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Safety Culture

After the Fukushima accident

Safety culture group dialogue... "In spite of all recent efforts, there is still room for improvement in understanding the concept of safety culture and implementing it effectively worldwide in the management of all nuclear power plants." - Chairperson, IAEA Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Safety in Vienna, June 2011

All nuclear organisations strive to sustain and improve safety. There is a diversity in the way organisations understand the concept of safety and the actions that can help drive improvements. This webpage is meant to help the reader understand the concept of safety culture and how the IAEA can assist Member States in their efforts to strengthen safety culture.

What is safety culture?

The IAEA defines a strong safety culture as “the assembly of characteristics and attitudes in organizations and individuals which establishes that, as an overriding priority, protection and safety issues receive the attention warranted by their significance.”

Assessing and understanding an organisation's safety culture can lead to understanding how safety performance can be supported and sustained, and also to identify vulnerabilities which can lead to a decline in performance and be a cause of failure. The deepest level of culture is the implicit shared understandings among the people inside the team or in the wider organisation. Attitudes and beliefs can alter behaviour leading to such potential problems as “it can’t happen here”, “good news only communication”, acceptance of poor conditions, and poor compliance with standards and procedures. Unfortunately, a group is seldom aware of its deep shared understandings as they are seldom voiced or visible.

Ways of identifying an organisation’s safety culture have been subject to development from after the Chernobyl accident in 1986 and continue today, to include learning from the Fukushima Daiichi accident.

The IAEA has developed an international framework for strong safety culture consisting of five overarching safety culture characteristics (IAEA Safety Guide GS-G-3.5):

Safety Culture Characteristics

Each one of these ‘safety culture characteristics’ has descriptive attributes that have been identified as essential for achieving a strong safety culture. IAEA Safety Guide GS-G-3.5 gives a full picture of these attributes and can be used by organisations as a reference of what ‘good’ looks like when assessing and improving safety culture.

Safety culture group discussionsThe IAEA has established an integrated approach where the safety culture of the organisation is supported by its management for safety systems and the leadership in a seamless manner.

The safe operation of nuclear organisations is formalized through management systems, but the successful application and safety performance attained is dependent on the actions of individuals and teams. This is influenced by their safety culture. IAEA Safety Requirements GS-R-3 requires the management system to promote and support a strong safety culture by: “ensuring a common understanding of the key aspects of safety culture within the organization; providing the means by which the organization supports individuals and teams in carrying out their tasks safely and successfully, taking into account the interaction between individuals, technology and the organization; reinforcing a “learning and questioning” attitude at all levels of the organization; and, by providing the means by which the organization continually seeks to develop and improve its safety culture.”

Contributors to a strong safety culture

A strong safety culture is part of the defence–in-depth and therefore needs to be integrated into everyday tasks. It should involve all levels of the organisation from the top down. The striving for a strong safety culture is a continuously evolving journey requiring continuous attention to successfully improve, strengthen and sustain over time.

Safety culture contributorsShared understandings are the key drivers within a culture – how they are formed and how people interact within the organisation need to be reviewed, as this identifies the safety culture baseline. In an organization with a strong safety culture, staff will feel respected and freely share their thoughts and worries. The trust they have inside the organisation will help sustain a ‘questioning attitude’ as people will feel able to share their concerns as they also feel responsible for the safety inside their organisation.

Understanding how other influences can alter or weaken a safety culture can also help organisations to counteract those effects. When the expectations and behaviour from other cultural influences collide with the expectations inside a nuclear organisation, these must be recognised and managed in sensitive ways.

One example was Korean Air, which had more plane crashes than any other airline by the end of the 1990's. Researchers found that hierarchical cultural expectations affected the pilots' communication in the cockpit. By recognising this, Korean Air was able to put countermeasures into place and implement training to resolve previous adverse effects. The extreme hierarchic effects also featured in other air accidents, and so the airline industry has implemented clear guidance and training to manage these adverse cultural effects.

Cultural influences like these shape peoples' understandings, interpretations, perceptions and common expectations with regard to safety in their day to day work. An organisation’s safety culture can be an asset in preventing accidents (and recovering from them), or be the cause that leads to the accident.

Safety culture improvement services and support


The IAEA offers a number of safety review services for Member States to increase the understanding, assessment and awareness of safety culture, as well as how to improve safety culture. This includes all nuclear installation facilities, and related government and regulatory organisations.

SC flip chart discussionThese services can be conducted by in-house IAEA teams, external experts, or by training and coaching the organisation in self-assessment. Whatever pathway is chosen, it is of key importance that the senior management of an organisation is committed to the process and the subsequent long term effort required to drive improvements in safety culture.

The following lists a variety of services and topics that the IAEA can provide upon request to Member States:

  • Independent Safety Culture Assessment (ISCA) in the frame of OSART
  • Comprehensive training on safety culture self-assessment for both licensees and regulatory bodies
  • Senior management workshop on safety culture assessment and continuous improvements
  • Train-the-trainer training on safety culture oversight
  • Tailored training on safety culture improvement techniques, i.e. safety coaching, mindful communication, safety culture enabling
  • Workshop on the interaction between the individuals, technology and organization- systemic safety in practice
  • Workshop on managing for the unexpected
  • Workshop on leadership for safety – Senior managers, middle managers and supervisors
  • Workshop on leadership for safety - Effective implementation of coaching programme
  • Training on systemic safety event analyses
  • Workshop on leadership and management for safety - specially designed for embarking countries
  • Workshop on leadership and management for safety for decommissioning phase.

Meetings and workshops on safety culture

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| Last update: Thursday, 14 May, 2015.