Understanding Safety's Role in Culture and Climate: What's Your Safety Climate like? How about Your Culture? Here's Expert Advice on Differentiating the Two Areas and Then Bringing Them Together to Improve Performance

Article excerpt

For many years, we have heard people talk about the impact of organizational "culture" or "climate" on safety. All of us who have worked in more than one organization recognize that there are intrinsic differences among organizations in how people interact and the values that are reflected in their work. In every organization, there are "right ways" to do things--organizational norms of behavior. Because these characteristics influence the way things get done in an organization, it is reasonable to assume they have an impact on safety. But few people interested in improving safety fully understand how culture influences safety and how to make changes in culture.


To begin, it is helpful to understand that culture and climate, although often used synonymously, are different.

By culture, we mean the shared values and beliefs of an organization--commonly described as "the way we do things here." The culture also can be thought of as the shared norms for behavior in the organization, often motivated by unstated assumptions. Culture is sometimes described as the "unwritten rules" of the organization.

Climate, on the other hand, describes the prevailing influences on a particular area of functioning (such as safety) at a point in time. Climate should be discussed in the context of being the climate for something: safety, quality, service, etc. It reflects employee perceptions about what gets rewarded, supported and expected in a particular setting.

Thus, culture is something that is more deeply embedded and long term, taking longer to change and influencing organizational performance across many areas of functioning. Climate, on the other hand, changes faster and more immediately reflects the attention of leadership.


With these definitions in mind, it is a mistake to think about an organization's "safety culture" or "quality culture." The organization (or one of its subunits) has one underlying culture, and that culture has characteristics that may be more or less supportive of safety, quality, productivity or any other performance target. Thus, a more useful formulation than talking about the safety culture is to ask whether an organization's culture is supportive of safety.

Climate is more readily changed than culture. As specific events occur that influence the organization, the climate for safety (or for any other factor) changes. The most striking example is the impact on safety climate immediately following a serious injury or fatality. Most of the time, such an event triggers a strengthening of the safety climate. However, this change often does not last over the long term.

The reason climate change is difficult to sustain is that climate and culture influence one another. Culture is like a heavy magnet, and its stability tends to pull climate, like a lighter piece of metal, back into alignment. Thus, if the culture has characteristics that do not support strong safety performance, the short-term strengthening of safety climate will not last. Over time, the safety climate tends to return to the way it was, in a sort of equilibrium with the cultural characteristics of the organization.

Climate can, however, also influence culture. If culture is the magnet and climate a piece of metal attracted to the magnet, we can affect the magnet itself by anchoring the metal and providing enough metal mass to overcome the inertia of the magnet. If we make enough change in climate, support it for the long term and anchor it with sustaining mechanisms, equilibrium will be re-established through the shifting of the culture.


What does the interaction between climate and culture look like in practice? Consider the hypothetical case of a site in the immediate aftermath of a fatality resulting from a lockout failure. At this location, the procedure called for a supervisor to verify the lockout before work began. …