How a Questioning Attitude Encourages Safety

Maria E. Schwartz
Office of Enforcement Senior Project Manager

questionnewAre we there yet? Why is the sky blue? Why is rain wet? Children have an endless list of questions as they discover the world around them. But as we grow older, most people tend to ask fewer questions.

This may be due, at least in part, to the fact that we start to make assumptions about many of the things around us based on what we have already learned or observed. Sometimes we ask fewer questions because at some point, someone made us feel ashamed that we didn’t know the answer or made it clear they had more important things to do than respond to our questions.

Re-developing that questioning attitude we embraced as children, however, is very important to an organization’s health and critical to its safety culture.

The NRC’s Safety Culture Policy Statement includes “Questioning Attitude” as a trait of a positive safety culture. The policy statement describes it as a part of a culture where “individuals avoid complacency and continuously challenge existing conditions and activities in order to identify discrepancies that might result in error or inappropriate action.”

A questioning attitude helps to prevent “group think” by encouraging diversity of thought and intellectual curiosity. It challenges the entire organization to get clarification when something comes up that doesn’t seem right.

Examples include situations as simple as walking by a broken door day after day without stopping and questioning why it remains broken; or skipping over a confusing step in a procedure you use every day rather than getting clarification. It could include ignoring an alarm because nuisance alarms go off all the time and they never indicate an actual emergency. Or it could be something a little more complicated such as not speaking up to question a calculation that doesn’t seem right because the senior engineer performed the calculation.

A positive safety culture requires the collective commitment by both leaders and individual employees to emphasize safety over competing goals. A questioning attitude supports that commitment.

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