Nuclear New Build: 6 practical steps to build a Safety Culture

10 May 2016

With the recent 30th anniversary of the accident at Chernobyl, it is perhaps timely to stop and reflect on the nuclear sector in the UK. We have a strong tradition of robust safety culture at existing nuclear licensed sites in the UK, but the hive of activity around new build presents new challenges of how to build safety culture in a new organisation (and let's remember there is as much 'new build' around plant for decommissioning as there is for new build). 

Building a safety culture in a new organisation is very achievable, but it does require early attention and focus. WANO defines Safety Culture as “the core values and behaviours resulting from a collective commitment by leaders and individuals to emphasise safety over competing goals, to ensure protection of people and the environment.” However there is still considerable discussion about what we really mean when we talk about culture.  It is often referred to as the ‘sniff’ test because even if it is difficult to describe, you can smell it in the organisation.  Many of you will have joined an organisation and been shown a task and when you have asked ‘why do you do it like that?’ the answer has been ‘I don’t know, it’s just the way we do it around here’.  We believe culture can be described as the personality of the organisation built from the day to day behaviours and the practical ways of working within an organisation. For new build “start up” organisations establishing Safety Culture is a particular challenge; there is no existing culture consistently modelled by your employees’ day in day out for new hires to replicate. Instead you have maybe a number of legacy cultures, cultures that don’t easily fit together and ultimately a culture born out of dominating behaviours from employees’ previous organisations. What behaviour does the new hire emulate? And more importantly, who do you want them to emulate?

From experience, we know that embedding a safety culture is far greater than posters around the work environment encouraging new ‘safe’ behaviours. It takes a strategy and committed involved leadership to really embed culture or effect change in the culture. We believe that there are 6 key principles to adopt when trying to change or build a culture in an organisation:

    1. Focus on Behaviours: Behaviours are the most powerful determinant of real change. What people actually do matters more than what people say or believe. By defining, and then embedding, the desired Safety Culture behaviours into business as usual ways of working, this allows your people to ‘act’ their way into new ways of thinking, thereby gradually influencing the organisation’s underlying mindset. Even more powerful is to tap into the emotional reservoir of your employees to carry this through. If you can demonstrate the importance of behaviours in protecting the safety of the people, the environment and the organisation, then you are drawing on an important emotional motivator to adopt ‘safe’ behaviours, which means there is much greater chance of success in embedding the right safety culture.
    2. Led and role modelled from the very top: Safety Culture is a critical enabler for financial success and shareholder value, and given the right cultural strategy, organisations can gain competitive advantage. It therefore needs to be driven from the C-Suite; those in formal leadership positions must define cultural expectations and then coach others, reinforcing observed good behaviours and correcting those that need improvement. More importantly culture is more than the advertised culture, it is the culture that is modelled by the leaders; thus leaders must “walk the talk” and act as role models for the desired behaviours for these to have any chance of being adopted by employees. Whilst formal leadership roles are critical, leadership should not be confused with those given the hierarchical title. Just as important are those informal leaders, who influence and energise others without relying on their title or position as they spread the critical behaviours from the bottom up and “show by doing.”
    3. Don’t try to change everything all at once: one of the key reasons culture change programmes are unsuccessful is they try to achieve too much. If we consider the idea that culture is the personality of the organisation, then asking us to change the entire personality is too much of a task and success is unlikely. What does work as a strategy, and is achievable, is to focus on the 5-6 critical behaviours and embedding them into your ways of working and on those “moments that matter” when you want your people to demonstrate those behaviours.
    4. Start Early: Given that the culture of an organisation can typically take 6 months to build and 6 years to change, it is critical for new nuclear build organisations to start deploying (not just thinking about) their safety culture from early in their development phase, even though operations may be 10-15 years into the future. Attempting to change the culture in 5 or 10 years’ time in readiness for operations is going to be challenging, but more significantly, safety for these organisations starts from the development stage. Sourcing suppliers and developing designs that feed through to the effective and safe operation of a plant starts now.
    5. Engage your supply chain: As the operating models of the nuclear new build companies are dependent on the supply chain to perform many design and construction activities then it is also important to work with your supply chain and sub-contractors to ensure that holistically you are achieving the safety culture. Do you have aligned standards of performance, Safety Culture behavioural expectations and ways of working across your supply chain so that their teams can achieve every day activities in a safe manner commensurate with your goals?
    6. Monitor your culture: Once you have the right behaviours and the right strategy in place to develop your culture, with of course the leadership modelling your culture, then the final pillar to success is to baseline, monitor and do something about your culture on an on-going basis. Failure to do this may mean you miss a subculture which is not desirable to your organisation developing which can have significant negative impact on your long term organisational health.

Simply put - it is essential in the nuclear sector to create a corporate culture in which safety is understood to be and is accepted as the number one priority. With that in mind:

  • What is your roadmap for safety culture for your organisation?
  • What are your 5 or 6 key behaviours that denote your culture? Are they ones that you are proud of? Do they deliver the safety culture you need as an organisation?
  • Who are your change leaders? And are they modelling the right behaviours?
  • What about your supply chain? What is their culture? And sub-contractors – are they emulating your culture or putting your business at risk?
  • How are you baselining and measuring your culture?

If you are not sure of the answers to these questions or you are concerned that the answers are not good enough, now is the time to act.

Juliette Murray | Senior Consultant
Email |

Matt Leedham | Director
Email |



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