We know that safety cultures are not just created at the sharp end. For safety culture, we need to look deeper inside an organization—at its procedures, work practices, design, supervision, management, governance. This has been a very empowering idea, shifting our focus onto the context surrounding people’s work. But it has also been accompanied by burgeoning safety bureaucracies. In pursuit of safety culture, we now expect organizations to deploy vast systems—loss prevention systems, safety management systems, auditing systems—that hunt for all kinds of organizational and behavioral wrongs before they line up to cause trouble.
We risk becoming preoccupied with high-frequency/low-consequence things: not wearing safety glasses; having coffee in a cup without a lid. Then we mistake low counts on these for a safety culture—low counts that we tabulate, share with stakeholders, and celebrate. The fiction is that we have a safety culture because we have low numbers on irrelevant things, and the paperwork to show it.
And then we blow stuff up.
Safety bureaucracies can become so wrapped up in their own work, breathing their own air, reporting largely to and around themselves, that they become dissociated from what it means to practice. They can lose touch with safety-critical work and stand at an ever-greater distance from the operation. Yet managers may not be able to do what they once did without their approval. And so, safety bureaucracies become a substitute for competent supervision, and can disempower management. What they do is founded largely on faith, however—from the good intentions to save people from evil, to the fiction of proportionality between different loss events, to zero-vision as any more than a noble goal, to an OHS priesthood with its exclusive training, rituals, language, and moral imperiousness.
Such approaches to safety culture are plateauing, with typically less marginal return for each initiative. To give safety a future, we should not see people as a problem to control, but as a solution we can harness. We need to move from counting negatives to understanding what makes an organization normally successful. And we need the courage to question common wisdom and industry standards—confronting fiction with facts, and faith with enlightenment.