The role of culture in safety

 “When we talk about improving the way people work safely – rather than ‘patient safety’ – there is an instant change in mind-set.  It changes from being a project to our everyday actions”

Suzette Woodward, national clinical director, Sign up to Safety Team

Building a “safety culture” and embedding it is vital for improving patient safety and helping people work safely in all sectors of health and care. But what exactly is a safety culture? It’s a phrase often used yet seldom clearly explained.

That is because culture is defined and measured in so many ways.  Commonly it is defined as values, attitudes, norms, beliefs, and behaviours; “the way we do things round here” or “the way we behave when no one is looking”.

A common misconception is that there is ‘one culture’ in an organisation.  In actual fact there are multiple. Cultures can be different from team to team and department to department. It may even be defined differently from one person to the next. It is in many ways intangible. But you can feel it, it sets the tone, and you know when it is supportive or toxic.

The culture we need to nurture is one that considers safety as more than merely absence of harm or incidents; it is one that has evolved to also focus on designing systems to help everyone work safely, and one that learns from the vast majority of day to day care that goes well.

It is also about being kind, caring and respectful. These – or the absence of them – are the values and behaviours that set the tone for ‘how we do things around here’. And this applies to all; individuals, teams, departments, and whole organisations.

To achieve this safety culture, the Sign up to Safety team is helping to raise awareness and understanding about the latest thinking in patient safety and the role of culture, and to help people take action that helps a safety culture take root.

In particular, by providing an expert focus on a component of a safety culture, ‘the just culture’.  We believe that the way to help people build their safety and just culture is to improve the way they talk to one another, embodying the values and behaviours we know can make a difference.

Our definition of a safety culture is summed up in this 3 minute video, which you are welcome to share or download (via Vimeo)

If you want to start a conversation with those you work with about safety culture, we have guidance to help you create an open and inviting space where people can talk, be listened to, heard and understood – find out more about how to host a kitchen table.