The Weekly Reflektion 46/2023

Safety culture is often a point on the agenda at management meetings. Many international companies have a standardised approach to the way they try to build a good safety culture, however they often experience challenges when an approach that functions, for example, in a western European country doesn’t function in a country in South-east Asia. This may be due to culture differences.

Do you recognize that local culture should influence your approach to safety?

Thank you to Brynjar Gunnarskog for his insights into different culture and its influence on the approach to safety.

An international oil company with operations in a western European country decided to build their latest offshore installation in a shipyard in South-east Asia. One of the safety tools in the company toolkit was ‘safety conversations’. Managers, supervisors and safety coaches were required to engage with the workforce to discuss safety issues. One of the questions used to facilitate the conversation was ‘What could go wrong with what you’re doing and how could this lead to an incident or accident?’ When asked this question the workers looked a bit perplexed. They replied that nothing could go wrong because the work had been planned carefully and they knew what they were doing. When pressed to try to imagine what could go wrong, the workers became upset as they understood the question to be an accusation that they didn’t know what they were doing. Perhaps not the best way to build a good working relationship.  

Korean Air had several crashes where the captain failed to listen to advice of the flight crew and/or the flight crew failed to question the captains decisions and actions. The crash of Flight 801 on Guam on the 6th August 1997 was an example. On the approach the instrument landing system (ILS) was not functioning, however the captain believed it was working and picked up a signal later identified as an irrelevant electronic device. The crew noticed the aircraft was flying too low and protested however the captain refused to listen. 229 people were killed. The series of crashes in Korean Air led to a radical change in the aircrew training and in particular effective Crew Resource Management (CRM). The culture that led to a dominating and infallible captain was not in line with what is required to ensure safety for the passengers and crew.

The crash of Avianca Flight 52 in Long Island, New York on 25th January 1990 was also influenced by culture. The Columbian crew on board had miscalculated their fuel requirements however believed that they could reach their destination at JFK, New York.  They were already low on fuel when they were put into a holding pattern due to heavy traffic. The pilots did not declare an emergency even when their tanks were almost empty. The aircraft ran out of fuel while circling JFK, leading to 73 fatalities. The pilots of the Colombian airline did not assert themselves enough with air traffic control when communicating that they were running out of fuel. Most likely they feared their earlier mistake on fuel would be discovered.

One definition for culture is, the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society. Sometimes the influence of culture is so strong efforts have to be made to change behaviours that may not be in line with the culture, for example CRM in aircraft cockpits. Sometimes we have to accept the people the way they are and change our safety system. Hopefully companies are able to distinguish.

Reflekt AS