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What is HSE culture?

By Bjarte Bøe

You might as well ask: What is culture? If we have to define culture as a concept, we end up with something like this:

”Common knowledge, values, norms, ideas and attitudes that characterise a group of people and their behaviour.”

This definition covers it quite well, because it points out that culture is something that a group has in common. It’s something we made together, and not an individual trait. But someone ‘makes’ the culture – it doesn’t just appear all by itself. We all play a part in forming the cultures we are a part of, so it is important not to forget the role of the individual when we are talking about culture. The things we do – all of us, every day – are part of building and maintain a culture. In positive, as well as negative ways.

Smart, stupid or correct

If this is a general definition of culture, how can HES culture be defined? HES culture consists of common knowledge, values, norms, ideas and attitudes related to HES that characterise a group of colleagues and their behaviour. Put another way: it is a common perception of what actions would be smart, correct or stupid in connection with HES.

Let’s take an example from another area: two lorry drivers from the same company used to change lanes when they met each other on the road. They would both drive on the ‘british’ side of the road and pass each other on the ‘wrong’ side. This was something they did when they were alone on the road. But one day something went wrong. One of the drivers pulled out – he didn’t want to change lane. The lorries collided front to front and one of the drivers died instantaneously. So who was to blame?

In one way they both made a mistake, as they didn’t follow the normal traffic rules, but in stead took part in a game where both know the rules. They were both part of a culture where they shared a common view of what was smart to do, even if it wasn’t correct. Did the accident happen because they both shared a bad and unhealthy culture, or because one of them suddenly redefined what was smart and what was stupid?

This is an extreme example of an HES culture gone bad. Both the behaviour and the consequences were far beyond what we’re supposed to accept. The story illustrates an important point – that groups of employees can form routines and ideas of smart behaviour that in some cases are both illegal, incorrect and stupid.

Another important point of this story is that it illustrates how we often don’t reflect on our own behaviour before something happens. It is only after a more or less serious accident that those taking part become aware of the problematic sides of such behaviour.

What is good HES culture?

James Reason, the organisation psychologist (1997), has a list of qualities that characterise good HES culture:

  • Reporting
  • Just
  • Flexible
  • Learning

Reason’s research is supported by the fact that human behaviour is the single most important factor behind accidents. This applies to all fields and trades. The usual proportion is that 80 to 90 per cent of all accidents can be attributed to human mistakes.

Can I tell?

A reporting culture emphasises the need for mapping problematic incidents and accidents. It is dependent on the employees providing clear feedback on problematic incidents, and a proper reception and treatment of such feedback. It is also dependent on trust in the management and confidence among the employee that those who report problematic incidents won’t be punished for it. A reporting culture is geared towards learning from what happened, rather that ‘getting’ those who made a mistake. This is a vital prerequisite of a learning culture, and the survey on the risk level on the Norwegian continental shelf (RNNS) says that a third of those working offshore believe that reports are embellished. If this happens we risk missing out on important lessons.

”The accident happened just like I thought it would”

We’re all human. We all make mistakes. And when we make mistakes, should we be punished for doing our best? A comprehensive HES regime has to focus on the chance of people making mistakes. But sometime something happens that noone could have foreseen. We don’t often hear after an accident: “Oh yes, this accident happened just like I thought It would”. Accidents happen partly because we’re not prepared for them. We all have a responsibility, but it is important that this is a common responsibility. It’s okay to interfere, it’s okay to correct each other – and it’s okay to react. But such corrections and reactions have to be perceived as just.

This isn’t how we want it to be

How easy is it to be flexible and open to new suggestions? There are big differences in how organisations react to creative suggestions from the employees. Some organisations are good at making use of the wealth of experience their employees have, and open up for all to contribute to improving the HES culture and safety. We know that organisations that appreciate the employees’ input find it easier to exploit this knowledge in a chaotic situation. If the employees are respected and have been given the chance to make use of their own knowledge, their colleagues put greater faith and trust in each other’s experience and competence.

Finding out before it’s too late

Insufficient and inadequate communication and passing of information has been shown to be decisive factor behind unwanted incidents. In situations where important information has failed to reach the right person in time, serious accident can happen. How do we organise ourselves to ensure that information always goes where it should go? And who is allowed to talk about what? This is particularly challenging in cooperation between different units, or between different positions in a large company.

Where is the culture?

One important characteristic of all culture, HES culture included, is that it is a result of interaction between people and environment, between people and machine, between people and people. Culture isn’t something you think about every day, or the whole time. Culture is supposed to be something almost physical – it’s in your hands, in your heart, almost like an instinct. That’s when the culture works best. When you just do the right things without thinking about it.

But this is also our greatest challenge: How can we make something that is ’baked into’ our bodies visible and tangible? How can we be conscious of the unconscious? This is our greatest challenge: Finding out where our culture is, getting to know it, and change what needs to be changed.

PTIL: HMS og kultur, temahefte
Reason, James, 1997: Managing the Risks of Organizational Accidents
PTIL, IRIS: Risikonivå på norsk sokkel