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NASA’s Journey to Safety Culture

NASA’s Journey to Safety Culture

7-minute read
10 Years Safety Culture

The Safety Culture program is celebrating its 10-year anniversary at NASA. Over the past decade, program members have dedicated their time and energy to providing a platform for the NASA community to voice safety concerns without repercussion, communicating safety issues to agency and center leaders, and developing education to encourage contributions to Safety Culture in the workplace. After years of forming, developing and improving the Safety Culture program at NASA, the group is being honored for its tenacious efforts.

“It takes everybody,” said Tracy Dillinger, Safety Culture program manager. “Safety Culture is about everyone being on board, moving in the same direction and believing safety is important. People in our agency are very cognizant of safety issues and we work very hard to take care of each other.”

Because of the program’s outstanding contributions to the agency’s mission, NASA chose Dillinger and her team to receive one of NASA’s most prestigious awards. Agency leaders will present the 2019 Agency Honor Awards Group Achievement Award to the Safety Culture Program in November at NASA Headquarters.

“Those who have been part of this program — including some who have retired — should be proud of the effort they’ve put in,” said Manuel Dominguez, senior safety engineer and Safety Culture Working Group member, Glenn Research Center. “This award recognizes groups who have gone above and beyond supporting the agency mission.”

In June, Manny Dominguez and David King shared the program’s accomplishments and story of its origin at the American Society of Safety Professionals Professional Development Conference where they presented on the group’s journey to form the program and determine how to improve Safety Culture throughout the agency. Their presentation prompted questions and conversations from the audience about Safety Culture at other public and private industry organizations.  

“I’m really pleased with the accomplishments of this working group,” said Dillinger. “Each person has put their own thoughts into developing this program and has really taken their roles to heart.”

Recognizing a Need

It became clear to Dillinger that there was room for growth at NASA regarding Safety Culture after working with the Space Shuttle Independent Assessment Team in 1999 and the Columbia Accident Investigation Board in 2003.  After dedicating 21 years to the Air Force, a phone call brought her to NASA, ultimately changing her focus and her path for the next decade.

“I ended up having a phone call with Bryan O’Connor, who was the Chief of Safety and Mission Assurance for NASA,” said Dillinger. “I was kind of giving him a hard time. I told him that I was still seeing things where Safety Culture is being challenged at the agency and NASA doesn’t have a systematic way of getting feedback.”

O’Connor ultimately asked Dillinger to help develop a Safety Culture program at NASA. He wanted a concentrated effort that ran from the Headquarters level, but extended to all aspects of the agency and centers. Dillinger accepted a 2-year detail position at NASA, moved to Washington and — without hesitation ­— dove in to her new role.

“We discussed everything we would need: an entire program to ensure a platform to provide feedback in the future,” said Dillinger. “We needed a way to gather feedback from the workforce about safety behaviors and came up with the Safety Culture Survey and a need for training and education.”

During that call, Dillinger and O’Connor came up with five tenants of the program: assessment, education, engagement, media and guidance.

Gaining Traction

Next, Dillinger had to build her team. She asked Office of Safety and Mission Assurance (OSMA) leaders for recommendations for working group members and invited them to join her mission. The group met for the first time at Kennedy Space Center in 2009.

“She pulled the group all together and we started talking,” said David King, Safety and Mission Assurance Deputy Director, Ames Research Center. “There were lots of great people from across the agency; good-hearted folks who started thinking about how to move this forward and make it real.”

In the first year, the group developed the Safety Culture Survey, a series of questions that give NASA employees and contractors an opportunity to provide their thoughts, concerns and suggestions anonymously regarding Safety Culture at the agency. NASA senior leadership, SMA directors, OSMA senior leadership, center directors, directorates and other groups are briefed on the results of each round of surveys.

“Center leadership has been so supportive,” said Dominguez. “Everything coming out of the survey are actionable items they can use at their center. There have been improvements across the agency because people taking the survey are telling us things leadership can use.”

“When you see a large group of people feeling a certain way, it’s hard to deny that,” said King. “It helped management change because they started hearing what employees were really thinking.”

One at a time, surveys are released to centers, and participants are given a time limit to complete it. When all NASA centers have collected survey results, that round is complete. The Safety Culture team has completed four rounds of surveys since the first one in 2009. The first survey round collected 10,932 responses, and by 2019, that number has nearly doubled.

Kennedy Space Center was the first center to offer the survey. Darcy Miller, Safety Engineer, Kennedy, and her team conducted a pilot survey to test the software application prior to the actual survey; developed implementation processes; and created communication strategies and templates, which were shared with the other centers.

“It was nice to see how they took what we did and changed it to make it relevant to their centers and take it to the next level,” said Miller.

“Kennedy went first,” said Kirk Barrow, principal System Safety engineer, Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). “Darcy helped Krystal at Goddard, then Krystal helped the next person. The willingness of the group members to help each other … there are no words.”

“We didn’t really know each other in the beginning, but then we all started working together toward a common goal,” said Krystal Kennedy, Safety Engineer, Goddard Space Flight Center. “The comradery helped build morale as a team, which reflected well on the program itself.”   

“Whatever you need — they’ll provide a template or an example,” said Gloria Mar, health physicist, JPL. “In a way, we are a family. I think it will continue as long as the group remains active and we continue to strive for our goals.”

Until the program was formed, NASA had no definition of Safety Culture in its policies. The group collaborated to define Safety Culture in NPD 8700.1, NASA Policy for Safety and Mission Success and developed NASA-HDBK-8709.24, NASA Safety Culture Handbook. Next, the group developed training for the agency: “Orientation to NASA Safety Culture” (HQ-SMA-ONSC) and “Safety Culture for Supervisors” (HQ-SMA-SCS).

“It took a while for us all to get on the same page,” Miller said. “We all had different perspectives on Safety Culture because we all came from different NASA centers. In the beginning, we met face-to-face about three times each year and that helped us work together more cohesively and resolve issues faster.”

The Safety Culture Working Group is in constant communication. The group now meets twice each year and has monthly tag-up calls.

Recently, the fourth round of Safety Culture Surveys were collected — with a participation of more than 19,000 responses. In accordance with NPR 8705.6D, Safety and Mission Assurance (SMA) Audits, Reviews and Assessments, NASA centers complete surveys every two years. Upon completing the fourth round, Safety Culture Program leaders briefed agency leadership on survey results in September and made recommendations to make the agency a safer place for everyone.

A Look to the Future

In correlation with the agency’s focus shifting to the Moon by 2024 and on to Mars, the Safety Culture Working Group is shifting its concentration to increasing outreach across centers to promote the importance and value of a good Safety Culture.

The group is investigating certain tactics to reach influential people within the agency. After 10 years, the Safety Culture Program has a well-defined message, and now the group plans to package that message in different ways to reach the appropriate audiences. Through social media and targeted messaging, the program wants to find methods for reaching every person in the agency. 

“We need to reach out to each generation because they all see Safety Culture differently,” said Mar. “The older generation responds best to phone calls, but each generation is different. We’re hoping to reach out to everyone to encourage them to embrace Safety Culture.”

The fourth round of the Safety Culture Survey added three questions about programs and projects. The group collected feedback from NASA employees who specifically support agency programs and projects and will discuss Safety Culture implications with program leadership.

The change management question — number 11 — has historically been the lowest-scoring question in the Safety Culture Survey. In response to this, the working group created a Management of Change Tiger Team at its October 2019 face-to-face meeting. The team will address ways to improve change management strategies at each center.

“It will be a challenge to develop over-arching strategies that will be successful at each center, but the payoff will certainly be worth it,” said Karen Patton, Tiger Team lead and Voluntary Protection Program coordinator, Stennis Space Center. “This team is comprised of members with diverse backgrounds that will be beneficial in developing strategies to reach all employees.”

A group known for their large aspirations, the Safety Culture program has accomplished an extraordinary amount. Each working group member is excited to see what’s next for the program. For them, this past decade has just been a small step for the program and they’re ready to make a giant leap.