Achieving an Effective Safety Culture

The Safety Management Systems (SMS) Working Group, with representatives of the rail industry, unions and Transport Canada, was established to address recommendations of the Railway Safety Act review with respect to safety management systems. Recommendation 18 was specific to safety culture:

Transport Canada, Rail Safety Directorate and the railway industry must take specific measures to attain an effective safety culture.

As the Railway Safety Act review panel noted in its report, “the cornerstone of a truly functioning SMS is an effective safety culture.”1

Achieving an effective safety culture is the ultimate goal of SMS. An effective safety culture in a railway company can reduce public and employee fatalities and injuries, property damage resulting from railway accidents, and the impact of accidents on the environment.

Safety culture is a complex concept, however, and one that is challenging to define. In simple terms, an organization’s safety culture is demonstrated by the way people do their jobs - their decisions, actions and behaviours define the culture of an organization.

Following an extensive review of the literature on safety culture, as well as best practices in other industries, the SMS Working Group defined safety culture as follows:

The safety culture of an organization is the result of individual and group values, attitudes, perceptions, competencies and patterns of behaviour that determine the commitment to, and the style and proficiency of, an organization’s health and safety management system.

Organizations with a positive safety culture are characterized by communications from various stakeholders founded on mutual trust, by shared perceptions of the importance of safety and by confidence in the efficacy of preventive measures.

The Working Group also identified the following key practices for a safety culture:

  • Leadership and commitment to safety culture
  • Two-way communication
  • Stakeholder / employee / employee representative involvement
  • The existence of a learning culture
  • The existence of a just culture

The following checklist describes the elements of each of these practices:

Leadership and Commitment to Safety Culture:

  1. Clear leadership and commitment to safety at the executive/senior levels, as well as line management.
  2. Safety is a core value at all levels of the company.
  3. Safety is integrated into all levels of the company through policies, processes, procedures, objectives and initiatives.
  4. Executive participation in safety activities, such as health and safety committee meetings, safety walkabouts and audits.
  5. Self-evaluation, including benchmarking and lessons learnt, for purposes of continuous improvement at all levels.

Two-Way Communication:

  1. Multiple processes to promote management – employee communications (e.g., safety meetings, town hall meetings, safety forums, briefings, mentoring, performance reviews).
  2. Multiple processes to augment employee awareness and knowledge of safety (e.g., newsletters, communiqués, brochures, safety flashes, training).
  3. Confidential phone line, or other processes, for employees to report incidents and safety issues without fear of reprisal.
  4. Safety surveys directed towards employees and health and safety committees.

Stakeholder / Employee / Employee Representative Involvement:

  1. Empowered and proactive health and safety committees (e.g., annual action plans for top causes).
  2. Process to support and augment effectiveness of health and safety committees.
  3. Involvement in risk assessments.
  4. Participation in safety site visits, walkabouts, audits, etc.
  5. Participation in investigations and corrective actions.
  6. Involvement in developing and implementing safety programs at all levels.

A Learning Culture:

  1. Continuous improvement through internal and external reviews.
  2. Processes for monitoring safety trends (e.g., trend analysis).
  3. Use of leading indicators (e.g., near-misses, audit results, rule violations, health and safety effectiveness).
  4. Systematic risk assessments.
  5. Systematic corrective actions following accident / incident investigations.
  6. SMS internal audits.
  7. Audit and quality assurance of accident / incident investigations, corrective actions, etc.
  8. Internal processes for sharing safety knowledge and best practices (e.g., website for health and safety committee minutes and action plans).

A Just Culture:

  1. Company policies will encourage and/or recognize employees, and be fair.
  2. Complete and objective investigations.
  3. Internal escalation process for unresolved health and safety issues.
  4. Internal recourse for employees to deal with safety issues (e.g., safety ombudsman).
  5. Going beyond rule violations when identifying accident / incident causes (e.g., factors such as training, rest, knowledge, familiarity, supervision, and clarity of work process).
  6. Non-punitive reporting processes for employees to report incidents, accidents, near misses and other safety concerns.
    • Straightforward and transparent means to determine whether or not disciplinary action is warranted.


1. Stronger Ties: A Shared Commitment to Railway Safety, Review of the Railway Safety Act, November 2007


TP 13844 - "Score Your Safety Culture" Checklist

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