How should we assess safety climate in aviation maintenance?

By Colin Pilbeam - March 28, 2022

Westrum, in developing a typology of organisational safety cultures (pathological, bureaucratic, and generative), noted the important influences of the wider context on these safety cultures. This observation is normally overlooked in the assessment of safety climate, with potentially misleading consequences.

Some research conducted by a PhD student, Mohamed Ben Saed, and very recently published in the Journal of Safety Research, investigated the influence of wider contextual factors on the safety climate among aviation maintenance engineers working in a country from the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region. Interviews with the engineers reported that organisational safety practices were weak. There was a lack of safety training, a lack of resources to support safe working, poor safety communication and a failure to report safety issues. Moreover, commercial considerations negatively influenced organisational commitment to safety.

These factors all suggest that safety climate, assessed using conventional survey measures, was weak for this group of employees working for this airline. However, the conversations suggested otherwise. Individuals were attentive to safety, especially aircraft safety, despite the constraints arising from the imposition of international sanctions and embargoes. The study also revealed the role Arabic cultural values may play in the development of a safety culture. By privileging family connections and striving to maintain harmony in social relationships, the development of both a "just" culture and a "reporting" culture are inhibited.

Three macro-level factors, sanctions, embargoes, and national culture all adversely affect common measures of safety climate. So, what does the assessment of safety climate actually tell us? Apparently very little when used in isolation, and without reference to the wider context of the organisation.