SMA Program Profile: Safety Culture

3-minute read
SMA Program Profile: Safety Culture

An organization’s safety culture is at the core of its ideals, practices and attitudes toward safety.

Led by Program Manager Dr. Tracy Dillinger, the Safety Culture Program at NASA assesses and promotes a robust and healthy safety culture throughout the agency, from the individual to the program, center and agency level.

What is Safety Culture?

As Dillinger puts it, “It’s how we do business. It’s how we imbed safety into what we do and how we treat each other.”

Safety culture permeates through every area and action of the agency. Specifically, NASA’s safety culture is assessed by five criteria, or factors, which make up the Safety Culture model. These factors are

  • Flexible Culture — how the organization adapts to changes, challenges and disruptions to ensure that safety needs are consistently being met
  • Learning Culture — how the organization disseminates lessons learned from past mishaps and mistakes, and promotes continuous learning and education
  • Reporting Culture — how the organization reports safety concerns and mishaps, the formal and informal reporting systems in place, and the usability and effectiveness of those systems
  • Just Culture — how fairly the organization addresses unacceptable behaviors and recognizes exemplary actions
  • Engaged Culture — how much employees communicate and participate within the other four factors

NASA’s Safety Culture model is based off of Dr. James Reason’s Five Factors of Safety Culture, a widely accepted model in the safety culture community.

Safety Culture at NASA

Originally, Dillinger, a U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel and clinical and organizational psychologist, worked with NASA on the Space Shuttle Independent Assessment Team and on the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. She was detailed to NASA in 2008 and came on as a civil servant in 2011. Dillinger was brought onboard specifically to set up a Safety Culture program at NASA after the agency chief of Safety and Mission Assurance determined that organizational culture was a continuing concern and priority in the agency.

“[Former Chief, Safety and Mission Assurance] Bryan O’Connor and I had a discussion about a no-kidding, NASA-managed program that gives a serious look at NASA’s safety culture, keeps data, provides tools, makes this thing happen and helps make sense of it, and educates workforce so that it’s not up to individuals or the individual centers,” said Dillinger.

Under Dillinger’s guidance, NASA’s Safety Culture Program has grown to include agency-wide assessments, online training courses in SATERN, a chartered working group, and several successful outreach campaigns.

“Safety Culture is important to all organizations, but it is especially important to NASA because we do challenging things, things that have never been done before. It is important that we protect our assets and personnel,” said Dillinger. “We need them — we need them to go to Mars, we need them for space exploration, we need them for the future. The more we protect our people and value our assets, the better we can go on to accomplish new and greater things.”

“Safety Culture is really there to make missions happen. When we integrate safety into the way we’re doing missions, it makes us more successful,” she stated.

Safety Culture Working Group

The Safety Culture Working Group (SCWG) includes representatives from all ten NASA centers. The SCWG has launched successful internal campaigns and external outreach, including presenting at the international Aerospace Medical Association and national Public-Private Partnerships conferences.

The SCWG also administers the Safety Culture survey, which assesses the Safety Culture at each center, and briefs the results to each center director. The survey, which will complete its second agency-wide cycle this year, has been an important tool to quantitatively assess Safety Culture, in addition to qualitative assessment through solicited comments.

“Five years ago if you asked a center director what is their Safety Culture, you would have gotten an opinion. Akin's First Law of Spacecraft Design states that engineering is done with numbers. Analysis without numbers is only an opinion. Now if you talk to center directors, they know roughly what is going well and what needs work. It’s not just their opinion; it’s based on feedback from thousands of their employees,” said Dillinger.

In addition to continuing the surveys, the SCWG is working on developing a handbook and additional outreach and training materials. The SCWG discussed these and other projects during their March meeting at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.