Building a Safety Culture

727.cockpitBy Robert L. Sumwalt

Earlier this month, the NTSB was fortunate enough to host an outstanding two-day forum entitled, “Safety Culture: Enhancing Transportation Safety.”  We heard presentations from academic researchers, a broad range of federal regulators and some of the transportation industry leaders at the very forefront of developing robust, positive safety cultures.  All too often, the NTSB investigates accidents in which we determine an organization’s insufficient safety culture contributed to the accident; this can be created through an absence of management-level commitment to safety, widespread procedural noncompliance among line employees, or both. Whatever the source, the absence of a robust safety culture creates an environment in which apathy towards safety flourishes, and the result can be an accident in which lives are shattered and economic losses can reach into the millions.

As stated by so many of the forum’s presenters, complacency is the enemy of safety.  I echoed this sentiment at the forum when I quoted the words of James Reason, one of the world’s foremost authorities on safety culture and organizational factors: “[I]f you are convinced that your organization has a good safety culture, you are almost certainly mistaken.”  By this, he means that we should never smugly believe that we are “there.” Safety culture is a journey – not a destination.  In this spirit, our forum was intended not only to identify the foundational elements for organizations to create a positive safety culture, but also to foster an ongoing, industry-wide conversation about the value in doing so.  Sustaining a culture of safety may indeed be a journey . . . but it’s a journey most certainly worth undertaking.

Robert L. Sumwalt is an NTSB board member.

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