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Safety culture

About this topic


Every organisation has a safety culture, regardless of whether an organisation measures or manages that safety culture explicitly. Major accidents across a number of industries have highlighted that a poor safety culture can lead to catastrophic consequences. Therefore, there is a recognition by companies and regulators across industries that companies should aim to have a positive safety culture which is monitored and changed or improved over time.

A comprehensive definition of safety culture comes from The European Railway Safety Culture Declaration, with the key message highlighted in bold: “Safety culture refers to the interaction between the requirements of the Safety Management System, how people make sense of them, based on their attitudes, values and beliefs and what they actually do, as seen in decisions and behaviours. A positive safety culture is characterised by a collective commitment by leaders and individuals to always act safely, in particular when confronted with competing goals.

Relevance to rail

Poor safety culture has played a role in major railway incidents. For example, the rail industry in Great Britain undertook a fundamental review of risk management and safety management systems, following two major rail accidents at Southall in 1997 and Ladbroke Grove in 1999. The joint inquiry identified “…the need for a positive safety culture is the most fundamental thought before the inquiry.”

In April 1989 in France following tragic railways accidents an inquiry provided an audit on the safety systems in SNCF, identifying the importance of safety management systems and of safety culture: “It is a vast movement of reflection that should lead to a real and profound CHANGE OF CULTURE that the SNCF must undertake to improve safety and quality. » (Rapport de la commission d’experts chargée d’un audit sur les systèmes de sécurité de la SNCF 1989).

The importance of safety culture continues to be identified in accident investigations today, for example in the GB context from the Rail Accident Investigation Branch’s Annual Report from 2020.

Approaches and models

There are a variety of approaches to measuring and improving safety culture. A key model specifically designed and created with the railways in mind has been developed by the European Rail Agency. Guidance on Safety Culture is provided by the UIC and for GB rail the Office of Road and Rail integrates safety culture within a wider view of safety management systems. For a non-aviation context, interesting work has been developed and shared by EUROCONTROL and much of the work around safety culture began in the Nuclear Industry. Relevant references are provided under ‘more information’.

The SNCF’s Just & Fair approach

The SNCF’s Just & Fair approach

What are the key HOF issues? In 2015, SNCF launched a major safety program (called PRISME) to improve its overall safety performance. As baseline of this program, the company has deployed a Just & Fair (J&F) approach to create a climate of trust...

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Co-construction of a Safety Culture model at SNCF

What are the key HOF issues? In 2020, SNCF became a unified public group composed by several anonymous companies. Given the status change, it was important to provide a common and unique definition of Safety Culture for the entire SNCF group. By...

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E-learning course on Safety Culture at RENFE

What are the key HOF issues? Training is a key aspect in the cultural transformation and the improvement of the safety culture. The Renfe Group has designed in its e-learning platform the course “CREATING A SAFETY...

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Safety Reporting at Renfe

What are the key HOF issues? The Strategic Plan of Renfe contains an ambitious transformation programme based on digitalisation and safety culture. A key aspect of the programme is the development of a confidential reporting system of near misses that...

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Safety Leadership training in Irish Rail

What are the key HOF issues? Irish Rail identified a need to refresh our senior managers on safety leadership, to highlight the importance of leading by example and to create awareness of the pivotal role of leaders in shaping the safety culture of the...

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Swuste, P.; van Gulijk, C.; Groeneweg, J.; Zwaard, W.; Lemkowitz, S.; Guldenmund, F. (2020), From clapham junction to macondo, deepwater horizon: Risk and safety management in high-tech-high-hazard sectors A review of English and Dutch literature: 1988–2010, Safety Science, Volume 121, Pages 249-282.

Abstract: Objective: What is the influence of general management trends and safety research on managing safety? Method: A literature study which is limited to original English and Dutch books, documents, and articles in relevant scientific journals, for...

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