Defining Safety Culture

My husband and I have been discussing the concept of culture lately.  He is looking for a working definition of culture for his work on Gun Culture 2.0 and I have been reading about organizational culture and its effects on decision making that leads to accidents and even catastrophes.  To pin down a definition is more difficult than one would think! It seems everyone talks about culture and what makes up culture, but at the time of this writing, it looks as though no one has actually proposed a universal definition of culture.

It reminds me of Einstein’s 30 year quest for the unified theory, a theory that tried to combine the two basic concepts in physics, gravity and electromagnetism – a theory that never came to fruition. Some consider it Einstein’s biggest failure but I cannot wrap my mind around any of his work being a failure but look at it as his contribution to the discussion and research that continues on.


 In order to seriously look at a culture, it makes sense to have a good definition of what you are trying to describe and how it works.  Up to this point, I like the concepts proposed by Clifford Geertz (culture contains models of and models for reality) and Constance Perrin (culture is a system of how to understand the world and act in it).  Perrin’s definition appeals to me particularly because it has a component of action.

One could consider the original definition – culture is derived from the Latin term for “cultivating”.  In this sense, the term amounts to ways of taking care of things. To me, this definition when applying it to organizational practices, fits very well. Compared to the concept of culture, safety culture is a new concept. The term safety culture did not appear in any literature until it was coined in 1986 in an article published by the International Atomic Agency on the Chernobyl accident

Susan Silbey, in her article “Taming Prometheus: Talk about Safety and Culture” (2015), quoting J.T. Reason (by the way the author of my often used Swiss Cheese Model of accident causation), defined safety culture as a system that “determines the commitment to, and the style and proficiency of, an organization’s health and safety programs…an ideal safety culture is the engine that continues to propel the system toward the goal of maximum safety health, regardless of the leadership’s personality or current commercial concern”.

The debate continues outside the sociological and anthropological halls as well as the question of how to operationalize the concept of a safety culture.  Sibley states, “Culture as the ultimate, intermediate, or proximate cause often leaves unspecified the particular mechanism that shapes the safe or unsafe outcomes of the organization or technology”.   Just as Einstein’s elusive unified theory has not yet been solved, I wonder how long the phenomena that make up culture and safety culture will continue to be just out of reach.

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