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Construction Health & Safety

The Role of Safety Culture in Preventing Failures

October 30, 2020

What is Safety Culture?

Group behavior is guided by culture, which is shaped by underlying values, beliefs, and principles. As it relates to the workplace, company culture is a product of organizational interests, leadership, and employee conduct. [1] Safety culture, a sub-set of company culture, is demonstrated, according to our own Philip Platcow, Senior Vice President of Health & Safety, as “what people do when they are not being watched.” It is VERTEX’s belief that strong safety cultures create and enhance workplace cultures in ways that exceed regulatory compliance. They also engender atmospheres where leadership and employees take ownership of and nurture safety and health. Moreover, our Occupational Health & Safety experts believe that the development of and commitment to strong safety cultures is good for business and the strongest protection and defense against system failures.

Characteristics of a Strong Safety Culture

Strong safety culture is characterized by (1) organization-wide commitment to improving behaviors and attitudes relating to safety at all levels; (2) open, clear communication and freedom from intimidation or retribution for those who raise issues and ask questions; (3) organizational resilience; and (4) preparedness through vigilance. [2]

Preventing Failures

Investigations of many well-known disasters have shown that failures often occur due to weaknesses in safety cultures. Three that often come to mind are (1) the disaster that occurred at Union Carbide India Limited’s Bhopal pesticide plant in 1984, (2) the fires and explosions that destroyed the Piper Alpha oil platform in 1988, and (3) the explosion that rocked the BP Texas City refinery in 2005. Each of these disasters shared a striking similarity: in the events leading to them, safety procedures were known to have deteriorated for extended periods of time. Perhaps each of these disasters could have been prevented, or better managed, if company leadership had been more successful in cultivating company-wide cultures that emphasized the importance of safety.

According to the article “Systemic Failures: Challenges and Opportunities in Risk Management in Complex Systems,” by Venkat Venkatasubramanian, postmortem evaluations of the above-mentioned disasters have revealed that regular maintenance of safety backup systems had not been conducted for months in Bhopal; Occidental Petroleum’s Permit-to-Work system was dysfunctional for months before Piper Alpha was destroyed by fires and explosions; and OSHA statistics show that BP accumulated numerous “egregious, willful” safety violations in the time leading up to the explosion that occurred in Texas City. [3]

Two other well-known failures that could have been prevented were the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters. Since they occurred, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has embraced and publicly highlighted the importance of addressing safety culture in organizations. Their realization was that “non-technical,” human aspects of safety are as important in managing risks as traditional “technical” aspects (e.g. hardware and associated procedures to system safety engineering). It was Jerome Lederer, the former director of the NASA Manned Flight Safety Program for Apollo, who was best known for his commitment to reinforcing positive attitudes, motivating employees, as well as the other “non-technical” elements that reinforce strong safety culture. [4] VERTEX shares this commitment.

The Importance of Creating a Safety Culture

The most effective way for companies to prevent and respond to system failures is to enhance their safety cultures. By the same token, strong safety cultures enhance performance in safety, quality, morale, productivity, and more. Accordingly, safety is VERTEX employees’ greatest priority.

How Can VERTEX Help?

VERTEX’s Occupational Health & Safety consultants know that strong safety cultures are not only necessary but achievable, and we are here to advise you. Whether it relates to construction, engineering design, insurance, environmental services, or technology, our forward-thinking solutions are guided by proven safety principles.

To learn more about VERTEX’s Environmental Health & Safety Services and Construction Health & Safety Services or to speak with a Health & Safety Expert, call 888.298.5162 or submit an inquiry.


[1] Olivea, C., T. M. O’Connora, and M. S. Mannan, ‘‘Relationship of Safety Culture and Process Safety,’’ J. Hazardous Materials, 130(1–2), pp. 133–140 (2006).

[2] Olivea, C., T. M. O’Connora, and M. S. Mannan, ‘‘Relationship of Safety Culture and Process Safety,’’ J. Hazardous Materials, 130(1–2), pp. 133–140 (2006).

[3] Venkat Venkatasubramanian, ‘‘Systemic Failures: Challenges and Opportunities in Risk Management in Complex Systems,’’ AIChE Journal (1), pp. 2–9 (2011).

[4] Venkat Venkatasubramanian, ‘‘Systemic Failures: Challenges and Opportunities in Risk Management in Complex Systems,’’ AIChE Journal (1), pp. 2–9 (2011).

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