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30 May, 2013 Posted by Christopher Jenner Posted in Blog
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Safety Culture – Reflection

Safety Culture - Systemic Thinking

Earlier this week I was presented with the idea of safety culture and asked to reflect on the concept.

Personally, I think that safety culture should be looked at in a systemic way. That is to say; one needs to look at the bigger picture and understand the multitude of interdependent parts that are evident in the systems of an effective safety culture. Approaching safety culture in this way allows for consideration of the different causes for an incident while at the same time enabling an intensive diagnostic evaluation of process variables. A systemic approach allows us to understand the relationship between the three main injury causing domains: person, behaviour and environment (Geller, 2000, p. 26).

A good example of systemic thinking is looking at the way vehicles and bicycles interact on the road. When considering the road users, it becomes apparent that they are a part of the road system. Furthermore, they can be broken down into many parts as can the original road system. The result as a whole is a system composed of many different dynamically interrelated or interdependent parts. Road users interactions are governed by an underlying law that is designed to protect road users while still maintaining an efficient transportation system (for the purposes of this example it is the safety culture of road users, that is, a shared perception of safety). We then look at the three domains of most incidents: person, behaviour and environment (Geller, 2000, p. 26). Taking these factors into consideration and looking at the interactions between road users, we can diagnose and evaluate potential incidents. With this in mind, consider the action of passing a bicycle user in a vehicle. This action is a result of the environment, bicycle user and vehicle user. The bicycle user presents a disturbance because he is travelling slower than the car while also taking up a portion of the road (environment). The vehicle user sees the bicycle as a disturbance, and the result is a change in driving behaviour to accommodate the bicycle on the road (often swerving out and accelerating to pass). It is not hard to see how this action can affect other road users, as well as other systems. It is a simple example of a reciprocal relationship in a system. Fortunately in this case the safety culture (law, road rules etc.) mostly protects the road system from these types of disturbances and as a result, we do not see too many incidents – just for reference I have nothing against our two-wheeled friends – save the planet.

Systemic thinking of safety culture pertains to the systems involved. In 1981 Russel Ackoff wrote that a system is a set of two or more elements that satisfy the three conditions: the behaviour of each element has an effect on the behaviour of the whole; the behaviour of the elements and their effects on the whole are independent; and all sub-groups of elements have an effect on the behaviour of the whole, but none has an independent effect (Skyttner, 2005, p. 69). Linking this with Geller’s concept of dynamic interaction of environment, behaviour and person factors (Geller, 2000), we can postulate that an effective safety culture should be designed with the system-element interdependencies in mind. Through the evaluation of systems like the one above it becomes apparent that individual elements can affect a system as a whole. In conclusion; by understanding the reciprocal relationship between the parts of a safety system we can go about designing a safety culture that effectively instils a general perception of safety.

What are your thoughts on safety culture?

Geller, E. S. (2000). The Psychology of Safety Handbook. Florida: CRC Press.
Skyttner, L. (2005). General Systems Theory. Singapore: World Scientific Publishing.

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