BY: Stacey Pisani
Comments: No Comments
A recent episode of The Daily, a podcast from The New York Times, discussed the safety culture of the Boeing manufacturing plant in Charleston, South Carolina—the plant that builds the 737 MAX 8, the aircraft involved in two fatal crashes worldwide in the last six months.
Concerns About Culture
The Boeing 737 MAX 8 was grounded by the FAA on March 11,
2019 amid concerns that recently introduced flight control software contributed
to both crashes. The subsequent scrutiny on the company brought attention to
the safety culture of the Charleston plant.
Interviews in the podcast suggest common characteristics of
a negative safety culture were present at Boeing. For example, there was
reportedly significant pressure to meet production deadlines, including financial
incentives for meeting hourly production goals. Some managers allegedly took
defective parts and installed them on aircraft to meet these deadlines. One
such incident described on the podcast episode included an attempt to rub off
the red paint that is applied to defective parts to prevent installation.
Related to defective parts, managers were reportedly pressured to reduce the
number of parts damaged by employees during manufacturing. A former quality
manager interviewed in the episode alleges that this pressure led to damaged
parts being installed rather than reported to management or quality control.
Safety culture is often defined informally as “the way we do
things around here” when it comes to safety practices. Essentially, safety
culture is the product of the shared values, beliefs, norms, and organizational
practices in a company about working safely. An organization’s safety culture
is ultimately reflected in the way safety is managed in the workplace. The
culture breaks down when the disregard for safety becomes “management
Characteristics of a Strong Safety Culture
A strong safety culture has several characteristics in
common. Kestrel’s research into the topic of safety culture has identified two
traits that are particularly important to an effective safety culture:
leadership and employee engagement. Best-in-class safety cultures have robust
systems in place to ensure that each of these traits, among others, is mature,
well-functioning, and fully ingrained into the standard practices of the
Organizations with strong safety cultures typically exhibit
many of the following attributes:
- Communication. Communication
is most effective when it comprises a combination of top-down and bottom-up
interaction. Senior management sets the strategic goals and vision for the
company’s safety program. It is vital that all levels of management (senior,
middle, supervisory) communicate the strategy clearly to the workers who carry
out the company’s mission. It is equally important that workers provide
feedback on a practical level about what’s working and what’s not.
- Commitment. When
it comes to safety, actions truly speak louder than words. A lack of
commitment, as demonstrated by action (or lack thereof), comes across loud and
clear to staff. For example, requiring staff to work excessive hours or use
defective parts to meet productivity goals sends a clear message that
productivity is more important than safety.
- Caring. Caring
is about doing whatever is necessary to ensure employees return home safely
every night. It involves showing concern for the personal safety of
individuals, not just making a commitment to the overall idea of safety.
- Cooperation. Safety
works best if management and workers are on the same team. Cooperation means
working together to develop a strong safety program (e.g., management involving
line workers in creating safety policies and procedures). It means management
seeks feedback from workers about safety issues—and uses that feedback to make
improvements. And it means there is no blame when incidents occur.
Coaching each other—peer to peer, supervisor to employee, even employee to
management—is an important way to keep everyone on track. Coaching involves
non-judgmentally providing feedback for improvements and, correspondingly,
accepting and incorporating that feedback as constructive criticism.
- Procedures. There
should be documented, clear procedures for every task. This not only prevents
disagreement about what is required, it also shows commitment when things are
put in writing. Procedures should be designed jointly by management and workers
for practicality and to encourage improved cooperation, communication, and
- Training. Training
is a more formal, documented process for ensuring that employees follow safety
processes and procedures. Formal training should happen frequently enough for
employees to feel prepared to safely do their jobs.
- Tools. All
equipment and tools should be in good repair, free of debris, and functioning
as designed. Inadequate tools directly impact safety/protection and indirectly
impact perception of management commitment. Boeing’s alleged practices send a clear
message that safety is not as important as productivity.
- Personnel. There
must be enough workers to do each task safely. The company should not sacrifice
individual safety because of being understaffed (i.e., requiring
shortcuts/overtime to meet production goals).
- Trust. Trust
in the safety program, in senior management, and in each other is built when
each of these characteristics is present and treated as a company-wide
Benefits of a Best-in-Class Safety Culture
Strong safety performance is a cornerstone of any business.
When these characteristics come together to create a best-in-class safety
culture, everyone wins:
- Fewer accidents, losses, and disruptions
- Improved employee morale
- Increased productivity
- Lower workers compensation and insurance claims
- Improved compliance with OSHA regulations
- Improved reputation to attract new customers and
employees and retain existing ones
- Better brand and shareholder value