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NASA Safety Culture Survey Overview

Background

The concept of organizational culture as a management tool was popularized in the 1980s.  Then, following the Chernobyl nuclear incident in 1986, the notion of “safety culture” gained wide-spread acceptance.  The ultimate goal of a strong safety culture is to prevent accidents.  Studies of several high-profile accidents suggest that a poor safety culture may contribute to their cause.[1]

Safety literature distinguishes between “safety culture” and “safety climate.”  Weigmann, et al; defined safety climate as “the temporal state measure of safety culture, subject to commonalities among individual perceptions of the organization.  It is therefore situationally based, refers to the perceived state of safety at a particular place at a particular time, is relatively unstable, and subject to change depending on the features of the current environment or prevailing conditions.”[2]  On the other hand, safety culture is a more enduring, stable quality of organizations characterized by the values, attitudes, and patterns of behaviors of organizational members and the importance that the organization places on safety.  James Reason, a noted scholar in organization management theory, described safety culture as basically an “informed culture” created by the interaction of four subcomponents: a reporting culture, just culture, flexible culture, and learning culture:[3] 

Reason’s notion of safety culture has taken root and is used, for example, in the Joint Planning and Development Office’s (JPDO’s) implementation plan for the Next Generation Air Transport System (NextGen).[4]  Jdo also used these concepts of a healthy safety culture in the Safety Culture Improvement Resource Guide.[5]

NASA Safety Culture Survey

The NASA Office of Safety and Mission Assurance (OSMA), along with subject matter experts from each of the NASA centers developed the NASA Safety Culture Survey.  This survey is based upon prevailing theories for a healthy safety culture.  The model’s subcomponents have been adapted for NASA use, as described below:

Reporting Culture:  We report our concerns.  Identification of hazards or safety concerns is encouraged, including a system that’s easy to use. The reporting system maintains anonymity and is separate from the disciplinary processes. Useful feedback based on reporting is quick and insightful. An atmosphere of trust exists between managers and workers, with employees knowing important information will be voiced, heard, and acted on appropriately.

Just Culture: We have a sense of fairness.  Balances the need for discipline when warranted, with rewards when earned. People are held accountable for deliberate violations of rules and recognized for outstanding performance. There’s a clear understanding of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. There’s a sense of fairness about how business is conducted, where people aren’t punished for reporting and aren’t afraid of reprisal if they do.

Flexible Culture: We change to meet new demands.  The organization effectively balances and adapts to changing demands while managing complex technologies and maintaining productivity. A healthy flexible culture uses safety data to make meaningful changes when there’s a concerning trend or issue.

Learning Culture: We learn from our successes and mistakes.  Collecting, assessing, and sharing from experience is a priority. Information is available to everyone from novice to expert. Values and commits to proactively “learn from our mistakes,” both formally and informally.

Engaged Culture: Everyone does their part.  All members regardless of status or occupation are involved and actively participate in safely accomplishing the mission. The key is to have leaders and employees who demonstrate they value safety by “walking the talk.”


[1]Safety Culture Improvement Resource Guide.”  JPDO Paper No.: 08-010.  (30 July 2008). Next Generation Air Transportation System, Joint Planning and Development Office.  Washington, DC.

[2]Safety Culture: A Review.” (May 2002).  p. 10.  Wiegmann, D; Zhang, H; von Thaden, T; Sharma, G; & Mitchell, A.  Aviation Research Lab of Institute of Aviation, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Savoy, IL

[3] Managing the Risks of Organizational Accidents.  (1997).  pp. 194-196.  Reason, J.  Ashgate, Brookfield, USA.

[4] The Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO) was created by Congress in 2004 and tasked with producing an integrated plan for safely implementing the Next Generation Air Transport System.

[5]Safety Culture Improvement Resource Guide.”  JPDO Paper No.: 08-010.  (30 July 2008).  p. 8.