Safety Culture in your Hands

(This article featured in The Controller – Journal of Air Traffic Control, April 2012.)

by Steve Shorrock, Human Factors and Safety Specialist, EUROCONTROL

Are safety issues raised by front-line operational/technical staff given appropriate priority within your organisation? Do you and your team incorporate lessons from incidents into your work? If you saw a colleague doing something you thought was risky or unsafe, what would you do?

These are questions about safety culture. They are just examples of the types of questions that are addressed in the EUROCONTROL safety culture programme for European air traffic management (ATM), which has been underway since 2003.

One thing that is clear from the programme, which involves questionnaires and workshops with operational and non-operational staff, is that controllers have very clear opinions about these sorts of questions. But a survey is fairly pointless without action and continued conversation about the issues that matter to those on the front line of safety.

To help the conversation, the EUROCONTROL Safety Culture Discussion Cards are a practical resource to aid real discussion about safety culture by any person or team within the air navigation service provider (ANSP) organisation, especially operational staff. This article gives you a brief overview of the cards. So what is the point of the cards?

They get people talking. The cards are designed to provoke discussion among both operational and non-operational staff, and have been used successfully with operational staff in safety culture workshops, as well as an aid to team resource management training. They do not give answers, but instead raise questions.

The cards build on what you know already. Operational staff already know about safety culture. They live it and feel it. So the cards build on this understanding. The cards do not use theoretical language. They have been designed and tested with controllers. But still, they are based on the EUROCONTROL approach, which has been used on around 20 ANSP surveys.

The cards help improve safety culture by encouraging discussions on ways to improve safety culture, inspiring action based on the outcome of the discussion.

The physical cards are printed in colour on A6 card (but may also be used digitally, e.g. on smartphones). The first few cards in the pack explain very briefly what safety culture is, show the organisation of the cards, and explain some possibilities for using the cards. Then, the discussion cards are sorted into eight elements:

  • Management commitment
  • Resourcing
  • Just culture, reporting & learning
  • Risk awareness and management
  • Teamwork
  • Communication
  • Responsibility
  • Involvement

Photo credit: Pamela Ocampo http://flic.kr/p/7xCRdu CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

There are several discussion cards for each element, and each discussion card is designed to catch attention with a photo and headline, raise questions and provoke discussion. There are 83 cards in total – 70 of these are the actual discussion cards, while the rest are explanatory (introduction, photo credits, disclaimer, etc).

So how are the cards used? The cards can be used in any way you can think of, but several ways have been tried. For instance to com-pare views: different individuals or teams sort cards into two piles: ‘What we do well’ & ‘What we need to improve’, then discuss the piles. Another way is to have ‘safety moments: in a small group, take just one card and discuss the card for 10 – 15 minutes. Or have a small group choose a specific element, such as ‘Just culture, reporting and learning’, and discuss each card in depth, eg. What and where is our ‘best practice’ on this issue? Where do we need to improve? Etc. You could also organise the cards into pat-terns to show how the issues relate to one another in your organisation, unit or team.

You can use any number of cards, from one to the whole set – whatever works for you. Safety culture can seem abstract, fuzzy and hard to break down. The cards provide a way to discuss safety culture in a straightforward and practical way.

The pdf version may be viewed on smart phones and a low resolution version can be found here. For more information and to view the cards as jpeg files, see the SKYbrary article here.

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About stevenshorrock

I am a systems ergonomist/human factors specialist and work psychologist with a background in practice and research in safety-critical industries. My main interest is human and system behaviour in the context of safety-related organisations. I seek to enable improvement via a combination of systems thinking, design thinking and humanistic thinking. I am a Chartered Ergonomist and Human Factors Specialist with the CIEHF and a Chartered Psychologist with the British Psychological Society. I currently work as a human factors and safety specialist in air traffic control in Europe. I am also Adjunct Associate Professor at University of the Sunshine Coast, Centre for Human Factors & Sociotechnical Systems. I blog in a personal capacity. Views expressed here are mine and not those of any affiliated organisation, unless stated otherwise. You can find me on twitter at @stevenshorrock
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