify what sort of “core values and behaviors” – I know the industry likes to focus on production and cost. When you say leaders and “individuals” – I thought everyone who manages safety had a leadership role to play, so who are these other “individuals”? Does “leaders” refer just to “licensee management” what about other staff and oversight people? When you say: “emphasize safety over competing goals” – what exactly are these “competing goals” are they operating and maintenance costs, or production costs? To ensure protection of people – is this only the people at the plant like OSHA safety or does this include the public? What about managing inherently hazardous processes such that risk to the public is maintained acceptably low – isn’t this what nuclear safety culture is really about? If safety is an “attitude” – should the word “attitude” be part of the definition? What about “professionalism” in the mid 1980’s INPO CEO Pate said “read my lips this is number one”? What about the concept of “stakeholder trust” regarded as the best metric of safety culture health – should this be in the definition?

  4. Interesting what you said about having employees that have a safety focus and not just relying on training. The “time out” seems like a good way to maintain focus.

  5. The most important thing is to guarantee the safety of people working in each activity … good post to learn about the regulations.

  6. It was my experience that “Safety Culture” was just a buzzword without any management focus on seeking what it seemed to imply. If you encountered a technical or administrative hurdle while producing an engineering product, your annual review would note “failure to meet schedule”; but not “demonstrating safety culture”. Hearing “Safety Culture” at every meeting becomes meaningless when there are no metrics for its application. I have been retired/disabled for 8 years now and even after these years simply seeing the phrase in the topic title made me upset.

  7. TMI, Fukushima and many non-nuclear incidents and accidents – the BP Texas City explosion and Deepwater Horizon are both cases in point — share a common element that is connected to safety culture but isn’t exactly culture. A contributing factor in all of these incidents was the operators failure to recognize that their mental model of the process state had diverged significantly from the actual state. I have an idea for a repurposing of some COTS technology to specifically address this failure mode. Are there any innovation grant programs for safety systems that I could pitch it to?

  8. To develop a safety culture, organizations should integrate their written safety programs into daily operating procedures that influence employee behavior. An organization that successfully develops a safety culture can expect to realize immediate and tangible results in reducing workplace accidents and their associated costs.

  9. One thing to keep in mind… Rules and regulations rarely drive culture. Culture is the shared beliefs, values, and traditions that employees and contractors have regarding safety performance at an organization. These items are almost always tied together in a historical context and are very organic in nature. When leaders prioritize safety, beyond the required minimums of training and policies, then organizational safety culture tends to improve.

    The clearest example of a solid safety culture is when safety is seamlessly integrated into the fabric of the workplace. Safe companies don’t “do safety” and the do the job, they just work safely.

    Chris Goulart
    RCI Safety
    Safety Culture Evaluations and Organizational Safety Performance

  10. I have to agree w/ Mr. Saparito here. We’re heading into 2012 and this is just a policy statement at this point? I’m in many surgeries throughout my workday and know the importance of the “time out”. I hope the gravity of the situation is realized here.

  11. 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.”
    Very hard to understand the behaviors of NRC regarding the governing process in the severe nuclear accidents of the fiery zirconium-steam reaction, namely the denial of this process in the TMI-2, Chernobyl-4 and Fukushima Daiichi 1, 2 and 3 reactors and in the Paks 2 refueling pond washing vessel accident. Is this the leading by example? Safety culture or unsafe practice? How many more severe accidents You need for accepting the fiery zirc-water reaction as key process and when will the NRC require hard vents for Hydrogen release and sufficiently strong (or inert gas filled) containments to prevent their loss in the event of fiery zirconium-steam reaction in the core?

  12. If the NRC was truly serious about protecting public health via a good safety culture at some 104-commercial nuclear plants in the USA, then the agency would make “safety culture” a RULE and not simply a policy statement!!!

    Thomas Saporito
    Senior Consultant
    Saprodani Associates

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