Chapter 10.2: Organisational Culture: In search for Meaning

Chapter 10.2: Organisational Culture: In search for Meaning


Since the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 there has been an explosion of academic and organisational interest in safety culture. However, the body of safety culture literature harbours unresolved debates and definitional dilemmas. As a result, safety culture remains a confusing and ambiguous concept in both the literature and in industry, where there is little evidence of a relationship between safety culture and safety performance. This chapter investigates the concept of safety culture, and finds it to have limited utility for occupational health and safety (OHS) professional practice. Informed by a literature review, interviews with key stakeholders and focus group discussions, it concludes that workplace safety may be better served by shifting from a focus on changing ‘safety culture’ to changing organisational and management practices that have an immediate and direct impact on risk control in the workplace. The chapter identifies characteristics of an organisation that focuses on safety, and concludes by considering the implications for OHS practice.

organisational culture, organisational climate, safety culture, safety climate, leadership, culture change

First year of publication: 2014

Current Version: 2019

Chapter 10.2: Organisational Culture

Table of contents

1 Introduction
2. Historical context
2.1 Evolution of the concepts of safety culture and safety climate
2.2 Safety culture in the literature
3. Definitional dilemmas
3.1 Safety culture
3.2 Safety climate
3.3 Organisational culture
4. Safety culture as the problem and the solution
4.1 Identifying a ‘positive safety culture’
4.2 Framework for a cultural understanding of organisations
5 Reflecting on the literature
5.1 Four questions from the safety culture debates
5.2 General uncertainty in the literature
6 Opinions of key stakeholders
6.1 Views of researchers
6.2 Views of OHS professionals
6.3 Views of SME consultants
7 Analysis of evidence from the literature, interviews and focus groups
7.1 What does an organisation that focuses on safety look like?
8 Legislation
9 Implications for OHS practice
10 Summary
Key thinkers

David Borys PhD, MAppSc(OHS), GCertEd, AssocDip(OHS)

David Borys is an independent safety educator and researcher based in the United States. He provides research supervision support at RMIT University and Federation University Australia and taught safety management at East Carolina University. Previously he was the Program Coordinator for the Graduate Diploma in Occupational Hazard Management at Federation University Australia.

SWA videos: The Use of Abuse of Culture


Date: 2018
Professor Andrew Hopkins

The terms ‘culture’ and particularly ‘safety culture’ are widely used yet misunderstood. A better understanding can make workplaces safer.