Nuclear Safety Culture

Professor Edgar Schein, in his book Organizational Culture and Leadership, has defined culture as „a pattern of shared basic assumptions learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, which has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.”

In the same book, Dr. Schein presents the 3 levels of culture and explains how these influence each other:

–         Artifacts, which include „all the phenomena that you would see, hear, and feel when you encounter a new group with an unfamiliar culture”; artifacts include behaviors.

–         Espoused beliefs and values, which are “the articulated, publicly announced principles and values that the group claims to be trying to achieve”.

–         Basic underlying assumptions, which are tacit, unconscious, taken-for-granted beliefs and values that “determine behavior, perception, thought, and feeling”.

In his book The Corporate Culture Survival Guide, Dr. Schein advises us to investigate the basic underlying assumptions when we see misalignment between the artifacts (what we see is here, what we actually do) and the espoused beliefs and values (what we say is here, what we say we do): “As a general principle, the way to deeper cultural level is through identifying the inconsistencies and conflicts you observe between overt behaviors, policies, rules, and practices (the artifacts) and the espoused values as formulated in vision statements, policies, and other managerial communications. You must then identify what is driving the overt behavior and other artifacts. This is where the important elements of the culture are embedded.”

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) defines safety culture as the “assembly of characteristics, attitudes and behaviors in individuals, organizations and institutions which establishes that, as an overriding priority, protection and safety issues receive the attention warranted by their significance.”

The World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO) defines nuclear safety culture as “the core values and behaviors resulting from a collective commitment by leaders and individuals to emphasize safety over competing goals, to ensure protection of people and the environment.”

Using our knowledge and experience in the nuclear industry, we may try and make an inventory of specific artifacts and espoused values, with significant examples, for various areas of work and organizational groups (e.g. design, operation, work planning, maintenance, safety analyses, technical support, training, procurement, management, administrative support, emergency preparedness, independent oversight, regulatory oversight, research and development, etc.).

Here are just some examples of artifacts from various areas: the organizational structure, documented management system processes and procedures, policy statements, use of safety climate surveys, safety improvement programs, key performance indicators, allocation of resources, safety features of the nuclear installations, investments in design improvements, the quality of various documents produced, adherence to procedures, emergency drills, training facilities, maintenance facilities, mock-ups, outsourced activities, apparel, personal protective equipment, logos, warning signs, work practices, personnel behaviors, significant events that have occurred, reporting procedures, use of operational experience feedback, corrective actions, succession planning, personal hiring and promotion practices, selection of managers/leaders, incentives and rewards, use of peer reviews, use of benchmarks, investments in research and development, relation with regulatory authorities, public communication, etc.

The espoused values make include statements such as: Safety is our first priority, We have sound and transparent decision-making processes, We value competence and professionalism, We encourage reporting of abnormal conditions, We have a blame-free environment, We are a learning organization, We value teamwork, People are our greatest asset, We are committed to the highest standards, etc.

Whenever we find discrepancies between relevant artifacts and espoused values, we should question the basic assumptions and try and understand how these can impact nuclear safety.

In my view, basic assumptions are (like) root causes and can be treated as such. Apparently unrelated artifacts, including significant events, may have their root causes in shared basic assumptions. If we think of some of the most significant accidents and near-misses in the history of the nuclear industry, we often find shared basic assumptions about various scenarios not having been considered credible before they actually occurred.

We should identify the assumptions that support nuclear safety and cultivate them. And we should identify the assumptions that undermine safety culture and we should discourage them.

Some examples of positive basic assumptions include beliefs like: My work is important for nuclear safety; Sub-standard performance in my work may have a negative impact on nuclear safety; I see something, I say something (I report any concern I have); Peer-checks help me because they reduce the chance of errors; If I have a question, I better ask it to get clarification rather than make a wrong assumption; Unverified assumptions need to be questioned; We must prepare for the unexpected; Safety and production go hand in hand; etc.

Negative examples of basic assumptions may include wrong beliefs such as: It’s ok because we’ve always done things this way; We should tell management what we think they like to hear; We never had a serious event, so an accident cannot happen here; We’re safe because the regulator gave us the license; There’s no point in reporting problems because they don’t get fixed; If I teach others to do what I do, I may become redundant; If the regulators or peer reviewers did not find anything, then we don’t have any problems.

We know that basic assumptions determine behaviors. But we should also know that our behaviors can influence our basic assumptions, by changing our attitudes (see Principles of Social Psychology-1st International Edition, by Dr. Charles Stangor, https://opentextbc.ca/socialpsychology/ , Chapter 4 – Attitudes, Behavior, and Persuasion.)

If the expected behaviors that support nuclear safety, as set in the standards promoted by IAEA and WANO are widely known, understood and consistently practiced, in all organizations in the nuclear industry, by all individuals and groups, including the managements/leadership ranks and the regulators, then we can reasonably expect to develop and maintain a strong and healthy nuclear safety culture. 

©  Mădălina Coca

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