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Journal ArticleDOI

The social construction of safety: Comparing three realities

01 Jan 2015-Safety Science (Elsevier Publishing)-Vol. 71, pp 16-27
TL;DR: This paper explored the discourses constructed by three of the organization's subgroups in relation to safety and found that from one shared 'root' perception, three different constructions of safety stem.
About: This article is published in Safety Science.The article was published on 2015-01-01 and is currently open access. It has received 27 citations till now. The article focuses on the topics: Sensemaking & Conversation analysis.

Summary (5 min read)

Introduction

  • The study presented in this article stems from the willingness of a major French gas distribution company to obtain a better understanding of its safety culture.
  • Firstly, the authors outline the organizational context within which the study took place.
  • The company at the heart of their study is responsible for the delivery of natural gas from the transport network to the end-user, i.e. households or companies.
  • The corporation as it exists today is only six years old.
  • In short, the company’s safety policy and organizational culture from which it is derived are hardly six years old, and it is nevertheless developing from the foundations of a previous professional culture.

Conceptual framework

  • Considered from a theoretical perspective, the empirical question pertaining to the organization’s safety culture and underlying contradiction points to a number of issues with regards to safety culture and more broadly, to organizational culture, of which safety culture is an aspect (see Guldenmund, 2010).
  • The authors aim is therefore to develop a better understanding of the ‘dynamic phenomenon’ specific to the organization the authors are focusing on.
  • In particular, the social constructionist paradigm seems useful to explore the gap empirically observed in the organization’s safety culture: does it stem from a willingness from field-level people to distance themselves from headquarters and from a felt top-down imposition of knowledge and rules, a phenomenon already broadly documented by research in safety science and sociology (see for instance Terssac, 2003).
  • In addition to Weick’s theory of sensemaking, the authors will be using an adjusted version of Berger and Luckmann’s model of culture development (see also Guldenmund, 2014, for a similar adaptation) to help interpret the organizational aspects of their results.
  • This stage ultimately results in shared understandings, such as standards of behaviour, roles and norms.

Research question and justification

  • Those initial elements led to formulating their research question asking whether the field-level world(s) and associated local culture(s) lead employees to recognize but not appropriate the organization’s safety policy.
  • Discourses may be defined as ‘socially shared languages, outcrops of representations of events upon the terrain of social life’ (Burr, 2003, p.44), which meaning mostly depends on the context and which constitute a ‘frame of reference, ‘a conceptual backcloth against which their utterances can be interpreted’ (ibid.).
  • If there is no objective reality but only local realities which are socially constructed, then it seems fair to state that there is no objective and unique frame of reference, and that within an organization, each subgroup, as a specific social world, develops its own discourse.
  • The authors considered that three was an appropriate number to ensure that data would offer some diversity, all the while remaining manageable.
  • Their discourse analysis will first aim at confirming whether their three subgroups have indeed constructed local safety discourses and if so, to outline the local conditions which influenced this construction.

Research design and methodology

  • To gather local texts the authors carried out individual semi-structured interviews, primarily as a way to enquire ‘openly about situational meanings or motives for action, or collecting everyday theories and self-interpretations in a differentiated and open way’.
  • These interviews were carried out with employees working within the organization’s core activity, i.e. gas distribution, as opposed to peripheral activities such as research, design, development, and so on.
  • As the interviews were conducted at a single location where prior non-participant observation had been carried out, confidence was quickly established.
  • Each interview lasted between 60 and 90 minutes, during which a variety of work and safety-related topics were covered .

Focus: field level

  • Subgroups were selected at field level because they are the ones primarily concerned with safety issues, being directly confronted with field work where these issues arise.
  • As such they are literally the primary addressees of the organization’s safety policy, the ones who are expected to confront the policy with actual safety issues.
  • Managing safety according to organizational views requires that they follow a number of principles, ranging from individual equipment to rules and procedures.
  • Field level was also chosen because it is where distance has been most explicitly expressed during the initial phase of research.
  • Focusing on field level therefore appeared as the first option, as it seemed to be the level where safety as a practice and safety as a policy would collide in the most frontal way, making any difference more noticeable.

Sample

  • Three subgroups were thereupon selected: field workers from the operations department, frontline supervisors from the operations department and network supervisors from the network operations department.
  • As mentioned, field workers, who the authors also call ‘gasmen’, are the ones who carry out the actual work in the field, i.e. construction work, acts of maintenance, leak management, and so on.
  • Finally, network supervisors are the people in charge of operating the network, which means ensuring that gas actually flows through the pipes and goes to clients, under such conditions that ‘the safety of people and goods is preserved’.
  • While field workers carry out their work in the field, both groups of managers are most of the time stationed at the office and manage safety issues from their office as they arise.
  • As they belong to different departments and fulfil different functions (basically, hierarchical vs. expertise-based management), frontline supervisors and network supervisors have opportunity to interact.

Composition of subgroups

  • Twenty people have been interviewed: ten field workers, five frontline supervisors from the operations department and five network managers from the network operations department.
  • Field workers outnumber the other two groups in their sample as they do in real-life.
  • By mixing age groups and background the authors therefore attempted to access an intermediary discourse which would reveal local elements while still reflecting some of the organizational elements.
  • The group of frontline supervisors is composed of both ‘older’ employees who have occupied other positions in the company and have carried out field work, and more ‘new’ employees who have never been in the field as field workers.

Approach: discourse analysis

  • Once transcribed the interviews were analysed and classified according to a discourse analysis perspective, following the ethno-methodological and conversation analysis tradition (Wetherell, 1998).
  • As reality has no essence per se and can only be constructed socially, the aim of discourse analysis is not to find some hidden truth behind the words of interviewees, but to ‘work with what has actually been said or written, exploring patterns in and across the statements and identifying the social consequences of different discursive representations of reality’.
  • The actual technique that the authors used was inspired by the qualitative analysis methodology advocated by Paillé and Mucchielli (2005) and Page 9 of 21 was carried out both manually and using a content analysis software, Dedoose (www.dedoose.com).
  • Each theme identified was then summarized and listed in a chart.

Main results

  • This section will present the main results which emerged from the discourse analysis of each category of workers.
  • The authors will start by giving a general overview of their findings, before reviewing those findings that relate to the relationship with safety and with the organization’s safety policy, construction of gasmen professionalism and the safety part therein and finally the way time is experienced, illustrating a specific experience of safety issues.

Overview of results

  • Distance (functional, geographical, and hierarchical) was quickly confirmed as a recurring theme in the interviews.
  • This means that I experience everyday life in terms of differing degrees of closeness and remoteness, both spatially and temporally.
  • The distance expressed by all three groups towards the organization’s safety policy seems consistent with what Berger and Luckmann say about distant worlds – in this case, the organization’s distant corporate world.
  • Such differences seem to imply specific relationships with the organization itself, and to be influenced by the nature of each group’s activity, and its positioning within the organization.

Perception

  • Three relationships with the organization’s safety policy, stemming from one identical root.
  • On the one hand, gasmen consider that they ‘have the means to work safely’, i.e. are provided with the equipment they need, and are not pressured to work too quickly or otherwise in a manner that they would consider unsafe.
  • Their take on the organization’s safety policy and safety in general is therefore one from a distance, but a distance which they strive to bridge in their daily work.
  • The ambiguity of their position therefore mirrors that of field workers, as supervisors are expected to make decisions and are generally held accountable for what happens in the field, and yet have no real control over it, as they work from a distance.
  • Their position within the organization is such that they have enough power and legitimacy to impose a decision, which may account for a greater sense of control over situations in general, and therefore over safety.

Discussion of results

  • When comparing the groups it seems that they all share a relationship with the organizational, projected safety culture, rather than share a safety culture themselves.
  • If what the organization offers cannot be made sense of, people end up developing alternatives and create their own cognitive frameworks.
  • Yet each group manages ambiguity (of the safety policy) and uncertainty (of real work situations) in its own way, depending on both its position within the organization and relationship to field work.
  • As appears in their discourse, ambiguity results from the fact that any work situation at one point includes unforeseen elements, hence becoming uncertain.
  • To sum up, the inadequacy of the organization’s safety policy is considered to be ambiguous to varying degrees, depending on the group’s relationship to fieldwork and to safety issues, and each group seems to have designed its specific way to manage both the ambiguity of safety policy and the uncertainty inherent to real work situations.

A hiatus in the rules enactment process and culture development cycle?

  • Another reason that may account for the differences between the way the organization’s safety policy is perceived, is what can be considered as a hiatus in the enactment process of rules and procedures.
  • As to field workers, they are confronted with two distinct, and potentially contradictory frameworks that are equally legitimate, which under extreme circumstances may bring them close to a situation of paradoxical injunction (Bateson et al., 1956).
  • Returning to Berger and Luckmann’s model of culture development, the actual process taking place within the organization is depicted in Figure 2.
  • As a consequence, institutionalized safety rules and policy are perceived as not reflecting field concerns and practices.
  • This is reinforced by the fact that those who actually enact these rules and policies in the field receive them through their managers, who in addition may not have appropriated these rules perfectly and/or may not fully agree with their content, as has been illustrated by the discourse constructed by the group of frontline supervisors.

Conclusion

  • The social constructionist perspective has provided a heuristic to analyse the material gathered in the field and helped shed light on what initially appeared as a paradoxical situation.
  • Additionally, the study has shown that from this common ‘distance’ root, three distinct safety discourses grow, and that each discourse may be correlated to each group’s work and position within the organization.
  • Indeed, the homogeneity of the groups interviewed in this study appeared simultaneously as an advantage, as it helped notions and themes emerge clearly, and as a disadvantage, as the discourse identified may be dependent on the specific history and experience of the group’s members, as much as on their position within the organization.
  • The authors believe it contributes to documenting research on organizational culture development and more specifically, on the way a safety culture is articulated within its broader working and organizational context, which it both results from and constructs.
  • It therefore provides sufficient ground for further research based on either a larger or a quite different sample in order to broaden and expand their results.

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Citations
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Journal ArticleDOI
TL;DR: In this paper, the authors investigate and describe safety culture and risk-taking at a large steel-manufacturing company in Sweden by exploring workers' experiences and perceptions of safety and risks.

120 citations

Journal ArticleDOI
TL;DR: In this paper, a Glaserian grounded theory approach was employed to explore the gap between behavioural safety and its unsatisfactory outcomes, and two core concepts, institutions and institutional logics, were generated and defined to explain why safety rules do not necessarily produce safety behaviours.
Abstract: We employed a Glaserian grounded theory approach to explore the gap between behavioural safety and its unsatisfactory outcomes. Data were collected through ethnographic studies on the practice of managing heat stress on thirty-six construction sites in Hong Kong and Chonqing in mainland China. Two core concepts, institutions and institutional logics, are generated and defined to explain why safety rules do not necessarily produce safety behaviours. At society level, we explicated two pairs of institutional logics: the religion logics (Confucianism vs. pragmatism) and the market logics (rational market vs. individualism). At project organizational level, two logics of processing safety in production are explicated: a protection logic in the Chongqing context and a production logic in the Hong Kong context. The concepts and sub-concepts are compared to existing business literature for clarification of scopes. Empirical findings of the study suggest safety intervention needs to redirect its focus fro...

37 citations


Cites background from "The social construction of safety: ..."

  • ...In cases where safety rules and procedures were found to be impractical to the specific work situation, ironically, operational staff had to skip the inflexible safety rules to achieve personal safety (see a recent European study by Blazsin and Guldenmund 2015)....

    [...]

Journal ArticleDOI
TL;DR: In this paper, the authors present a qualitative study of the perceived effects of this requirement on safety, seen from the perspective of both the regulator and the regulated companies, and show that introducing the concept of safety culture into regulation can have positive effects both within theregulated companies and within the regulator's own organization.

32 citations


Additional excerpts

  • ...…and communication has been extensively studied over the last three decades of safety research (e.g. Turner, 1978; Cox & Flin, 1998; Guldenmund, 2000; Richter & Koch, 2004; Hopkins, 2006, Reiman & Oedewald, 2006; Antonsen, 2009a; Nævestad, 2010; Rollenhagen, 2010; Blazsin & Guldenmund, 2015)....

    [...]

Journal ArticleDOI
TL;DR: Wang et al. as discussed by the authors used Content Analysis and Ground Theory method (GTM) to identify behavioral patterns of workers that recur in construction projects continuously, which can better understand past accidents, monitor risk, and reduce the likelihood of future accidents.

29 citations

Journal ArticleDOI
TL;DR: This article conducted an interpretative close reading analysis of the speech of BP's then CEO, Tony Hayward, at the Annual General Meeting of BP on April 15, 2010 and also analysed the transcripts of 18 other speeches Hayward delivered before the Deepwater Horizon explosion.

28 citations


Cites background from "The social construction of safety: ..."

  • ...Interaction results in the development of a safety culture that has ‘shared understandings, such as standards of behavior, roles and norms (Blazsin and Guldenmund, 2015, p. 18)....

    [...]

  • ...In this, we expect management control mechanisms (such as budgets and compensation incentives) to influence ‘individual perceptions of reality and sensemaking’ regarding safety (Blazsin and Guldenmund, 2015, p. 18)....

    [...]

  • ...In the safety science literature, Blazsin and Guldenmund (2015) focused attention on the safety culture of ‘a big gas distribution company’ from such a perspective....

    [...]

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TL;DR: In this article, the author analyzes the maturing research in the field of organization studies - the available ethnographic methods, participant observation, qualitative research, and clinical research, concluding that culture functions to solve an organization's basic problems of surviving in the external environment and integrating its internal processes to ensure its continued survival.
Abstract: Discusses the key role of organizational leadership in organizational culture, and the intertwining problems associated with each. Organizational culture is defined as the basic assumptions and beliefs shared by members of an organization. These are learned, operate unconsciously, and essentially define an organization's view of itself and its environment. Though cultural differences are reflected in companies, each company also has an individual culture that modifies local or national cultures. Origins of culture are discussed, especially the entrepreneur's effect on cultural formation, and mechanisms of embedding and reinforcing cultural standards as a means of guiding an evolving company. Taking an interdisciplinary perspective, the book analyzes the maturing research in the field of organization studies - the available ethnographic methods, participant observation, qualitative research, and clinical research. Results indicate that culture functions to solve an organization's basic problems of (a) surviving in the external environment and (b) integrating its internal processes to ensure its continued survival. Since the organizational structure and people's attitudes and perceptions constitute key artifacts of a culture, both these must be changed before the company's overarching cultural change can occur. Typically, change begins at the formative stage as a positive growth force in need of development, evolves into a complex, diverse model of culture, and finally at the point of maturation, often becomes dysfunctional. It is at this point that the leader-usually the entrepreneur - is most crucial, often turning to various change models as a means of sustaining the company. Though the leader's role in cultural formation shifts, such purposeful, foundational change in an organization only occurs rarely in mature companies and under effective leadership. In sum, cultural leadership - and especially the role of the cultural manager - needs to be assessed more clearly in light of the organization's rapidly changing internal and external environment. (CJC)

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Frequently Asked Questions (2)
Q1. What are the contributions in "The social construction of safety: comparing three realities" ?

This study focuses on the ( development of ) safety culture of a big gas distribution company. The authors assumed that each group may be considered as a specific social world, within which a specific perception of, and relationship with, safety is constructed, and that discourse analysis offers access to this construction. 

In particular, further research could therefore look into a discourse ’ s homogeneity beyond geographical and experiential diversity. It therefore provides sufficient ground for further research based on either a larger or a quite different sample in order to broaden and expand their results. Finally, although the current size of their sample can not provide the full spectrum of discourses on safety within the organization, it provides us with insight into safety discourses currently active within the organization and, maybe more importantly, into the mechanisms underlying their development. The authors believe it contributes to documenting research on organizational culture development and more specifically, on the way a safety culture is articulated within its broader working and organizational context, which it both results from and constructs.